Archive for the ‘2000s’ Category

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So, years long ago, I worked in the TV listings department of the digest-sized TV GUIDE. As with my Wingspan piece, this essay – about a classic 1978 Austin City Limits episode that was slated to repeat on December 23, 2000 – came about due to me being the backup writer for the weekly Music Guide. PBS provided us with a videocassette, which I watched on a portable TV in my cubicle. I then wrote a summary for the column, a second summary for the stand-alone Close-Up, and – the week before air – was tapped to write an in-depth piece about it for the TV GUIDE Web site.

What follows is my final draft, but not the final version. I emailed it to one of several editors, who then scoured it for errors and – depending on his or her mood – may have rewritten portions of it. 

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A horn wails softly in the background. Smoke stabs the air. “When I was a kid, my dad had a 1957 station wagon. A Chevrolet. And, man, did I love that car! I used to go to the garage at night and turn out all of the lights and rub up against it. I think that was against the law….” Queued to the rap, a man’s silhouette leans against a gas pump, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s singer-songwriter Tom Waits, circa December 1978, his weathered, raspy voice echoing the boozy rhythms of “Burma Shave,” a slow, mesmerizing ode to lowlife losers stuck in a town not far from Route 66.

Watching this classic edition of Austin City—one of the most requested episodes in the series’ history—should be mandatory for wanna-be rock poets everywhere. Spinning story-songs focused on seedy yet sympathetic characters, he paints word-pictures that draw listeners in: “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue/scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town/Took the one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks/and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.” Although they ride atop the melody, the beat-inflected lyrics take on a life of their own. You could read ‘em at home and get a feel for the music’s rhythm, for the way the music seemingly meanders beneath Waits’ guttural growls before detouring back to the main drag in time to take the audience home.

The 50-minute set is filled with one stunner after another, from the exquisite “Annie’s Back In Town” (a gem found on the soundtrack to the 1978 film Paradise Alley) to “On the Nickel.” The latter is an aching lullaby for “little boys/who never say their prayers” and was inspired, he says during the introduction, by a Ralph Waite (yes, the actor from The Waltons) film about L.A.’s skid row. With a gorgeous, piano-based melody underpinning the story, Waits spins a heart-breaking tale about life on the other side of hope: “To never know how rich you are/you haven’t got a prayer/it’s head you wins/and tails they lose/on the nickel over there.”

Another highlight is “A Sweet Little Bullet (from a Pretty Blue Gun),” a tale about young girls heading for Hollywood “with nothing in their jeans/but sweet little wishes/and pretty blue dreams.” Soon, that quest for stardom transforms into a quest for escape: “I hear the sirens in the street/all the dreams are made of chrome/I have no way to get back home/I’d rather die before I wake/like Marilyn Monroe.” With his hat tipped forward, Waits jabs the strings of his guitar, pushing the rhythm into the audience’s face and forcing it to stare down the stark realities of society’s underbelly. 

It’s a masterstroke of masterstrokes, as is “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is framed by a weary rendition of “Silent Night.” Accompanying himself at the piano, Waits takes on the personae of an unmarried, pregnant woman talking to a past love. “And, hey, Charlie, I think about you/every time I pass a filling station/on account of all the grease/you used to wear in your hair.” It’s a humorous moment of several—but the laughs don’t last, as her bravado slowly breaks down and the sad truth spills out.

Suffice it to say, Waits is an acquired tasted, someone—due to his croaked vocals—whose songs have found greater chart success via cover versions; Rod Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train” and Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Jersey Girl” are but two examples. Yet, as this classic episode of Austin City demonstrates, Waits’ gruff voice is indeed the perfect lead instrument in all of his songs, the audio equivalent of each of the sad characters he sings about.    

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

This past week, I enjoyed just a little Shelby Lynne early in the morning; she beats a cup of coffee for starting off the day. And I’ve been enjoying her music early in the evening, too. It beats a glass of wine for winding down at night.

Let me explain: I leave for work right around 6:45am most weekdays. This time of year, that means the last vestiges of darkness give way to dawn while I drive. It’s a wondrous moment to listen to music, as – at its best – it makes you feel good things are coming your way. I should add that, unlike years past, mine is now an easy commute most morns. When I breeze through all or most of the traffic lights, which is the norm, I pull into the business campus’ parking garage in about 25 minutes. That’s not enough time for an album in full, obviously, so if I start an album in the morning, I finish it that night; and if I start one during the evening, I pick up where I left off the next day.

Now, “essential” means different things to different folks. Some apparently hear it as a synonym for “best.” I don’t. I wouldn’t rate many of my picks as the greatest works by the artists who made them, though they are all great works. They’re just records everyone should experience at least once, if not twice, if not many times.

Shelby Lynne’s 2008 collection of Dusty Springfield songs, Just a Little Lovin’, has been on repeat since Wednesday. It’s not her best album – I Am Shelby Lynne, Suit Yourself or Revelation Road is that. But her voice and those old songs (and one new one) combine to create a sense of calm. Some songs are sweet, others sad, and others seductive. Some seem all three at once.

Over on her site/store, Shelby pens insightful essays about each of her records – combined, they make for something of a concise work memoir. One thing I learned from reading through them: Prior to recording Suit Yourself, her second album for Capitol, label executives recommended she record a collection of covers instead of an album of original material, as they were looking for a way to boost sales. She listened, but did her own thing (though she did include a hypnotic reading of “Rainy Night in Georgia” as a hidden/bonus track). A few years down the line, however, she decided to explore Dusty’s oeuvre.

The seed had been planted long before that label executive, apparently. At the time of its release in 1999 (U.K.) and 2000 (U.S.), critics compared her breakthrough album I Am Shelby Lynne to Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis; and, as a result, she sometimes received requests to sing something by the British chanteuse. Then, in 2005, she received an email from – of all people – Barry Manilow suggesting the same.

Flash forward to January 2007: Shelby set up shop with producer Phil Ramone at Capitol Studio A in the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, Cal., where she and a crack band laid down a few songs each day while accompanied by a solid cast of supporting players. Everything was recorded live. Everything was analogue.

The result is a sublime 10-song that was released the following January. The arrangements are sparser than Dusty’s, but no less emotive. This isn’t Shelby singing Dusty Karaoke, but Shelby living the lyrics. One of my favorite tracks is the Randy Newman-penned “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” (though I admit that I still hear the backup singers from Dusty’s version).

One of the 10 songs, as I noted above, is a Shelby original: “Pretend.” In some ways, it’s a bigger tribute to Dusty than the other tunes as it sounds like a Dusty original. (And speaking of sound: Just a Little Lovin’ is a true audiophile’s dream. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear you’re in the studio with Shelby and the band.)

Oh, and here’s some irony: Those Capitol executives didn’t get a chance to work this album due the Capitol-Virgin Media merger of 2007. Instead, Shelby took the project to Lost Highway. (Wikipedia has more on the album, for those interested.)

The track list:

 

Is there a better song than “Up on the Roof”?

According to Rolling Stone, the answer is yes – 113 songs, to be precise, as the original rendition by the Drifters, which was released in 1962, ranks No. 114 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, which was put together in 2004.

I rate it higher.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the single peaked at No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 4 on the R&B charts in early 1963. In the years since, it’s been covered by an array of artists, both in concert and on vinyl. The idea for the song came to King – who was all of 20 at the time – while she was out for a drive; her original title was “My Secret Place.” Goffin suggested the roof as the escape destination, as he was a West Side Story fan, and penned poetic lyrics that echo a universal truth. (American Songwriter delves deep into the song’s sophistication here.) 

Here’s the demo for it, which features Goffin singing and King playing piano.

As wonderful as the Drifters’ single is, however, it flopped in England – but East London-born Kenny Lynch’s version made it to the Top 10.

Up-and-coming singer Julie Grant made her U.K. chart debut with the song right around the same time.

In 1970, fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro recorded it for her Christmas and the Beads of Sweat album; it became her sole single to crack the Top 100, peaking at…No. 97?!

That same year, Carole King recorded it for her debut album, Writer.

A year later, Dusty Springfield performed it on the BBC’s The Rolf Harris Show

In 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered it in concert:

In 1979, James Taylor – who had performed it with Carole King on Writer and their early tours together – scored a Top 40 hit with it.

Jumping ahead a few decades, Neil Diamond covered it on his 1993 salute to Brill Building songs…but the orchestral touches are a tad over the top, IMO.

The British pop duo Robson & Jerome topped the U.K. charts with their faithful cover of it in 1995…

 … and actor-singer Sutton Foster does a sweet version of it on her 2009 debut album, Wish.

There are far too many additional covers of the song to list here, so I’ll close with this: Carole King and James Taylor at the Troubadour in 2010. does it get any better than this?

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In late spring of 2009, the U.S. was roiled by a recession that was teetering on a depression due to a succession of ill-advised decisions made by leaders within the business, financial and political spheres. The previous decade had essentially seen segments of the economy built on the funhouse-mirror model and, by design, few indicators reflected reality. Clarity came crashing to the fore in the fall of 2008, however, when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unemployment soon soared; through June 2009, when Bible Belt was released, some 744,000 jobs were being lost a month. Home foreclosures, which had been on the rise for some time due to ill-advised loans, saw a similar spike.

While there’s more grist to be milled from the meltdown, the main gist I wish to convey is this: Everyday people were being hurt: Two-income households became one; and one-income households became none. Belts were tightened, and the pocket change that once paid for impulse purchases was redirected to bills. Even those not directly impacted by the economic shift changed their spending habits.

Which leads me back to late spring of 2009 – mid-May, to be specific. One evening, after returning home from work, I found myself leafing through the most recent Rolling Stone, which I subscribed to. In those days, the first thing I did upon opening the magazine was to flip through the review section. One title that caught my eye: Bible Belt, which received three-and-a-half stars. The short review was fairly upbeat, referenced Elton John and the song “Ariel,” and made Diane Birch sound like someone whose music I should check out.

The problem: It was May, and the album wasn’t due until June. There were no sound samples on Amazon. There were no videos on YouTube. But she had a Facebook page, and on said page I found not one, not two, but four complete songs for folks like me to stream. I clicked on the first…

…and was instantly transported. The weight of the day – and, in those days, it was a heavy weight – dissipated, and I knew in that instant that her music would be a part of my life for the rest of my days. I clicked “like” on the page – the 201st person to do so – and then started the next song. “Who is that?” my Diane called in.

I should explain: In those days, my computer was in our apartment’s second bedroom, just off a short hall leading from the dining area to the master bedroom. “Second bedroom” is being a tad generous, however: Due to our packrat ways, by then – 19 years of living in the same space – it had become a glorified walk-in closet, filled with my computer desk and chair, sofa, another desk, three stuffed bookshelves and a half-dozen book-filled milk crates, a dresser, and hundreds upon hundreds (upon hundreds) of CDs scattered about, plus stacks of magazines and…did I mention books? Diane’s desk and computer were down the hall, just off the dining area. She heard what I played; and I heard what she played. 

So: “Who is that?” my Diane called in. “I love it!”

I explained how to find the songs on Facebook and, within minutes, she was Diane’s 202nd Facebook follower. I pre-ordered the CD and, once it came into our household, little else was played for the rest of the year. I should mention, we were both well into middle age by then – a time when most folks stop seeking out new sounds. That we found new music as magical as Bible Belt? It was nothing but a miracle…

As I wrote in this Top 5, the album sounds like a lost treasure from the 1970s. Think Carole King, Carly Simon and Laura Nyro, among others, as well as Elton John and Paul McCartney – the melodies are effortless and natural, in other words. At the same time, however, the songs are imbued with a gritty undertow and gospel flourishes, with her vocals coming straight from the church…the Church of Birch, to be specific. 

The cratering economy coupled with the myopic music industry, which had been sputtering all decade in response to the digital revolution, assured that she wouldn’t find the success she should have.

Artistic greatness doesn’t always equate with sales, of course, and “greatness” is an awfully big term to toss around. Yet when she played Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live Upstairs on July 19th of that year, said greatness was etched in stone – it was as sublime and sweet a show that we’ve witnessed, one that I still recall with wonder.

Here she is performing “Photograph,” as captured by our Canon digital camera, that very night:

In fact, the only downside to the concert was her failure to play one of my 13 favorite songs from Bible Belt, “Mirror Mirror.”

(That said, her mash-up of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the Beatles’ “I Got a Feeling” was way cool. I wish I’d recorded it – and the entire show – instead of the song-and-a-half that I captured.)

To wrap up: To my ears, Bible Belt sounds as fresh and new today as it did in 2009, and Diane’s vocals throughout are a marvel. In my life, it’s more than an “essential” listen. It’s a must.

The track listing: