Sunday, December 16, 2012
Mae In December
It's that time of the year again, decorating the tree, hanging the stockings and plopping Mae West on the turntable for some yuletide cheer. What, you don't think of Mae West when you think of Christmas? Well think again my friend. I received this as a gift a long time ago from someone who knew I liked records and old movies. At the time I wasn't particularly thrilled about it, but it has become one of my favorite Christmas albums. This is a reissue of the 1966 album "Wild Christmas" on Dagonet records recorded when West was 73. It consists of 7 Christmas songs plus a cover of the Beatles' "From Me To You." I have no idea what the latter has to do with Christmas but I'm the last guy who is going to complain about a Beatles' cover, every record should have one. If you know anything about Mae West, you know you aren't going to be hearing "Silent Night" or "Noel" on this album. She leans towards bawdier stuff. The album kicks off with "Santa Come Up To See Me" which is a folk rock style tune. She invites Santa to come up and see her some time. She boasts that she has a present for him better than any that he can give, namely her good loving. In the middle of the song she jumps up a couple octaves and sings so high you practically have to be a dog to hear her. Next she covers Elvis' "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me." It is a jumpin' tune and she rocks pretty convincingly for a senior citizen. Next up is the r&b classic "Merry Christmas, Baby" where she coos a "man under the mistletoe is worth two under the tree." It is another strong performance, genuinely sexy. The side ends with another Elvis cover, Leiber and Stoller's "Santa Claus Is Back in Town." West is a decent rock singer, but she's better at the blues and this song suits her perfectly. I like it just as much as Elvis' version. "Put the Loot in the Boot, Santa" opens side two. She advises Santa to put some "jack in the sack" if he wants to enjoy her company. She'd like a uranium mine, but she'll settle for some some "cash on the sash." A Christmas song celebrating prostitution, that's got to be a first. She makes "From Me To You" a Christmas song by prefacing the song with a spoken introduction where she huskily announces that she has a Christmas present (love) for the listener that she will send "from Mae to you." It's not the best Beatles' cover you will hear, but it may be the sexiest. Over the top sexiness characterizes her cover of Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby." Just as in "Put the Loot in the Boot, Santa" she wants some pretty pricey presents, a Dusenberg convertible for example, but this time she wants them because she has been good all year, not as a down payment for her company. "My New Year's Resolutions" veers between folk-rock and an instrumental passage lifted from "Hang On Sloopy." She sings the folk-rock section promising loving in the New Year and then she breathily recites her resolutions in the "Hang On Sloopy" section such as "I'm going to have goodwill toward men and the more men the more I will." I've heard all sorts of Christmas records, traditional, sentimental, soulful and rocking, but I've never heard one quite like this. With her cartoonishly overt sexuality, ageless enthusiasm and impeccable comic timing, she makes Christmas seem fun for adults not just the kiddies. Try giving it a spin for your next Christmas party. Recommended for lonely bachelors who dig cougars.
Capitol ST 10504
I was very sorry to see that Ravi Shankar died the other day. I had thought about going to see his show in Long Beach a month or two ago, but I waited too long to get tickets and only really expensive seats were left. So I went to play hockey instead and it turned out to be the last concert he would ever give. Lesson learned for me. Like many rock fans I became interested in Shankar because of George Harrison. Harrison's use of the sitar and Indian influenced music appealed to me and seeing Shankar in "Monterey Pop" made me a fan. I bought this record in high school and listened to it often. I know that Shankar had mixed feelings about Western pop music fans' attraction to his music, it did become sort of a psychedelic cliche that did not really give the music the respect it deserved. Even without Harrison's influence I would have come around to him eventually anyway because of his early association with the filmmaker Satyajit Ray. I saw most of Ray's films in college and particularly admired the "Apu" trilogy which Shankar scored. I can't even pretend to be an expert in ragas or Indian classical music nor in Shankar's massive discography which I've only heard a little bit of. I don't know how this album rates in his oeuvre but I like it a lot. I believe it came out in India in 1966 and got its American release two years later. It features Shankar with Kanai Dutt on tabla. Each side of the album features a single raga. Side one is "Raga Abhogi-Kanada" which according to the liner notes is an evening raga of a spiritual character. I don't really hear that. Nor can I tell the difference between evening or daytime ragas. This is classical music, but I listen to it like I listen to pop music. There is a reason why this music appealed to hippies and it has nothing to do with classical scales or variations within formalized structures hundreds of years old. This music is entrancing and soothing and its virtuosity is not all that removed from listening to a Jerry Garcia or John McLaughlin jam, no disrespect to Shankar intended. This raga starts quite slow with Shankar playing elongated notes in the lower register and then moving into some slightly faster paced riffing in the upper register. As the raga progresses, the tempo increases. The energetic main theme is played over a steady drone from the strings underneath, almost as if Shankar is dueting with himself. That relentless drone is a big part of this music's appeal to me. The music continues to increase in speed particularly after the tabla joins in. The final third is quite exciting with Shankar's frenzied fingers running through fast-paced variations on his sitar as the tabla races to keep up with him. It reaches a powerful climax and then abruptly fades out. Side two features "Raga Tilak-Shyam" which in contrast to the slow, exploratory beginning of "Raga Abhogi-Kanada" features Shankar jumping right into a very pretty melody supported by the tabla. He runs through variations of the melody and introduces a second melody and interweaves the two for the rest of the song. Although there are some vigorous and exciting runs in the latter part of the song, it lacks the intensity of side one although I think it is the more consistently stimulating of the two ragas and it also features a thrilling climax where Shankar really takes off with breathtaking virtuosity. This man could really play and the world of music both classical and pop, East and West, is diminished with his passing. I don't wish to demean this music by likening it to Western pop music, but if you like be-bop or jam rock this should be right up your alley. Recommended to John Coltrane fans.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Magic Christian Music
This was the debut album by Badfinger unless you want to count the album they made under the name, The Iveys, in 1969. Six of the tracks on this album were actually lifted from that earlier album although arguably they didn't select the right six. "I've Been Waiting" in particular is better than nearly all the tracks they selected. The British version of this album contains two extra tracks - what's up with that? Apple records taking a page from the Capitol Records playbook and screwing American music fans? You'd think after the way Capitol butchered the Beatles' albums that they'd be sensitive to that sort of tampering. It was probably Allen Klein's idea. Anyway if you can find an import copy of this album, that is probably the way to go, particularly since the two missing tracks, "Angelique" and especially "Give It a Try" are better than many of the tracks remaining on the album. Another curious element to this album, is that although the band was a quartet only three of the members are depicted on the back cover. The reason for that is probably that founding member Ron Griffiths had left the band after this record was recorded (to be replaced by Joey Molland). Molland is mentioned in the text on the back but does not actually play on the record. The only mention of Griffiths is in the song credit for his song "Dear Angie." The most notable cut on the record is the opening track "Come and Get It" which was written and produced by Paul McCartney for the film "The Magic Christian." It was a hit single for the band and fully displays McCartney's knack for writing insanely catchy pop fluff. His original demo version was released on the Beatles' "Anthology 3" album and is practically identical to the Badfinger version, vocalist Tom Evans even sounds like Sir Paul. It has the crispness and drive of McCartney's power pop songs with the Beatles. It is followed by Evans and Pete Ham's "Crimson Ship" which also has a very McCartneyesque sound, particularly in the chorus, although it sounds more like Paul's solo work than the Beatles. "Dear Angie" comes from the Iveys' album. It is sung by Ron Griffiths and is a slow love song with a slightly retro feeling. The pace increases with Pete Ham's rocking "Midnight Sun" which is driven by crunchy guitar lines. Evans' majestic "Beautiful and Blue" with its strings and lush singing reminds me of the Bee Gees. It is another Iveys cut. The aptly named "Rock of All Ages" comes from "The Magic Christian" soundtrack and was written by Evans, Ham and drummer Mike Gibbins. It is an all-out rocker with a 1950s influence that resembles McCartney's own efforts in that vein. It is arguably the hardest rocker in Badfinger's Apple catalog and one of my favorite songs on the album. Side two opens with "Carry On Till Tomorrow" which is another one of my favorites. It is also from the movie soundtrack and was written by Evans and Ham. It is a delicate song with a lovely string arrangement and pretty vocal harmonies but it also features a couple of noisy guitar breaks that disrupt its tranquil feeling. The song is about always moving forward and not giving up, a rather noble message for an obnoxious film that is mostly about greed and degradation. Ham's "I'm In Love" is an Iveys song with a bubblegum quality to it. Ham also wrote the gentle and melodic "Walk Out In the Rain" which is about heartbreak. Evans' "Fisherman" comes from the Iveys album. It is a folk flavored song with charming pop flourishes. Ham's "Knocking Down Our Home" sounds like it should be a rocker, but instead is a retro song with a fussy band arrangement over a bossa nova type rhythm. It sounds like something you'd hear some guy croon in a music hall, the worst song on the album. The album's final song, Evans' "Maybe Tomorrow," was the best song on the Iveys album. It has a classic pop melody married to lyrics about surviving heartbreak. It also reminds me a bit of the Bee Gees minus their sappiness. Would have been a great song for Dusty Springfield to cover. Despite its hodge podge construction this is an impressive debut album with several first rate songs. Ham and Evans were both quality songwriters and the band's lush pop sound is very appealing to me. The knock on Badfinger was that they sounded too much like the Beatles, but I don't consider that a knock, that's a virtue. Recommended to people who's favorite Beatle was Paul.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Summer in Abaddon
Touch and Go Records TG237
I have an acquaintance at work who is really into indie rock, he knows a lot more about it than I do, so I tend to respect his opinions about new bands. Several years ago he told me that his favorite band was Pinback which kind of shocked me. I had heard them a few times on the radio and wasn't all that impressed. His passion for the band prompted me to buy a couple of their CDs and I have to say they didn't knock me out. I decided to give them one more try on vinyl which is how I ended up with this record. At first I was irked by it. The cover is thin and flimsy and for notes the record company just stuck the CD booklet in the sleeve, I hate that. Despite that bad start, when I actually played it, I liked the record itself, it remains my favorite of their albums. I finally understood my co-worker's enthusiasm for them. The recording version of Pinback is Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV who play all of the instruments and write the songs, they even record in their own homes, truly a DIY band but their records sound quite polished and professional. This album opens with "Non Photo-Blue" which is driven by a chunky riff with almost a reggae-like feeling as it examines a romantic break up using computer metaphors. Like nearly all of their songs, it has a dual contrapuntal vocal that I find very compelling. Neither Crow nor Smith is a particularly distinguished singer but their voices blend together extremely well. A moody slice of jangle pop with a powerful bass line, "Sender" is an impressive song even if I'm not sure what it is really about. The language of the song is stunning as it describes alienation and desperation. It is one of my favorite songs on the record. Most of Pinback's lyrics are tough for me to understand, but they are always interesting even when I'm baffled by them. "Syracuse" is one such song, I just have no idea what it means. It is probably the first pop song in history to make reference to a monotube. It has a simple repetitious riff, but builds in strength as it picks up speed and it uses its contrapuntal vocal structure to great effect. "Blood's on Fire" is a little easier song to figure out. It seems to be addressed to an anxiety-ridden old friend who has disappeared or died perhaps. It has the extraordinary line "pacing a faceless maw somewhere vague" that just knocks me out. Despite the anguish and tension in the lyrics, the music is slow and pleasant sounding, even poppy in places. "Fortress" ends the side with jangle pop and more unhappiness as it depicts a difficult if not tortured relationship. For a couple of guys from sunny and laid-back San Diego, Smith and Crow have a remarkably dark and anxious vision. "This Red Book" is an enigmatic litany of angst with another great contrapuntal vocal structure and a surprisingly poppy sound, at times it reminds me of Paul McCartney. "Soaked" uses a slinky groove to describe what sounds like a really bad evening. "3x0" delivers its surreal lyrics with a soaring melody that is almost uplifting. I'm not sure what the meaning is of a line like "your sentry men fall behind, into the sunspots we vanish away" but I find it really striking, just like the rest of the song. "The Yellow Ones" features ominous apocalyptic imagery over a hypnotic tune driven by some lovely piano riffs. "AFK" is the most extraordinary song on the album, the lyrics are stunning and the music is exciting and full of tension with many shifts in melody and texture. First rate alternative rock. It gives the album its title which judging from the grim imagery of the song seems to refer to a summer in hell (not in the literal sense.) The song is loaded with travel metaphors of a trip gone bad and concludes with what I believe is a reference to the Slint song "Good Morning, Captain" which appropriately enough uses a shipwreck to convey similar impressions to those generated by "AFK." It is a doom laden, yet propulsive ending to the album. Pinback is never going to be one of my favorite groups, they are too obscure and insular to reach me on a deep level, but I've come to respect and admire them a lot more than when I first heard them. By rock standards this is difficult music that requires a lot from the listener, but ultimately the reward justifies the effort. Recommended to fans of early R.E.M..