Staff Picks: Music
Otis Redding wrote it, but Aretha Franklin owned it – “Respect”, one of the biggest radio and jukebox sensations of 1967, topped both Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R’n’B charts mid-year, reigning supreme on the latter for almost two months. The track cemented the Detroit native’s standing as the “Queen of Soul”, proving its potency as both a civil rights anthem and a dance floor phenomenon.
The Big O’s original Stax version, framed simply as a lover’s question, is a classic in its own right. Pleading being one of Redding’s strongest suits as a vocalist, it’s only natural that his request for “respect when I come home” is less demanding than begging, a “need” that he’s “gotta, gotta have”, never sounding sure that he’s going to get satisfaction as the track fades.
Aretha’s having none of that in her updated NYC arrangement, featuring infectious girl-group vocal support from her sisters Carolyn and Erma, as well as a sweet King Curtis sax break. Standing the nature of the lyric on its head, her assertion that “what you want, baby, I got it” is shouted out with absolute confidence. Adding a lyric not found in Redding’s version, Franklin drives the point home by spelling out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, in case it wasn’t clear, adding “find out what it means to me” as an emphatic imperative. The lover’s question has become a statement of purpose, writ large enough to put not just one person on notice, but any and every person within earshot.
"Respect”’s cultural resonance was immediate and lasting. The song’s refrains of “sock it to me” and “TCB” became all-American catch phrases overnight. In addition to earning numerous awards and consistently high rankings on critics’ “greatest songs” lists, it was among the first 25 recordings to be included in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2002. A signature song of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and Aretha’s storied career, “Respect” deserves all its accolades, truly getting what it’s after play after play.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
In the spring of 1967, rock and roll’s primary medium was the 45 RPM single. On the first of June, the Beatles changed all that with the highly anticipated release of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. Though no contemporary single releases were culled from the album, its songs were given heavy AM radio airplay, at a time when FM stations were few, far between, and “underground”. Through the airwaves, those songs – including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, “When I’m Sixty-four”, and “With a Little Help From my Friends” - burrowed their way into the collective memories of all who recall those heady first days of the “summer of love”.
Touted as rock’s first “concept” LP (though I’d give that nod to the Flamingos’ 1959 magnum opus, Flamingo Serenade), the record is presented as a concert program, featuring the imaginary band for which the album’s named. The program encompasses all varieties of music – take in the symphonic grandeur of “She’s Leaving Home”, the loopy circus march of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the Indian classicism of “Within You Without You”, among them. The band begins and ends the program with its own theme, leaving the audience with the mind-altering encore that is “A Day in the Life”. The broad stylistic brush with which the Beatles (and producer George Martin) crafted the LP may be the reason it received near-unanimous praise from “serious” music critics who’d previously disdained rock and roll’s perceived juvenilia. This critical success ensured the band even greater listenership, and ushered in the era when “rock and roll” morphed into “rock”.
Even without a 45 release (or due to the lack of one?), the LP sold strongly, placing it at number one on the Billboard 200 LP chart for 15 weeks in a row. The album it knocked out of the top slot - the Monkees' Headquarters – also contained no 45 sides. Though the “Prefab Four”’s third LP was recorded without the benefit of backing tracks crafted by session men - in partial response to charges against the band's phoniness - its intimate construct was no match for the epic studio production ascribed to the Beatles’ alter-egos.
Sgt. Pepper regularly tops “best albums of the ‘60’s” or “best albums of all-time” lists, if not always ranking at the top of Beatles’ fans' LP lists. (My own fave is Revolver.) Peter Blake’s legendary LP cover has inspired homage and parody countless times. Celebrations of (and attacks on) the LP can be found in numerous books, articles, and blog posts. What really counts is the music included. If you haven’t yet discovered Sgt. Pepper for yourself, check it out… it may become the soundtrack to your own “new summer of love”.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Monkees’ first chart hit featuring Davy Jones as lead singer, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, was also the last of its kind. Featuring no musical input from any of the band members other than its vocalist’s, the single’s pre-fabricated nature was at odds with the group’s growing interest in having more creative input, as writers and musicians, on their own recordings.
Assembled in 1966 to star in a TV series about the fictional exploits of a struggling rock combo, the Monkees were considered actors first and foremost, despite their musical credentials. Music biz veteran Don Kirshner provided the music for the first season’s episodes and related record releases. Working under his supervision, Brill Building tunesmiths crafted pop confections honed to perfection in the recording studio by a who’s who of ace session musicians. With few exceptions, the Monkees’ only contributions to these tracks – distinctly appealing as they are – were their vocal tracks.
The formula proved so successful, demand for live appearances by the band grew, and the fictional band found themselves becoming an active performing unit by the start of the new year. Prepared to record their songs as their own instrumental accompanists, the band was surprised to discover that Kirshner had released his production of the Neil Diamond-penned “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” as a 45 without their permission. This move led to Kirshner’s dismissal as musical supervisor of the Monkees project, and paved the way for the band’s first recordings on their own.
This behind-the-scenes drama went unnoticed at the time, and Monkees fans sent the single up the charts by mid-spring of 1967. While the band’s next recordings didn’t abandon the sunshine pop sounds that helped establish them, a wider range of styles and experimentation would begin to appear on their records, especially once their TV series ended after its second season. Pre-fab or homegrown, the consistency of the band’s recordings defines a true “Monkees sound”, and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” is one of its best examples.
I'm a Believer and Other Hits
It's not uncommon to feel a nostalgia for music of another time and place that may cast today's sounds in a less favorable light, even if the evidence doesn't justify the position. However, fans of '60's pop radio can point to any of the following 45s from the summer of 1966 - listed in no particuar order - to make a very strong case for the excellence of that era:
The Beatles: “Paperback Writer” – before the late-summer stateside furor caused by John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” interview remarks, the Fab Four ruled US airwaves with this dose of proto-psychedelia, cut during the sessions for their landmark Revolver LP. Dig the “Frere Jacques” backing harmonies in the third and fourth verses.
The Rolling Stones: “Paint It, Black” – moving further away from their R’n’B roots with this brooding Middle Eastern-flavored recording from their Aftermath sessions, the Stones released the first rock single to feature the sitar. Keith Richards remains non-plussed by the US record company’s random insertion of the comma in the song’s title.
The Supremes: “You Can’t Hurry Love” – Motown’s biggest act charted their 7th number one smash (after a couple of singles that “only” made the top 10) with this infectious Holland-Dozier-Holland production that, for many, defines the Sound of Young America today. Despite the lyrics’ recommendation for patience, the song’s insistent rhythms (laid down by the legendary Funk Brothers) guarantee body movements by anyone within earshot.
The Lovin’ Spoonful: “Summer in the City” – it’s hard to detect the Greenwich Village quartet’s jug band roots on this driving ode to urban summertime heat, the misery it causes in the minor-key verses countered by the fun it promises in the major-key choruses. This is the first rock single to feature a jackhammer.
The Beach Boys: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – the third single from the Hawthorne, CA quintet’s timeless Pet Sounds LP had such a great flipside – “God Only Knows” – that both sides made the top 40 charts. In the UK, the single sides were flipped, gaining even greater chart success.
Dusty Springfield: “Goin’ Back” – Dusty’s soulful reading of this wistful Goffin-King composition was an international smash everywhere but in the US, where, for whatever reason, Springfield’s record company declined to release the song (which eventually became a minor hit in a version by the Byrds released the following year). The yearning nostalgia of the song’s lyrics is in sharp contrast to the youthfulness of the song’s performer and composers.
Bob Dylan: “I Want You” - the third of four singles from Dylan’s epochal Blonde on Blonde double-LP charted just weeks before the artist’s extended disappearance from the public arena after a mysterious motorcycle accident. The remarkably simple chorus lyrics are quite atypical of the increasingly complex wordsmithing Dylan fans came to expect, but that seems to be the point (driven home by the singer’s repeated, excited pleas of the title) of what’s essentially a simple love (or, more accurately, lust) song.
The Troggs: “Wild Thing” – one of the most covered (to this day) hits of the ‘60’s was a make-it-or-break-it follow-up to a failed debut single by the UK act almost named the Grotty Troggs. Though the track and its performers have a reputation for being “primitive”, few cover bands could pull off the ocarina solo featured in the song’s instrumental break.
The Velvelettes: “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” – the final ‘60’s 45 release from Kalamazoo’s very own stars of Motown, this modest R’n’B hit – loaded with classic Hitsville touches, from a finger-snappin’ intro to catchy vocal harmonies in support of an arresting lead - should have found wider airplay, but with so much competition on the airwaves in the summer of ’66, it’s no wonder that it became a buried treasure waiting for discovery, along with so many other worthy single sides from this period, by music lovers today… and forever.
Kalamazoo's Arcadia Creek Festival Place has been a summer concert hot spot for many years now, hosting music artists storied for filling stadiums full of fans, now playing more frequently to modest-sized audiences. This summer, bands such as Great White, 38 Special, and Gin Blossoms take the Arcadia stage, adding (or returning) their names to the growing list of the venue's veteran performers.
While most fans will be cheering loudest for the big radio hits, in some cases they'll be getting earfuls of new sounds. Gin Blossoms, for example, released No Chocolate Cake late last year. None of its tracks are dominating the airwaves as their mid-'90's string of power-pop classics had, but some of its cuts will fit nicely alongside the more familiar songs in the band's setlist. Listeners need to be patient, as the disc is front-loaded with generic tracks that don't highlight the group's strengths (Byrdsy guitar lines, wistful lyrics, memorable vocal hooks). Those guilty pleasures make their appearance a few cuts in, with a couple of curveballs in the mix (check out the horn section on "Dead or Alive on the 405") that let you know the combo's not interested in settling for nostalgia-act status.
Even so, more than a few Arcadia concert-goers will be singing along to the songs they know best this summer. Mark those calendars and start getting those voices in shape!
No Chocolate Cake
This month’s jazz display (see it at Central) only scratches the surface of KPL’s vast collection of jazz materials – not just the music, but writings and film on the subject as well. Navigating over a hundred years of jazz history is a challenge for all but the most dedicated jazz musicologists. Thankfully, for those of us who are novices, KPL owns a substantial number of CD box sets, which provide succinct overviews of jazz in all its variations, including:
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz: one of the best aural introductions to American jazz in the 20th century, this set opens with the birth of jazz, by way of Scott Joplin's ragtime piano, moves into the hot jazz best exemplified by Louis Armstrong’s ‘20’s sides, then sails through swing, bop, cool jazz, and the avant-garde. While it stops short of exploring jazz during, and beyond, the fusion period pioneered by Miles Davis in the early ‘70’s, it's a great spot to get acquainted with seminal jazz pieces and performers before that time.
Big Band Renaissance: a sequel to the Smithsonian’s earlier Big Band Jazz set (also available at KPL), this set takes listeners past “the big band era” by focusing on post-WWII jazz combo configurations. Classic big band auteurs such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman still figure, but the set’s scope is greatly broadened by the inclusion of bands led by Sun Ra and Henry Mancini.
The Erteguns’ New York: Atlantic Records founders Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun were avid jazz afficianados (younger brother Nesuhi oversaw the label’s earliest jazz signings, including John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and the Modern Jazz Quartet). This set of '50's cabaret jazz numbers showcases vocalists such as Bobby Short, Chris Connor, and Carmen McRae, who wowed audiences at the cozier NYC clubs the brothers favored after hours.
Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar: the influence of jazz on the guitar (and vice-versa) gets its due with this set that generously makes room for artists such as Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana, nestled side by side with jazz guitar greats such as Eddie Condon, Wes Montgomery, and Bill Frisell.
The Savoy Story: storied as much for its gospel recordings as for its jazz releases, Newark, N.J.-based Savoy Records was influential in the popularization of bebop music in the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Errol Garner were just a few of the great musicians who cemented their reputations during their time at the label – all are featured, alongside other legends, on this set that focuses on Savoy’s early jazz output.
This is just a small sampling of the jazz music KPL has to offer – check out our display this month, and our AV collection at any time, to dig even deeper.
Savoy Story Jazz
Tonight’s third annual Kalamashoegazer festival, organized by local dreampop icons glowfriends, confirms that a rock style long thought to be out of style is enjoying a healthy afterlife. Anyone unfamiliar with shoegazer music (named after shoegaze guitarists’ tendency to keep their eyes focused on their effects pedals) can initiate themselves with any of the glowfriends’ ethereal CD selections available for loan at KPL.
The uninitiated can also go straight to the groundbreaking 1991 release by shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, to hear what’s generally regarded as the shoegaze masterpiece. Lush vocal harmonies float above a wash of searing guitars, distorted at an incredibly high volume, pitches bending wildly. However strange the mix sounds, the end result is, to my ears, quite beautiful - despite the overwhelming effect of the wall of guitars, melody is not sacrificed.
Live, MBV has been known to play so loudly that some audience members have claimed permanent hearing damage (earplugs are routinely offered for free at their gigs). It’s doubtful any of the bands playing Kalamashoegazer 3 will generate such dangerous volume levels, but it’s likely that the rush of sound will still awe those in attendance, and make shoegaze believers out of newcomers.
Kalamazoo’s annual Island Festival always features some of the finest reggae acts in the world. This year’s festival features a very special performance – Saturday night, Jamaica’s legendary roots reggae harmony trio Culture takes the festival stage. Creators of dozens of brilliant singles and long players since their formation in the 1970’s, they would be hailed as legends even if they’d never released anything beyond their very first LP, Two Sevens Clash, widely considered one of reggae’s true masterworks.
Culture’s lead vocalist Joseph Hill wrote the title track after having a vision of the year 1977 being a year of judgment on Earth (based on prophecies made by Marcus Garvey). A devout Rastafarian (along with his fellow band mates), Hill translated his vision of apocalypse into a song which became a massive hit in his home country in the early part of ‘77. So profound was its effect on listeners that, on July 7th, 1977 – the day of all sevens clashing - many Jamaican businesses stayed closed, and residents refused to leave their homes for fear of being swept up in the coming apocalypse. Though the infectious bounce of the song’s groove and its joyous musical hooks might strike non-believers as running counter to the subject matter, the celebratory sound really underscores the message of liberation that followers of Rastafari believe will come at the world’s end. That mixture of devotional lyricism and upbeat music and rhythm flows throughout every song included on the album.
Though Joseph Hill has passed on, his son Kenyatta has taken his place as Culture’s lead vocalist, alongside original harmony vocalists Albert Walker and Telford Nelson. Kenyatta has proven to be as dynamic a stage presence as his father, so Culture’s legacy will surely continue to grow, even as Two Sevens Clash has already guaranteed their place in the pantheon of reggae greats.
Two Sevens Clash
Though Seal’s most recent album, Soul, was released late last year, it took months for any of its cuts – all covers of soul standards from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s - to get any substantial radio play. In recent weeks, Seal’s cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ classic slow jam “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” has become a fixture on some stations’ airwaves, introducing a new generation of listeners to one of the most heartfelt lover's pleas of understanding ever put into a pop song.
The arrangement on Seal’s version lacks the lush orchestration Gamble and Huff provided the Blue Notes on their 1972 version, but the more stripped-down arrangement (reminiscent of a previous hit revival of the tune in 1989 by Simply Red) still captures the romantic essence carved into the groove of original hit. While not as intense as Blue Notes lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass’ aching reading of the song, Seal’s unmistakeable vocal does the song justice, his soaring lead cushioned by the accompanying vocalists’ hushed, close-harmony refrains.
Anyone unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs contained on Soul should find the collection to be a decent soul primer. Seal and his production team do a fine job with the interpretations, which are all generally faithful to the original arrangements, though none of them are a patch on the originals – when you’re covering the likes of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, it must be understood it’s no contest. Still, with such an impeccable song selection, voiced by such a charismatic performer as Seal, Soul is a collection worth hearing beyond its breakout hit - especially if it leads listeners to the original sources.
One can only imagine the number of people who’ll be reliving their first dance as bride and groom, or remembering a special prom night, as they listen to Bryan Adams perform some of his best-known ballads during a special acoustic performance tonight at the State Theater.
Though the Canadian singer-songwriter’s initial leather-jacketed rocker image was well suited for stadium anthems such as “Cuts Like a Knife” and “Run to You”, the popularity of his breakthough hit “Straight from the Heart” was a sign that music fans would treasure his ballads most of all. No one anywhere near a radio in 1991 (or at many a wedding reception in the years since) could escape hearing his biggest hit, the Grammy-winning “(Everything I Do) I Do it for You” (written for the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), in heavy rotation. While his musical repertoire encompasses much more than slow-dance classics (1983’s power-poppy “This Time” is a guilty pleasure of mine), it’s his love songs that ensure his musical legacy will endure.
Speaking of legacies – Adams’ reputation as a world-class photographer is growing, and his philanthropic work through his Bryan Adams Foundation has helped millions in the international community. Heard in light of this philanthropy, the meanings of his love songs move from the personal to the universal – so tonight, joining a live audience to hear, and maybe sing along with, those classic ballads, should make for a special moment to join with others that Adams’ music has already scored for so many.
The Best of Me
When Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It first burst through our stereo speakers, my wife thought I’d accidentally put in one of my ‘60’s Motown collections. Not so, but Saadiq’s production style on this, his fourth solo LP, so faithfully recreates the sounds of mid-to-late ‘60’s Northern Soul that it’s easy to believe it’s a lost masterpiece from the vaults of Brunswick or Philly Groove.
It’s not just the production that echoes the best vintage soul – it’s the groove-inducing songs, all straight from the pen of Saadiq himself (only a handful being co-writes). While a flourish or two may be lifted wholesale from an R’n’B classic (the chromatic string ascensions and descensions of "Just One Kiss" - a duet with Joss Stone - come straight from the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”), no tunes sound like blatant steals. Influences are deftly blended, so that a song like “Keep Marchin’” brings to mind the vocal stylings of the Impressions, singing socially conscious lyrics a la Curtis Mayfield, backed by the Funk Brothers as produced by Smokey Robinson.
The former lead singer of New Jack Swing legends Tony! Toni! Toné! hasn’t totally escaped the modern world – a bonus track remix of “Oh Girl” (not the Chi-Lites smash) features Jay-Z, and there’s a polish on the recording that doesn’t scream retro the way Daptone’s gut-bucket productions do. As yesterday as they sound, in mining older styles, Saadiq reintroduces his audience to sounds no longer so ubiquitous on the radio as in their heyday, which makes them fresh again. For those who never knew what all the fuss was about, The Way I See It may even sound like the future of soul. As long as Saadiq keeps making records, that future can last as long as it wants.
The Way I See It
It’s been half a century since a plane carrying musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson (aka “the Big Bopper”), and pilot Roger Peterson crashed in an Iowa cornfield, killing all aboard the flight. February 3, 1959, has become known as “the day the music died”, due in no small part to Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie”, which lamented rock history’s strange twists and turns in the wake of those rock pioneers’ deaths.
The music never really died, though. While many of rock’s originators fell off the charts in the years immediately following that fateful flight, they never fell out of favor with fans who kept the spirit of the original rock'n'roll sound alive. Many of those fans began their own bands, most notably the leading lights of the British Invasion, who acknowledged their idols’ influence (and in the case of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away”, had a hit) and infused rock ‘n’ roll with a new vitality. Film bios of Holly and Valens turned up decades after their passing, and were huge box office sensations. Holly was among the very first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Today’s youngest rock fans might have more to learn about these rock pioneers than those of us who grew up with them on our radios and in our record collections, but their impact on today’s rock – no matter how different it looks and sounds from the original source - can’t be denied. In fact, Buddy Holly showed up on the Juno soundtrack not so long ago, and he sounded right at home alongside Kimya Dawson and Belle and Sebastian. Living proof... the music survives.
The Buddy Holly Story
When a CD title asks you to “meet” an artist you’ve known for three or four decades (unless it's a reissue or a tribute to Meet the Beatles), you can guess the artist is getting an artistic makeover, upping their “hip" quotient, attracting new listeners and allowing old fans to hear the performer with fresh ears.
In a sense, that’s what’s happening on Meet Glen Campbell, the latest release by the veteran country/pop star and ace guitarist (as a session musician in the early ‘60’s, he was reportedly earning up to 10 grand a week). Scanning the track listing – here’s a Lou Reed Velvets cover, there’s a Foo Fighters hit – one might think the recording is a stripped-down affair, akin to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, revealing the raw essence of an artist thought to be past their prime.
It’s the songs, though, that get the makeovers. Awash in orchestral arrangements, the new productions recall the Jimmy Webb-penned evergreens (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”) that made Campbell a star in the late '60's. Being mostly ballads, the songs aren’t being stretched beyond recognition (in some cases, as with the cover of U2’s “All I Want is You”, the string settings are familiar), but once you hear Campbell’s voice, unravaged by time, delivering those songs in the florid baroque pop style that held its own against the psychedelic rock revolution (what sounds more dated now?), you may forget the originals exist, or weren’t written with Campbell in mind.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Billie Joe Armstrong or Paul Westerberg – if you’ve been a fan of Glen Campbell, this is the return to form you’ve been waiting for (or never expected). If you really don’t know Glen Campbell… well, this is as good a chance to meet him as any.
Meet Glen Campbell
45 years ago, the Beatles hit number 1 on the U.S. singles charts for the first time (and certainly not the last) with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, an irresistible pop confection that threw young fans into fits of ecstasy, and prepared a nation for rock and roll’s British Invasion (which had its own influences in sounds born in America, from girl group grooves to Motown’s “Sound of Young America”).
The tune wasn’t the first Beatles single released in America – a few of their 1963 UK smashes, rejected by their label’s stateside subsidiary Capitol, had been licensed to smaller labels, which weren’t able to break the tunes in the U.S... that is, until after Capitol decided to bank on the Fab Four with a massive promotional campaign for “Hand” and its parent LP, Meet the Beatles.
The campaign worked, in tandem with the band’s February appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and a whirlwind tour of the east coast. By spring, a nation that had barely heard of the Beatles on New Year’s Day wouldn’t be able to ignore them anytime soon.
In 1961 - the year President Obama was born - Etta James scored a huge crossover hit with “At Last”, a ballad that had been written in the 1940’s for the film Orchestra Wives, and had been covered by numerous crooners before “Peaches” made her version the definitive reading.
James’ hit version was recorded for Chess, the legendary record label headquartered in the city in which Barack Obama would later begin his political career. The Chess story was dramatized (and fictionalized) for the 2008 film Cadillac Records. In one scene, Etta James - played by Beyoncé Knowles - wows the Chess staff with her rendition of the song that would send her star soaring.
During Obama's first inaugural ball, Beyoncé encored her spot-on cover of this romantic classic as our new president and First Lady Michelle danced in celebration. It didn't matter that the musical moment was taking place in Washington, D.C. - it was Chicago casting its spell over all those taking part in the moment.
Since becoming a parent, I've paid a lot more attention to the latest kids' music CDs. There are a lot of choices - and sometimes, it seems as if the CDs are aimed as much at the aging, hipster doofus parents as at their offspring. One way kids' music artists appeal to parents' tastes is to release lullaby versions of songs they know and love. The idea isn't new - I remember seeing "Beatles for Babies" records decades ago - but the trend has grown.
Recently, power-pop cult figure Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish, Grays) released Bedtime with the Beatles Part Two. A gifted vocalist, he offers humming only on "Hey Jude", concentrating instead on instrumental versions of Fab Four faves, awash in his multi-tracked keyboard arrangements which nod to psychedelia while carrying children (and tired parents) off to dreamland.
While I'd sing most of these classics to my wee one, tunes like "Norwegian Wood" and "She's Leaving Home" are best left as instrumentals - I don't need questions about sleeping in the bath or runaways treating mums so thoughtlessly. Still, these are far from the most questionable kids' versions of songs out there - I can't decide which is the bigger head-scratcher, "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" (on Jersey Babys: the Music of Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons for Kids), or the Trent Reznor-penned "Hurt" (on Baby Love Lullaby: Lullaby Versions of Johnny Cash). Seriously - "everyone I know goes away in the end"? Night night, sweetie!
Bedtime with the Beatles
Does any modern recording producer capture the deep, lush resonance of a plucked double bass any better than T-Bone Burnett? I don't think so. Though the list of artists he's produced is diverse, running the gamut from Cassandra Wilson to Counting Crows to the surprise duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, the sound of his productions is singular. While emphasizing acoustic instrumentation rooted in American folk traditions, his productions never sound like museum pieces - they're very much of their time (his influence on the Americana genre can't be overestimated), yet remain ageless.
Burnett can now add John Mellencamp's Life, Death, Love, and Freedom to his growing list of evocative production work. Co-produced with Mellencamp (no slouch as a producer himself), the album, described by JM as a collection of "modern electric folk songs", is the very best record made by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in the year in which they were inducted. The meditations on mortality and making ends meet in tough times are classic Mellencamp themes, but the intimacy with which the disc is recorded puts the listener in the middle of the songs - there's little question to which times this new masterpiece speaks. As long as you expect Mellencamp in a deeply ruminative mood, musically and lyrically, you'll find yourself listening to the very best disc he's ever made... so far.
Life, Death, Love, and Freedom
As a Kinks fanatic, I was immediately drawn to the Kooks' sophomore release, Konk, upon seeing its cover, showing the band standing in the doorway of the Kinks' recording studio... named Konk, natch (where much of the disc was recorded).
While the UK quartet share a strong sense of melody and pop songcraft with their studio landlords, their tunes don't conjure up the quirky, busker-friendly sing-alongs of Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks, nor the muscular, stadium-rock sound of One for the Road-era Kinks. Instead, the band's smooth vocal harmonies, moon-in-june lyrics, and Hills soundtrack-ready performance bring to mind contemporaries like Rooney - which isn't necessarily a bad thing. On a breezy summer's day, when you'd rather feel carefree than challenged, Konk might make a good musical companion.
All of us who had the true pleasure of working with Dale Ford knew his passion for music. He and I shared an obsession with Todd Rundgren, though Dale was without doubt the greater fan. Years of our Rundgren-related conversations got me to the point where I couldn’t put a Todd record on without Dale crossing my mind.
The diverse nature of Rundgren’s recordings – not only as a solo performer, but also as a member of various bands (Utopia and Nazz among them) and producer (he helmed Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and XTC’s Skylarking, to name only two elpees’ worth of tunes) – is at turns challenging and rewarding. 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star does a great job of showcasing all of Todd’s musical personalities – art rocker, soul balladeer, experimentalist, spiritual lyricist, guitar hero, jokester.
In a pensive mood, I prefer the soulful second half of the collection – feeling more adventurous, the synthesized psychedelia that opens the collection suits the mood. The second half pays tribute to Rundgren’s R’n’B influences, while the first half itself is influential, its sonic textures prefiguring disco, new wave, and even hip-hop. The wide variety of sounds on this disc (especially enjoyable on headphones) should send impressed listeners on a search for more of Rundgren’s work. Dale wouldn’t have hesitated to point the way.
A Wizard, A True Star