Tuesday, January 31, 2012

the perfect role for tim curry

Every so often I'll be watching a movie or TV show and I'll think that Tim Curry would have been perfect for a certain role. Scar (played by Jeremy Irons) from The Lion King comes to mind. So does Roque Ja from Bone (the graphic novel). Curry's voice and delivery have a deliciously devilish combination of flirtation, sadism and humor. Here is a video of Curry's single "I Do the Rock":

So I was listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Show. I wasn't thinking very hard, and in the middle of "Sweet Transvestite" I thought, "This would be the perfect role for Tim Curry." Then it hit me...

Monday, January 30, 2012

country bob still going strong

So these guys are still together...
I first heard of Country Bob and the Blood Farmers in the 1980's when I was writing record reviews for a few small music magazines. I reviewed what I assumed to be their first record, Goin' to Hell in a Hatbasket. I think the magazine was called Alternative Rhythms, but after all these years I'm not sure. The band kind of straddles the line between cowpunk and psychobilly. On Hatbasket, the did a great cover of "Dang Me," as well some great originals. "God Fearin' Man," "Black Cowboy" and (my favorite) "Bowl Full of Noses."

There are so many bands I liked whose small-label releases never went anywhere. Most of them never had major mainstream success, Most of them broke up, with the members pursuing other endeavors or regrouping with members of other bands in new permutations. I don't know if these guys have been together for this whole time, or if they broke up and reunited. I don't know if there's been a stable lineup or what.

I do know they have another album out, I Cut Out Her Heart (and Stomped on It). I'll have to look into this...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

a bit of detective work

I borrowed a Chinese CD from the library today. The cover kind of caught my attention -- it looked like good fun bubblegummy pop. In the past I've had good luck with CDs that have the same kind of look. And the only time I ever bought Chinese pop music (a record from the 1970s by a singer named Sandra) was a success. And it's not like there's a huge risk when I'm just borrowing from the library.
So I got the disc home and played it. Not bad. With the exception of a few tracks that are too slow. But I've paid for worse CDs and felt I got my money's worth.

The catch, of course, is that I don't speak, read or understand Chinese, so the album title, the song titles -- even the artist's name -- was a mystery. It could be a professions of everlasting love, or it could be exhortations to mass murder -- I wouldn't know the difference. But then, I realized I could leverage the power of the intertubes. The album was on Sony/BMG and had what seems to be a catalog number on it.  With a little help from Google, I know what I'm listening to.

The singer is Rainie Yang, who is aparently quite big in the Taiwanese pop world. It's her third album, My Other Self. Here's a video of the first song, which is either "Wolf" or "Wolf Coming" depending on which translation you prefer:

I feel like Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, January 27, 2012

let's all rise for the discussing of our national anthem

A few days ago, I talked about Steven Tyler's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the AFC championship game. Without going into detail, I discussed the things that annoy me in anthem-singing. So, here are some details.

The thing that bothers me most is when the singer is purposely disrespectful to the anthem. Of course, this is exceedingly rare; the only such occurrence that comes to mind is Rosanne Barr back in 1990:
Now, some will argue that it's silly to start sporting events with the national anthem, so it's fitting to make fun of it. I agree that you can make a good case against singing the anthem at ballgames. But given that you are singing it, you should do it with respect. Of course, if you pay to have Rosanne sing the national anthem, you shouldn't be surprised if you get Rosanne singing the national anthem.

Barring outright disrespect, I think what bothers me the most is when a singer tries to stylize it so much that it effectively becomes a different song. R. Kelly came close to that:
It's easy to list forgetting the words (or getting the words wrong) as an annoyance. For me, that depends on whether the singing is being done by a professional or an amateur. If it's an amateur I am in favor of cutting some slack. Hey, you go in front of thousands (or tens of thousands) of fans, maybe you're on TV. You get nervous. If you're not a professional, it's likely you get flustered. I expect more from a Michael Bolton or a Christina Aguilera.

There are also a couple of nitpicky things that annoy little ol' anal-retentive me. First is the word "perilous." For some reason, it is rare that singers pronounce that correctly. they ususally sing "pero-lous" pronouncing the first two syllables like the name of former presidential candidate Ross Perot, or "perilless" which means "without peril." The other nitpicky annoyance is when scoreboards flash the words so the crowd can sing along, but get the punctuation wrong. There are questions in the anthem, and rarely do I see a question mark.

At any rate, let's end things with a montage:

here comes the solo

I guess I’m just perpetually behind, but I only now heard about the lost guitar solo that George Harrison recorded for “Here Comes theSun.” The Living in the Material World (Note: the link I just provided is to the DVD released in the British format. The only reason I didn't link to the American format is that I couldn't find it on Amazon.) documentary includes footage of Harrison’s son in the studio with George and Giles Martin, listening to recordings from the session that produced the Beatles classic. The solo is one of the things they hear. You can see it in the following clip, with the solo starting at just about the one minute mark.

It’s a well-played solo, and musically very interesting. But it just doesn’t sound right to me; it’s not in keeping with the general tone of the song. An old friend once said, there are usually reasons why those alternate and unused takes remained alternate and unused. He was right (said the guy who buys every damn rerelease of every Monkees album as soon as Rhino puts it out so he can hear…).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

music no one else can hear: history of a song

It started back in high school with a stray comment from a friend. Melinda was listening to my Walkman (I believe it was a tape I had made of Dave Edmunds’s album, D. E. 7th. She paused at one point and said she’d better stop dancing to music no one else can hear. That phrase, “music no one can hear” struck me as a great song title. Then, as now, my songwriting usually started with a phrase that I thought was catchy. That night I wrote a song with that title. I thought it was great. I know it was crap. I can’t remember any of the words (except the title), and I don’t want to. That was in 1982 or 1983.

Fast forward to 1988. I was a grad student at the University of Michigan, dating Anne. I spent the summer in New York. Missing her, I picked up my guitar and tried to write a song. By this time I knew that the song I had originally written was garbage, and decided to recycle the title. I had been listening to a lot of Air Supply, and wrote a verse to the tune of their song, "All Out of Love," which begins:
I'm lying alone
With my head on the phone
Thinking of you 'til it hurts.
I know you hurt too
But what else can we do,
Tormented and torn apart?
For those unfamiliar, here's the video:

My verse went:
I'm lying in bed
With you in my head
Wondering where you are now.
Tell me, can it be?
Are you thinking of me
Even though I'm not around?
A chorus followed. Here the melody departed from the Air Supply song. It went:
Your song is with me wherever I am
Even when you're not here.
And all around me there's music,
Music no one else can hear.
More verses followed, but I was never as pleased with them as I was with that first verse or the chorus. I don’t remember them though I wish I did.

A few years later, a work buddy, Matthew, invited me over to his house to work on some songwriting. He and his wife were, like me, amateur songwriters with day jobs. We spent New Year’s Eve 1992 hanging out, talking music, and working on some songs. One of the things we did was revisit the song I wrote in 1988. We created a chorus by combining the first verse and chorus, with a few minor word changes (e.g., we removed the words “tell me” from the third line). We wrote a couple of verses and a bridge that together turned it into a story song about a broken marriage. We also completely reworked the melody. So I entered 1993 with a new song, and promptly did nothing with it.

About ten years later, married and with one child, I went camping with my family and a couple – Scott and Miriam -- we were friendly with. I should point out here that Scott is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and singer, and a PhD in musicology. He and I both brought guitars on that camping trip and spent a lot of time playing songs for each other. He enjoyed “Music No One Else Can Hear,” and so we played it over and over again until he knew it inside and out, frontwards, backwards, and in Texas. Ultimately, he and his brothers wanted to record it on an album they were doing.

That was great news for me, except for the fact that I had never registered the copyright. If it was going to be out in the world on a CD, even if by three unknown brothers selling it on CDBaby, I really wanted to have the copyright registered. This was complicated by the fact that Matthew and I had fallen out of touch and he had moved. In order to register the copyright in both of our names I needed his information. I also wanted to get his blessing before registering it and letting Scott and his brothers record it. Ultimately, I found Matthew and got his information and blessing. He had an, at best, vague recollection of writing the song with me, and seemed amused by this unexpected turn of events.

So, “Music No One Else Can Hear” was the first (of three, to date) copyrights I registered. The Milner Brothers recorded it on their album, Haven’t Lost a Thing, which was enough for me to get into ASCAP. I really should get around to registering the song within ASCAP. Just in case, on some off chance, a radio station in Montana (home to Scott and his brothers) plays the song, I'll get my half a penny of royalties. Scott still plays the song during his shows sometimes. Following is a video of him performing it at a fundraiser in Missoula (be warned, the video is dark and of poor quality):

Scott is singing and playing guitar, accompanied by Edie Smith (vocals) and William Haffey (clarinet). The arrangement differs greatly from the album version which features guitars and a bass as the only instruments. The clarinet makes it sound almost klezmer, even though I think of it as a country song.

Oh, and another musician friend has expressed interest in recording his own version. I’m not holding my breath, but I am crossing my fingers.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

words. fail. me.

at what point is it a different band? (part 2)

A few days ago I considered the question of when a band, after multiple lineup changes, is no longer the same band (even if they still retain the same name). But other things happen as well. Bands break up and reunite.

For me, a case in point is Ducks Deluxe. The Ducks were one of the premiere pub rock bands of the early to mid '70s, and they were my absolute favorite band for several years, starting in the early '80s when I was in high school.

Before going on, let me share the following clip of the Ducks in their heyday, performing "Coast to Coast," one of their signature songs. I will use the video to illustrate a point later in this post.
This was the classic Ducks Deluxe lineup: Sean Tyla (vocals and guitar), Martin Belmont (guitar), Nick Garvey (bass and vocals), Andy McMasters (keyboard) and Tim Roper (drums). They broke up in 1975 -- more than half a decade before I ever heard of them -- so I never actually saw them perform live. And I would have loved to see them live. The YouTube clip gave me a taste of what they were like at their raw energetic best.

In 2008, the Ducks announced that they would be doing a couple of reunion concerts. Unfortunately (for me, anyway), the concerts would be in England. And they would be during my busy season at work. I considered going -- figuring out how to fly to England, see the show, then fly back to New York. If I could do it just right I could manage to miss little enough work that I could swing it. I really gave it some thought -- the cost, the insanity and of the hectic trip for the chance to see the band that had meant so much to me and that was such a huge influence on my musical taste. In the end I didn't go. It was just too much money. There was just too much possibility of it causing trouble at work.

I'm glad I didn't go. The following is a clip of the Ducks new, reunited lineup performing the same song:
Sean Tyla is still playing guitar and singing. Martin Belmont is still playing guitar -- he even still moves the same way. The other personnel have changed: Kevin Foster's on bass, Jim Russell's on the drums and there's no keyboard player. But those changes aren't the issue here; Tyla and Belmont had been the heart of the Ducks back when. But that energy is gone. The hungry twenty-somethings with the passion and energy (and sweat) of youth have been replaced by 60 (or so) year-olds reliving their past with an audience that is similarly reliving its past. It's not the same band.

To be fair, I should note that I still like the music these guys are doing now, and have bought the material they released since reuniting. Also, after three more decades of honing their skills they are, technically, better musicians. But if I had gone to England expecting to experience what the first clip above shows, I would have been very disappointed. If they ever come out to New York I'll come to see them perform. But I'll be doing it without any illusions.

Monday, January 23, 2012

a star-strangled anthem? you decide.

So the first thing I noticed today on Yahoo is that Steven Tyler is getting criticism over his rendition of the national anthem before the AFC championship game yesterday. I, personally, don't think it was that bad. Here's the video -- you decide for yourself:

Now, I'll admit this wasn't a standout performance. His voice wasn't beautiful. It was gravelly and he had trouble with the high notes. But, you know, if you hire Steven Tyler to sing the national anthem, you shouldn't be shocked that you get Steven Tyler singing the national anthem. He was appropriately respectful, and he didn't try to transform it by adding 48 gajillion extra syllables or changing the melody. My biggest objection was one minor mistake in the lyrics -- he changed the phrase "the bombs bursting in air" to "as bombs bursting in air.  Now, getting the words wrong is one of the things that really annoys me when people sing the anthem, so I should be bothered by it. But for some reason I see that as a minor slip that can be overlooked. Interestingly, that's exactly what some critics have done. Radar Online, for example, panned his performance but gave him credit for getting the words right.

There are lots of other anthem antics that annoy me more than anything Tyler did. But I'll leave that for another blog post. For now, I'll leave you to contemplate another pundit's list of the worst performances:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

harold allen -- urban country singer

The other day I was in the subway at Grand Central, and saw a musician whom I'd seen before. Harold Allen is a country singer from the Midwest.

I remember the first time I saw Allen, (a couple years ago?) he was playing in the same spot. I liked his music enough that I wanted to buy his CDs. But I didn't have cash with me, and figured I'd try to catch him on my way back about an hour later (after hitting an ATM). On my way back, he wasn't there. Oh well. Some time later, about a year ago, I saw him again But this time I had cash so I bought both of the CDs -- re-Deuced and Country Love -- that he was selling. These were good country albums. You can hear a lot of  his music at his website (linked above).

One of my favorite tracks, from Country Love, is "Jack Daniels," an infectiously energetic drinking song. Allen also displays some humor in this -- about two minutes in, he breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the listener explaining that the song is still missing a few of the five ingredients necessary for the perfect country song (mama, trains, trucks, prisons and getting drunk) so he added the next verse to complete it:
I'm gonna jump on that northbound train
And go see mama locked up in Sing Sing.
If I can stumble through the pouring rain,
Jack Daniels take me away.
Another great track is "My Biggest Fan," a reminder of what's really important in life. It's about a little girl (at first listen one would think she's a daughter, but for reasons I will mention below I believe she's a niece) who listens to his music and dances to it. This always gets me, partly because it reminds me of my own daughter;  it's an amazing feeling to walk by her room, see her coloring or playing a game or something and hear her singing one of the songs I wrote. The key phrase is:
I may never sail the oceans
Or ever go out on the road.
But as long as my song's in that little girl's heart
I've got the biggest fan in the world.
But "My Biggest Fan" notwithstanding, I generally prefer the fast songs to the slow. That is, of course, on par with my general taste in music.

Other choice tracks, from re-Deuced, are "I Do" and "Payin' Dues." My favorite, though, is "What I Need,"  which is what call a meta-country song -- a country song about listening to country songs.

As I was saying, I saw Allen again a few days ago, playing in the same place. This time, though, he had another CD for sale. This one is a live album, Live from Arlene's Grocery. (Arlene's Grocery is a music club on the Lower East Side. Here, Allen is backed by a full band, performing songs from his past two other albums as well as a few others. The sound is clear and the band is tight. This is a worthy live set. At one point between songs, Allen talks about writing songs for his nieces, which is why I am guessing that "My Biggest Fan" is about a niece and not a daughter. (Harold, if you're reading this and I am wrong, please feel free to let me know).

In one of those "small world" moments, I noticed after I left that one of the musicians backing him in the show was Alan Lee Backer, a musician who has been in a couple of bands that I've liked. I'll try to blog about that at some point in the future. There are a couple of other "small world" moments in that story.

Following are a few videos of Harold Allen. Enjoy:
A live performance of "Train Song"

Being interviewed by Cognac Wellerlane. Interview starts at about 6:27

Video for "Your North Star," the song he mentioned (and sang a bit of) in the interview above

A live performance of "Payin' Dues"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

johnny otis and etta james, rip

In quick succession, the R&B world (and consequently the rock world) has lost two giants. Etta James and Johnny Otis. I can't, for reasons I will address below, write an adequate obituary for either of these giants, so here is an obit for Otis in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Read the whole thing. One important point:
Sadly, the word legendary barely fits his massive achievements, and "musician" is an very inadequate word to describe this singer, songwriter, bandleader, producer and discoverer of a huge roster of R&B talent.
Here is an obit for James in the Los Angeles Times. Again, read the whole thing too. One key quote:
Perhaps the quintessential R&B diva, James, who was born and lived much of her life in Los Angeles, was equally at home singing unadulterated blues, searing R&B and sophisticated jazz, the latter receiving special attention in her recordings over the last decade. Her dusky voice, which could stretch from a sultry whisper to an aching roar, influenced generations of singers who came after ...
Finally, here's a joint obit. I found the following humanizing observation particularly interesting:
Maybe it was that taste for the netherworld clubland that kept Etta James from crossing over to the mass market despite possessing a set of pipes to power a whole Rust Belt city. (Otis always went his own way, played a million one-night stands, and often recorded under the name Snatch and the Poontangs.) She wasn't churchy like Aretha, she wasn't silky like Sarah Vaughn, she wasn't skinny like Diana Ross, but of all the great female R&B singers to come of age after the rise of rock and roll, Etta James was the most street. She shot dope, got arrested for writing bad checks and forging scripts, claimed to be pool player Minnesota Fats' illegitimate daughter, and blew up to 400 pounds. Plus, she scared the shit out of you. There were few forces on earth to put the fear of God into a young boy surreptitiously listening to a transistor radio after bedtime than Etta James roaring, "Tell Mama ... all about it!"
Following one video of each:

On a personal note, I find it interesting that Otis, for lack of a better way of putting it, chose to be black. His parents were Greek, and his skin was dark enough that he could pass for black, and light enough that he could pass for white. He once wrote "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, then I would be black."

These deaths have also brought into focus some holes in my knowledge -- holes which are the main reason I can't,myself, write an adequate obit for either singer. When I heard of James' death, I recognized her name as a giant in the industry. Similarly for Otis. But it was in the same way that many New Yorkers would recognize the name Nebraska as one of the states. OK, maybe more so. I'm familiar with much of their work, but didn't know it was them. For one example, I wouldn't have been able to identify James as the voice (or pen) behind "At Last." I won't discuss that any more now because. I intend to blog about holes in my knowledge at a future date, and this post is supposed to be about Etta James and Johnny Otis -- two giants of the music world.

Friday, January 20, 2012

at what point is it a different band?

I remember once asking my mother if a car could last forever if you just replaced all the parts as they broke down. She countered by saying that at some point, when all the parts were replaced, it was a different car. I think about that sometimes in the context of Dr. Feelgood, which is one of my favorite bands.  Dr. Feelgood is an R&B band. I often think of them as what the Blues Brothers would be if they had been a real band.

The following brief history of the band is intended to hit the major points, without being exhaustive. Dr. Feelgood, formed in 1971, consisted of  Lee Brilleaux (vocals), Wilko Johnson (guitar), John Sparks (bass) and The Big Figure (drums). That lineup recorded four albums (including one live one). When they were working on the fourth album, the band had a dispute over song selection. Wilko didn't want the song "Lucky Seven" included, and threatened to quit if it was. It was and he quit. As an aside, I'll note that I think this was really over more than just the inclusion of one song. I haven't interviewed anyone, or read this opinion expressed anywhere, so I have no evidence for saying it, and it is strictly speculation. But Wilko and Lee were essentially co-frontmen for the band, and I suspect the row over "Lucky Seven" was really a symptom of a simmering power struggle. I get the impression that that one of them would have left sooner or later, and that dispute, while being the proximate cause,was simply the straw.

At any rate, Wilko's departure was a big blow to the band. A lot of their sound was built around his choppy guitar style, and he did take lead vocals on a few tracks. Here is a clip of the the original lineup performing "You Shouldn't Call the Doctor (if You Can't Afford the Bills)":

Many predicted the band couldn't go on without him, but they did. Wilko was replaced with Gypie Mayo and continued on. Here's a video of the second incarnation (i.e., with Gypie on guitar) doing "Milk and Alcohol":

The new lineup was stable for several years, but Gypie eventually left and was replaced. There were a bunch of personnel changes over the years, and (through 1994) one can almost think of Dr. Feelgood as Lee Brilleaux and whatever musicians are playing with him. Now that's a slight exaggeration, since the lineup that Lee put together in March 1983 stayed together for more than half a decade. Following is a clip of that lineup doing "Don't Wait Up" from album Brilleaux:

Of all these changes I think the most significant was the first one, when Wilko left and was replaced by Gypie. As I noted, the band's sound was built around Wilko's choppy guitar style. Gypie was, I think, a better technical guitarist, but Wilko's style was distinctive. He often sounded like two guitarists, playing both rhythm and lead simultaneously. He explains it in this clip:

So that lineup change led to the most radical change in the band's sound. Also, Wilko sang lead on a couple of tracks (though now that I look back over the early albums, I realize that he sand less than I thought). But most importantly, his departure left Lee as the undisputed frontman.

At any rate,  Lee died of lymphoma in 1994. Normally his death would have marked the end of the band. But it was Lee's wish that the band should continue, so in 1995 drummer Kevin Morris (who, at Lee's death was the second-longest-serving member of the band, having been in since 1983), guitarist Steve Walwyn (who, at Lee's death, had roughly five-years' tenure) and bassist Phil Mitchell (who had been in the band from 1983 until 1991) got back together, hired Pete Gage, and put out the cleverly-titled On the Road Again. Pete was then replaced by Robert Kane. The current lineup is still touring, though their last (most recent?) album came out in 2006 (Hey, guys, give us more. Please.). Following is a clip of the current lineup doing "Back in the Night," a song which was originally recorded by the original lineup (on their second album, Malpractice.):
Now, the band isn't the same without Lee. Of course, it also was never the same without Wilko. I've read lots of debate as to whether the current lineup can legitimately bill themselves as Dr. Feelgood. Some of that debate has centered on Robert Kane's personality. On some Youtube videos there are comments to the effect that he's snobbish and standoffish, and that he acts like he's God's gift to R&B. I've never met him, and honestly have no idea whether the criticisms have any basis in fact or if it's just sour grapes by fans who are loyal to Lee Brilleaux. In a way, the band's latest album helped to strengthen the notion that it's not the same. Titled Repeat Prescription, it's a collection of remakes of songs from earlier incarnations of the band.

But there has been continuity. Also Lee wanted the band to continue, and as near as I can tell, they have stayed loyal to his vision.

So I look at it and say, yes. It's the Doctor.

Lee Brilleaux, 1952-1994. RIP.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

hello, and pleased to meet you

Hello, and welcome to my music blog. I am Moish.

My intention, right now, is to blog about music -- that means any aspect of music and my relationship to it. That's kind of vague, I admit. But the simple rule is that I decide what's acceptable. I'll probably touch on other topics -- politics and religion for example -- but for the purpose of getting at whatever music or music-related point I am trying to make. I have no intention of writing about politics for the purpose of debating politics.

So, I may as well describe the role music plays and has played in my life.

To star with, I enjoy music (duh). Generally speaking, I like most forms of rock (and rock-related) music, with special attention to British pub rock of the 1970s (and related acts), early new wave, C&W, and cowpunk. Oh, I also love the Monkees, even though they don't fit into any of those categories.

In college, I wrote for the music sections of a few campus newspapers -- mostly record reviews, but there were a couple of essays, interviews and concert reviews. At one point I was Music Editor for one of those papers. In grad school (at a different college), I wrote a couple of record reviews for the campus paper. I have also done some freelance music journalism (most notably for the now-defunct Tower Records' Pulse!). I toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in music journalism, but realized that, for a variety of reasons, that's not for me.

I also do a little songwriting on the side, At this point I have exactly three songs that I think are worthy of trying to sell. By contrast, I have written many, many songs that (how shall I put this delicately?) aren't worthy of trying to sell. As a songwriter, I have made about $20 in royalties (which isn't enough for me to quit my day job) and gotten into ASCAP.

I also collect CDs. I haven't really embraced the new digital reality of buying music as downloads. For me, it's got to be on a physical CD or it doesn't feel right.

I can play a little bit of guitar, enough to support my songwriting. But I'm not particularly good at it. As a singer, I'm an excellent guitarist.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that in college I was also a DJ for the campus radio station. I did a show called The Alternate Version Show, in which I played, back to back, two versions of one song by two different performers.