Saturday, December 28, 2013

“Now & Then,” by Carpenters

Now And Then was released in May of 1973 and is considered by many fans to be the duo's last album with the “classic” Carpenters sound. I’m inclined to agree. It featured two of their biggest hits, “Sing,” (#3, 1973) and the Carpenter-penned song about the early-1970’s “oldies” resurgence, “Yesterday Once More,” (#2, 1973), which became their biggest selling single, worldwide. While a bestseller at the time (and beyond the mysterious, trifold album artwork – is it a photograph? is it a painting? why aren’t they smiling – they were always smiling…? why is Karen’s face obscured? And their actual house loomed in the background, showing the upstairs bedroom window where Karen would collapse less than 10 years later, never to be resuscitated…), of their early albums, Now And Then tends to be their most overlooked and underappreciated these days, as it was, among other things, quirky, eclectic, eerie, joyful, eccentric, melancholy, silly, mysterious, and a TON of fun. In fact, I consider the album one of the most artsy in their canon (except, perhaps, their obscure and seldom-discussed debut, Offering, later repacked as, Ticket To Ride). The concept for Now And Then celebrated the “oldies,” as well as newer songs, having side one of the album consist of “contemporary” songs and side two focus on songs made popular about 10 years earlier.

The “contemporary” side was mostly that, I guess, except it featured a children’s song from television and a classic tune written over 20 years earlier, Hank Williams’ 1952 #1 Country smash, “Jambalaya (On The Bayou).” Hmm. I smell a concept fail. The duo wisely selected for side one Leon Russell’s, “This Masquerade,” which was an outstanding album track and remains a perennial fan favorite that probably should have been the lead-off single, or at least the follow-up to “Sing,” if, for nothing else, credibility purposes. And by the way, I love “Sing.” It’s simple. It’s sweet. “Sing. Sing a song. Make it simple to last your whole life long…” What’s not to love about that? But I’m guessing my fondness has more to do with my being 2 or 3 when it was ubiquitous on the radio that spring and it is a children’s song, after all, and Vh1 used it (affectionately, I think) on a promo a few years ago and it was from Sesame Street, and sigh…oh, what the hell? I just love it. The pretty piano instrumental, “Heather,” adds emotional depth to the proceedings on the first side, but (while absolutely beautiful) for the duo to record a song titled, “I Can’t Make Music,” at that point in their careers…it was just asking for potshots from rock journalists.

The “oldies” side consisted of a medley of the following early 1960’s tunes in this order: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “The End Of The World,” “Da Do Run-Run,” “Dean Man’s Curve,” Johnny Angel,” “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” “Our Day Will Come,” and “One Fine Day.” Interspersed among the pop hits was Carpenters band member, Tony Peluso, playing the role of over-the-top radio DJ, complete with playful, shticky banter and even a “guess the golden oldies” radio contest. Peluso would reprise this role four years later as the DJ communicating with Martians (yes, you read that correctly) at the beginning of the duo’s 1977 top 40 hit, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft).” While certainly serving the concept of side two, in my view, the DJ banter pulls attention away from some remarkable vocals from sister Karen, most notably on “The End Of The World” and “Our Day Will Come,” which, in expanded versions, might have made exceptional singles.

In fact, the oldies/medley side contained some of Karen’s best vocal performances (an opinion the Reader’s Digest Collection vindicated some 25 years later, including the medley in remixed form and without the DJ shtick), with my only suggestion to the oldies side being that the siblings might have done well to include hits from back further, like “The Wayward Wind,” “It’s All In The Game,” “Que Sera, Sera,” “Chances Are,” and “You Send Me,” all which seem to have influenced the duo much more than “Da Do Run-Run” or “Dead Man’s Curve.” Who is with me on this?

Lambasted by critics upon its release, Now And Then was, perhaps understandably, but also unfairly judged as the artistic statement the duo wanted to make at that time. In reality, the album was hurriedly recorded amidst a breakneck schedule of touring and television appearances. Richard Carpenter wrote, “…as the limited time we had to record the album approached, it was clear to me that we had only enough material to complete one side of an LP, and even that was by completing a track we had recorded in 1972, ‘Jambalaya.’ Fortunately, we had an ace up our collective sleeve, resulting in a damn good album which became a worldwide bestseller: Karen and I introduced an oldies medley into our concert show starting in the summer of 1972, and it met with such an enthusiastic response, I decided to feature a version of it on side two of what would become Now And Then.

This album was followed by more breakneck touring for the duo in 1973 and 1974, which gave them precious little time to record the highly-anticipated follow-up, Horizon (1975). In the year that followed and to keep the duo on the radio, their record label mined two more gems from their classic, 1972 album, A Song For You, “Top Of The World” (#1, 1973) and “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” (#11, 1974) as well as a Christmas-themed single, a jazzy reworking of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” late in 1974, but the true follow-up single wasn’t released until December of 1974, the duo’s final #1, a cover of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and another retread of the oldies theme, a motif they would continue to pillage (“A Kind Of Hush,” #12/1976, and “Goofus,” #56/1976) through their final album with Karen, Made In America (“BE-echwood 4-5789, #74/1982).

The follow-up album, Horizon, was an intentional departure, demonstrating that the duo was interested in expanding beyond the trend-setting, early 1970s sound that brung ‘em to the dance. Horizon was musically complicated and thematically sophisticated. It was an album for grown-ups, whereas Now And Then seemed to have been recorded with the kiddos in mind. Maybe as a result, it seems to be the last album the siblings recorded where they seemed to be having any fun, which makes it a bittersweet listen today. In fact, while successive albums had moments of levity, the later albums found the duo trying too hard: to have hits, to be hip, to sound “different,” to be taken seriously. But on this album, in this moment in time, the siblings seemed to be in high spirits, and their art reflected this boundless joy - blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that lie ahead. And if for no other reason, Now And Then is noteworthy for that.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Must-hear Holiday-Themed, Non-Holiday Songs

People seem particularly drawn to mournful, weepy, nostalgic songs to get them through the holidays. Maybe it’s the zeitgeist of these violent times, maybe it’s just being reflective as another year comes to a close, or perhaps just gluttony for punishment, but who hasn’t lost a friend or loved-one along the way, and aren’t the holidays the mandatory time for remembering the joy and pain that accompanies these complicated memories? Whatever your seasonal symptom, the songs collected here follow this motif. And to the best of my knowledge, not one of these tunes was written as a holiday song, specifically, although some have wriggled their ways into the canon, and all have found their ways onto my Yuletide playlist. So take a listen with me, gentle readers, grab a glass of eggnog, and let the holidays begin…

Photographs and Memories,” by Jim Croce: I think had Croce lived, he might be on his third or fourth holiday album by now. In many ways, his mellow, acoustic-driven song stylings are perfect for bummed-out tributes to the Yuletide. “Photographs and Memories” is taken from Croce’s 1972 album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, and while never released as a single (it was the B-side to the title track for the album, which was released as a single and reached #8 on the Hot 100), it remains a perennial holiday favorite. Croce had a penchant for writing tunes that, while not Christmas songs, per se, embraced the season, like the melancholy, “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way,” which sets the tone in the first line: “Snowy nights and Christmas lights, icy windowpanes, make me wish that we could be together again.” Sigh…

Barandgrill,” by Joni Mitchell: Mitchell’s “River,” from her legendary 1971 album, Blue, would have been the obvious choice for this list, but it’s become so commonly covered by artists for their holiday collections in the last few decades (e.g., James Taylor, Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin, and Linda Rondstadt, to name but a few), that the song is now effectively co-opted for the season. But “Barandgrill,” taken from Mitchell’s overlooked 1972 masterpiece, For The Roses, provides a stream-of-consciousness, lyrical snapshot of time spent in a local truck stop café around the holidays, where waitresses are talking about zombies and exotic cocktails and “…the guy at the gas pump, he's got a lot of soul; he sings Merry Christmas for you just like Nat King Cole.”

Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” by Sade: Taken from her super chill, lighter than air 1988 album, Stronger Than Pride, this icy breakup song was culled as a single in the spring of that year, but (sadly) failed to gain much radio play, losing ground to disposable radio crap like “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Could’ve Been,” and “Get Outa My Dreams, Get Into My Car.” Tragic, that, as the lugubrious, frost-bitten lyrics fashion the perfect atmosphere for heartbreak: “Sitting here waiting for you would be like waiting for winter, and it's gonna be cold; there may even be snow…”

The Hounds of Winter,” by Sting: Taken from his 1996 album, Mercury Falling, this wintery, tormented song about lost love is perfect for the holiday season. Sting thinks so, too; he re-recorded the track as a Renaissance period madrigal for his own holiday collection, If On A Winter’s Night, 13 years later. The album sounds like it was recorded in a candle-lit, haunted castle by the ocean and, at times, seems more fitting for a Celtic Samhain celebration than for Christmas. 

Brick,” by Ben Folds Five: Catchy as it is, this is the only pop hit in my recollection that recounts the impact of abortion for two young people: in this case, Folds and his high school girlfriend (and the procedure in question happens to take place on the day after Christmas, the day for returning unwanted gifts…). Not exactly something you’d expect to hear from the Biebs or Katy these days, but in 1997 it was a moderate hit for the band, reaching the top 20 on a number of charts. I saw Ben Folds in concert (remarkably good) in the early 2000s, and if my memory serves me correctly, he made a point to disavow any political leanings when he introduced the tune. Huh.

Late-Great Johnny Ace,” by Paul Simon: Where were you when John Lennon died? I was 9 years old and at home on that frigid December evening in 1980. I remember hearing about the assassination on television that night after dinner and the radio being flooded with Lennon songs after that for the next several months. I really wasn’t such a John Lennon fan, but I felt bad all the same. And I still do. “…On a cold December evening I was walking through the Christmas tide, when a stranger came up and asked me if I'd heard John Lennon had died. And the two of us went to this bar and we stayed to close the place - and every song we played was for The Late Great Johnny Ace…”

Same Old Lang Syne,” by Dan Fogelberg: “Met my old lover in the grocery store. The snow was falling Christmas Eve…” So begins one of the most bummed-out, nostalgic odes to ghosts of lovers past ever. A bold move for Fogelberg, to use the frozen foods section of a grocery store as the setting for a holiday-themed love song, but that’s how it actually went down on that Christmas Eve night in the convenience store at the top of Abington Hill in Peoria, Illinois in the mid-1970’s. The actual “old lover” came out of the shadows decades later, after Fogelberg’s death and after the end of her own, ill-fated marriage to the architect, a man of whom she’d like to have said she loved, but she didn’t like to lie. 

Levon,” by Elton John: “He was born a pauper to a pawn on Christmas Day, when the New York Times said, ‘God is dead,’ and the wars begun…” A peripheral reference to Christmas, to be sure, but Levon’s son turns out to be named “Jesus,” after all, (apparently Levon really liked the name). And sadly, as it so often goes, the boy wants to leave home, leaving Levon far behind…to slowly die, which, again, pretty much sums up the holiday season; am I right? *I kid, I kid; I’m a kidder...

My Favorite Things,” from The Sound Of Music: In the film adaption of the play, the song is sung to the Von Trapp children to calm their fears during a scary thunderstorm. “Favorite Things” suggests the best way to find peace in difficult times is simply to think about your favorites. In this case, things like, “warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with string, sleigh bells…silver white winters…snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.” While never mentioning the holidays outright, the imagery is a nice fit for the season, which is, no doubt, why the song started finding its way onto holiday albums as early as 1964, a year before the film was even released. While the original version is upbeat, the melancholy lyrics and the wistful melody were highlighted in even the earliest cover versions, accentuating the inherent sadness in what has become a perennial holiday classic. 

What A Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong: Released in October of 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam conflict and an ever-tumultuous North American political landscape, “Wonderful World,” like “Favorite Things,” spoke of optimism and hope in difficult times, definitely a theme for the season. Not initially a hit upon release, this unforgettable track was impossible to ignore, finally making it’s way onto a pivotal scene in the 1988 film, Good Morning, Vietnam, where it struck a chord with listeners and reached #32 on the pop charts that year, over 20 years after its initial release.

Don’t Miss You At All,” Norah Jones: Norah Jones took the world by storm with her self-titled debut album, which sold a bajillion copies in 2002, swept the Grammys, and catapulted the musician kicking and screaming into superstardom. This heartrending song drips with irony, with Jones singing, “As I sit and watch the snow falling down…I don’t miss you at all.” This song closes her second album, Feels Like Home, and provides a perfect postscript to this endearing collection of songs. It also works perfectly on my “Melancholy Holly” iPod playlist and is my go-to song on the years when I can’t make it back to the farm for Christmas. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

“The Magazine,” by Rickie Lee Jones

Rickie Lee Jones was the talk of the town when her debut album exploded onto the scene in 1979, and deservedly so. Her 1981 follow-up album, Pirates, was equally strong and much heralded upon its initial release, even boasting a “Chuck E.’s In Love” caliber single, "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking," which was criminally-ignored by top 40 radio (that, apparently, much preferred the featherweight rubbish of “I Love A Rainy Night” and “9 to 5” to Jones’ smart pop masterworks), and sadly, the exceptional album, while reaching number 5 on the album charts and achieving “gold” status solely on the momentum of Jones’ popular debut, faded quickly into obscurity after just a few months. It remains a long-forgotten pop gem.

And Jones spent the remainder of 1981 and most of 1982 touring to promote Pirates while struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. By 1983, after a lack of “hit” singles from Pirates and fearing the fickle, record-buying public might forget about Jones altogether, Warner Brothers put out a “mini-album,” Girl At Her Volcano, in 1983, which featured covers of pop standards as well as a few live tracks and leftover outtakes from earlier album sessions. And to be honest, the scrapped-together album was actually quite good, still holding up 30 years later: a testament to Jones’ remarkable gifts. Moving to France for the remainder of that year, Jones kicked her addictions and got back to writing new songs for the next album, 1984’s sublime and regrettably overlooked, The Magazine.

Co-written and co-produced with James Newton Howard, who had previously worked on Elton John’s late 1970’s/early 1980’s albums and who would go on to broad acclaim composing film scores (e.g., The Prince Of Tides, The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games, etc.), the sweeping concept of this album, at times, sounds like a movie score: a movie score to a quirky, personal, joyful, and sometimes painful movie - kind of like how life is. This stands to reason, as Jones has said that each album she records is like the soundtrack of her life during the time she’s making it. And while the lyrics may be a bit opaque at times, and the whimsical narratives may lead to a few dead ends, the catchy songs (“Gravity,” “Juke Box Fury,” “It Must Be Love,” and the single, “The Real End,” which landed on the lower end of the Hot 100 charts) and the pretty musical interludes (“Prelude To Gravity,” and the mysterious, moody “Rorschachs”) hang together well, shifting moods throughout and keeping the project wholly engaging.

This great album, too, was lost on pop radio that summer and fall, losing ground to the synthesized blips and beeps of horrid earworms, like the squeaky, “Break My Stride,” or the song that was popular solely because Michael Jackson sang on it and anything he touched that year was going to sell a million copies, “Somebody’s Watching Me,” and possibly the worst pop song ever, particularly because it hailed from one of pop music’s former geniuses, “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” And while the album was certainly of a piece with film scores of the day, pop fans that year were far more interested in throwaway blockbuster movie themes, like the cheesy, fight-for-your-right-to-dance-and-have-teenage-sex call to arms, “Footloose,” and the just plain stupid, “Ghostbusters.” But all of this is to say that overlooking Rickie Lee Jones in 1984 was a mistake, plain and simple, as so many missed out on this sumptuous, imaginative, playful, and tender album.

And bonus points for The Magazine for cajoling me into a making a brave leap early in my career. As a new professional in the mid-1990s, I suddenly found myself in the middle of an organization that I no longer recognized. A number of us were disoriented and discouraged, reeling from new leadership. I no longer felt welcome in a workplace that suddenly seemed unfriendly and unfamiliar. To stay would have been a discouraging chain of professional disappointments, but the thought of leaving was paralyzing. While practically intolerable, it felt safer, somehow, to just hang out, albeit unhappily. But the last refrain of Jones’, “Runaround,” haunted and seduced me that year: “Take a deep breath and break the chain, uh-oh, ooh-oh; take a deep breath and break the chain, uh-oh, ooh-oh; take a deep breath and break the chain…” And so I did, and I’ve never looked back. And that, my gentle readers, is the life changing power of music.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

“Taming The Tiger,” by Joni Mitchell

Musically, Joni Mitchell’s 1998 album, Taming The Tiger, feels ethereal and dreamy, almost formless. Reminiscent of classic albums by Pat Metheny, Brian Eno, or even Beck’s heartbreaking, 2002 album, Sea Change. Ditching catchy pop hooks and melodies for atmospherics, on Taming The Tiger, Mitchell weaves a dramatic, often mournful, and sometimes mysterious sonic tapestry. The “samey” tone of the album might make one prematurely dismissive, but that would be a mistake, as Taming The Tiger holds some of Mitchell’s most creative lyrics and striking social commentary. And the similar, sorrowful hues of the album make sense: Tiger tells the story of Joni Mitchell at that particular moment in her life: a woman in her middle age, at the top of her craft - easily producing masterworks on a backstroke, reflecting on her wondrous experiences, reveling in the joys of the present, continuing her thoughtful critique of a civilization in decline, and ultimately, strangely, miraculously feeling peaceful about the entire enterprise.

In the joyous album opener, “Harlem In Havana,” Mitchell depicts a childhood memory of visiting the African-Cuban burlesque review that some suggest to be the beginning of rock-and-roll. Mitchell’s lyrics describe the “forbidden" sights and sounds on the midway, where they played so “snakey,” you couldn’t help how you felt: “Silver spangles, See 'em dangle in the farm boy's eyes...hootchie kootchie, Auntie Ruthie would've died if she knew we were on the inside!” In “Love Puts On A New Face,” Mitchell perfectly depicts the tranquility of a quiet moment with a loved one, “No telephone ringing, no company coming, just the lap of the lake and the firelight, and the lonely loon and the crescent moon, what a pocket of heavenly grace.” Indeed. And in “The Crazy Cries Of Love,” Mitchell joyously recounts two frenzied lovers losing themselves to reckless abandon, with “No paper thin walls, no folks above, no one else can hear the crazy cries of love,” and later in the café, “…they smile ear to ear and eye to eye, ice cream is melting on a piece of pie, oh, my my…” Playful. Truthful. Tender.

Mitchell summons English poet and painter William Blake (her kindred spirit and consistent source of inspiration) in the title track, an apt summation of the music industry in the mid-1990s, as personified, no doubt, by her victorious night at the Grammys a few years earlier, collecting a surprise trophy for “Best Pop Album.” The surprise being that the album, Turbulent Indigo, sold relatively few copies that year, and none of the teenagers buying records in 1994 could have hummed even one of its tunes. Inspired by lyrics from Blake’s poem, “The Tyger,” I’ve often wondered if the song describes her experience at the award ceremony that night as she must have, no doubt, reflected upon how her latest “golden egg” compared to the music of that moment (e.g., Ace Of Base, Coolio, Crash Test Dummies, etc.): a strange juxtaposition.

Another song, I suspect, about her experiences in the dog-eat-dog music industry, “Lead Balloon,” is probably her hardest rocking song, ever. It sounds eerily similar to the well-known story of Mitchell throwing her drink into the face of Rolling Stone Svengali, Jan Wenner, in the early 1970’s, sparking a grudge between the two that lasts to this day. The notorious incident incited what some have suggested a moratorium on all things "Joni Mitchell" in his popular magazine in the 1970’s. In fact, the publication routinely berated Mitchell’s late 1970’s masterworks, which were vindicated over time and are now widely regarded as some of her very best and enduring albums (incidentally, recent Rolling Stone publications have self-consciously corrected these scathing notices).

Taming The Tiger boasts some of Mitchell’s most tender poetry, including a remake of her heartbreaking “Man From Mars,” which was originally featured on a few thousand copies of the soundtrack to the obscure 1996 film, Grace Of My Heart, which borrowed its name from Mitchell's song and presented a fictionalized version of Carole King’s early career in pop music. In it, Mitchell sings about a lost love: “I fall apart every time I think of you swallowed by the dark. There is no center to my life now, no grace in my heart. Man from Mars: this time you went too far…” The version on Tiger is updated and of a piece with the sonic palette of the rest of the album. In the tender cajoling of “Facelift,” Mitchell affectionately recalls an argument with her mother, who disapproved of her “love without a license,” and in “Stay In Touch,” Mitchell describes the excitement, doubt, and hopeful tentativeness of navigating a burgeoning relationship with her (then) new-found daughter, whom she’d given up for adoption decades earlier: “Part of this is permanent, part of this is passing, so we must be loyal and wary
 - not to give away too much, until we build a firm foundation and empty out old habits:
 old habits. Stay in touch. We should stay in touch.”

Mitchell’s sooty vocals have been the brunt of harsh criticism since the early 1990’s, with one reviewer writing of this album, “Meanwhile, her voice has lost nearly all its power: thin and breathy, restricted to the middle of her former range - I wanted to cry listening to it.” Yes, Mitchell’s voice has changed over time, as have all singers still active after many decades, but I believe this is only problematic for artists known for a distinct vocal style or range. Mitchell has never been that kind of artist. Take Whitney Houston, for example. In the 1980’s, her voice could thrill with a whisper and then soar to unfathomable heights, but by the last decade of her tragic life, her once astounding instrument sounded raspy and lacked power, as if fighting back a coughing fit on every note. Mitchell’s voice has been evolving since her earliest, cold-water vocals from the Canyon, her sultrier, jazzy singing through the 1970’s, and her beautifully smoky-voiced style of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

What I love about Mitchell’s voice today is that it’s perfectly attuned to her music and lyrics in the present. She’s no longer the flower-beaded ingénue of the 1960’s or the 1970’s darling of the Hollywood elite. She’s not only survived, but she’s thrived through decades of disposable fashion and pop music trends, creating a classification all her own. In fact, Mitchell’s seasoned voice is now even better suited for some of her classic songs from decades past (e.g., “Circle Game,” “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” etc.). Taming The Tiger received middling to favorable reviews upon release, but all rather tepid from my perspective. That was 15 years ago, and the musical climate was steeped in the “juvenile junk food” of Spice Girls, ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and even rock legend, Elton John’s awkwardly reworked (yet again) “Candle In The Wind,” performed at Princess Diana’s funeral and selling millions of copies along the way. It’s 2013, and like her late-1970’s work, I suspect Taming The Tiger will no doubt be vindicated with time, standing out as one of Mitchell's very best works.