Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Court and Spark," by Joni Mitchell

I think I’ve listened to this album for days. In fact, I listened to it again just this morning. Like most others, my introduction to this highly acclaimed 1974 album was through its two hit singles, “Help Me,” and “Free Man In Paris.” And while the hits remain classics, they aren’t even the best part of Joni Mitchell’s commercial zenith, Court and Spark.

Before “Help Me” bounced onto top 40 radio in the spring of that year, Joni Mitchell was best-known as the hippie chick who wrote hits for other artists, like “
Both Sides Now,” for Judy Collins, and “Woodstock,” for Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (and true story: Chelsea Clinton was named after Mitchell’s classic track, “Chelsea Morning,” from her 1969 album, Clouds). Mitchell’s albums up to that point were Joan Baez-influenced folk music, with Mitchell’s cold water vocals and alternately tuned acoustic guitar strumming, singing about mornings, ladies of the canyon, and feeling blue. But, never one to linger on any, one topic or sound, Mitchell craved fresh musical terrain. So with Court and Spark, she enlisted a world-class lineup of musicians to back her and embarked on an aural journey that was…Completely. Friggin’. Transcendent.

The album describes the excitement, hopes, insecurities, and doubts that come from budding romance or lack thereof.
Court and Spark builds quietly, with the hushed and conversational title track that reveals the author’s timidity and self-doubt about a fleeting, romantic near miss: “It seems like he read my mind; he saw me mistrusting and still acting kind; he saw how I worry sometimes…I worry sometimes…” Next come the hit singles, followed by the heart of the album: a quintet of dead-on relationship songs that examine the human coupling ritual in startling detail and sometimes cringe-inducing scrutiny.

Mitchell encapsulates the emotional arc of this heartfelt, introspective, and stirring album with a line from “
People’s Parties,” where she sings, “I wish I had more sense of humor, keeping all the sadness at bay - throwing the lightness on these things, and laughing it all away…laughing it all away…laughing it all away…” The album flows in said manner from beginning to end, moving from heartbreak to humor and ending on a surprisingly comedic note with a cover of “Twisted,” where Mitchell trades debauched lines with “Cheech” Marin and Tommy “Chong,” kicking around about just how mixed-up Mitchell might really be. But she’s far from mixed up, and as Q-Tip so aptly reminded us a few years back, “Joni Mitchell never lies.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Bryter Layter," by Nick Drake

“I never felt magic as crazy as this,” Nick Drake sang in “Northern Sky,” from Bryter Later, and the sentiment served as a perfect summation of this ethereal and magnificent album. With it’s unhinged flutes and wacka-wha guitars, the album could only have been made in the early seventies. It’s impact, however, transcends time. But so does Nick Drake, who released only three studio albums during his lifetime: the acoustic and relaxed debut, Five Leaves Left, in 1969, Bryter Later, in 1970, and the hallow and haunting, Pink Moon, in 1972. Pink Moon is perhaps the best known of the three, due to the title song made famous in the 2000 Volkswagen commercial, Five Leaves Left contains Drake’s best and most otherworldly song, “River Man,” and Bryter Later, which sounds the most dated, is, ironically, his very best.

Never known for his vocal prowess, on Bryter Later, Drake sings using his “head voice,” and his lyrics are playful and mind-bendingly imaginative, almost like he’s describing a series of dreams, sometimes placing himself in the middle of the action and sometimes off to the side, a distant, lonely observer. In “One Of These Things First,” Drake sings, “I could be here and now. I would be, I should be…but how?” Or on “Hazey Jane I,” he sings, “Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s passed? Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?” Drake describes perfectly those moments when you feel completely out of sync with everyone and everything around you.

Quiet and despondent in personality, Drake was known for crafting indelible, alternate-key pop tunes that linger long after the turntable stops spinning, and everything you’ve heard about Nick Drake, sonically, is represented on Bryter Layter: stirring tunes, deliciously morose lyrics, and Drake’s opaque, raspy vocal style. But conversely, the album also has an upbeat and cheerful side that hinted at personal optimism. In the liner notes for the Nick Drake boxed set, Fruit Tree, producer, Joe Boyd, lists Bryter Layter as “the one perfect album” they made. “When it was released, Boyd said it was a masterpiece, that it would make Nick Drake a star. But he was wrong; the album didn’t sell. And Nick Drake was crushed.”

This is the tragic part, because when measured against other trifle from 1970 that sold by the millions (e.g., “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Everything Is Beautiful” or “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” to name but a few), it’s nothing less than criminal that Bryter Later went unnoticed by pop radio. Some suggest it was this failure that led Drake to create his bitter and terse final album. Others suggest it was the final blow that led to his untimely death.

But I like to imagine that Bryter Later held evidence that, in another context and in another set of circumstances, things may have turned out very differently for Drake. His music, often billed “depressing,” has been described as the progenitor to the likes of Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith, but on Bryter Later, something different was in Drake’s tea. The songs on this album hinted at something unanticipated bubbling under Drake’s normally melancholy surface: hope.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Blue," by Double

The sub-genre of smooth jazz hit new commercial peaks in the early 1980’s. A momentum fueled, no doubt, by 1970’s crossover artists like George Benson, Patti Austin, and Al Jarreau. Not only did smooth jazz proliferate to the point of newly established radio stations for the style, but smooth jazz artists also became regular fixtures on the pop charts in the early to mid 1980’s. Some of these artists established themselves widely and held an enduring shelf life in the pop world, like Sade (“Smooth Operator”) and Simply Red (“Holding Back the Years”), while others either quickly faded back to jazz-only stations, like Anita Baker ("Sweet Love") and Kenny G (Hmm, don't remember any of his songs), or disappeared entirely. Double is in the last category.

Mistakenly dubbed “a quartet” in the People Magazine review (due to the clever album cover pictured above, where the duo appears twice: get it? “Double?”), Double was actually a Swiss duo, consisting of vocalist and lead guitar player, Kurt Maloo, and Felix Haug on drums and keyboards. I first heard the duo’s top-20 hit, “Captain Of Her Heart,” in my freshman year of high school: it sounded so sophisticated and jet-set cool. In fact, there was nothing to not like about this classic single. Culled from this 1985 debut album, the song’s distinctive piano riff, melancholy lyric, and the casual, off-the-cuff vocal style of Kurt Maloo fit right in with the contemporary jazz/pop of that time, and it’s an enchanting little song - one of the most memorable of the era.

The remaining album is a surprising combination of 80’s synthesizers, light techno beats, jazz, and pop that still holds up remarkably well, over 20 years later. Although the up-tempo songs retain their mid-80’s appeal, the enduring strength of Blue is found in the slower, jazzier songs, like “Rangoon Moon,” and “Tomorrow,” which closes the album. “Tomorrow’s” clicky, shuffle-along drumbeat, lilting tenor saxophone, and meandering, lighter-than-air chorus floats out of your speakers like ether – a perfect finale for this tragically under-valued and long-forgotten album of the 80’s.

The follow-up single from the album, “Woman Of The World” sounded just as urbane and mysterious as “Captain,” and I love it to this day, but it just didn’t catch on. A stilted second album, Dou3le, followed two years later, but by then, everyone was walking like Egyptians, fighting for their rights to party, or freaking out about Michael Jackson’s so-so new album (Bad) with little patience for sifting through the duo’s often difficult and techno-heavy follow-up. After their follow-up effort failed, Double was dropped from their record label and spent the 90’s pursuing solo careers with little success. In 2004, Haug died of a heart attack, and in 2009, Maloo released a solo album, Summer Of Better Times, similar in style to Blue, just released in the U.S. in the summer of 2013.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"We Started Nothing," by The Ting Tings

My father set up a basketball hoop in our driveway in 1981, and we used to play a game on sunny summer afternoons called, “H-O-R-S-E,” where we’d take turns calling the shot, and each consecutive player would have to make the same shot or garner a letter. Miss enough shots to spell out “H-O-R-S-E” and you were out of the game. Last player without the H-O-R-S-E moniker won. What can I say? We made our own fun. At any rate, never an athlete, my favorite part of the game wasn’t so much the basketball, but the music that played on the radio in the background. 
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, this meant classic songs by Blondie (“Call Me”), Hall and Oats (“Kiss On My List”), The Go-Gos (“We Got The Beat”), Suzie Quatro (“Stumblin’ In”), and The Waitresses (“I Know What Boys Like”). And even though it was released just last year (2008), the Ting Ting’s, We Started Nothing, would have perfectly fit the mood of our H-O-R-S-E -playing, punk-pop playlist: pure, carbonated, audio joy.

The Ting Tings, formed in Britain in 2006 and consist of singer/guitarist Katie White and drummer Jules De Martino. Much of their debut album is reminiscent of Toni Basil’s ageless solitary pop smash, “Mickey,” with its cheerleader-esque game-time shouted choruses and bumping, thumping, marching band beats - and that’s not a criticism. Might I point out, here, that one must never underestimate the ripple effect of a one-hit-wonder. Basil’s “Mickey,” with it’s stuck-in-your-head chorus, “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, Hey Mickey!” not only inspired one of Weird Al’s best parodies (the "I Love Lucy"-themed, “Ricky”), but is arguably to blame for much of Gwen Stafani’s solo career (“Hollaback girl”) and to lesser effect, roughly half of Avril Lavigne’s song catalogue. And we’re alone now, so you can admit that you’ve always loved Basil’s #1 song from 1982, and you’re glad I mentioned it. 

The core of this album is made up of three bratty-fabulous songs, “That’s Not My Name,” “Shut Up And Let Me Go,” and “We Walk,” which is the “hit” from the record and deservedly so. The lyrics from all three songs sound like they are being recited from a grumpy teenage girl’s diary and are simply impossible to get out of your head. Throughout this ornery album, the melodies are accessible, quick-to-the-point, and catchy as hell. And I suspect the album title, We Started Nothing, refers to the fact that there’s nothing “new” or “groundbreaking” on the record. Seriously, every song seems to riff off some other pop song you know and love from the late 70’s / early 80’s...and that’s a wonderful thing. With a running time of less than 40 minutes, it might be easy to dismiss this album as retro, disposable pop, but from my perspective, it’s hard not to immediately fall in love with this endearing little record. Time will bear out which opinion is more accurate, but in the meantime, We Started Nothing will undoubtedly provide the ultimate carefree soundtrack to this summer.