I’ve not done one of these in ages, so since I’ve not got much to say tonight I thought I’d put together a new “cloudcast” of the music I’ve been listening to recently.
The tracklisting is:
Swingle Singers — Little David’s Fugue
Ann Magnusson — Old Enuf 2 B Yer Mom
Tommy James — Midnight Train
Beach Boys — Where Is She?
Roy Wood — Miss Clarke & The Computer
Margo Guryan — Shine
Frankie Valli — Queen Jane Approximately
Cilla Black — I’ve Been Wrong Before
Paley Brothers — Theme From Fireball XL5
The Stool Pigeons — Where Have You Been All My Life?
B. Bumble & The Stingers — Nut Rocker
Dion — Purple Haze
Barbara Lynn — You Left The Water Running
BMX Bandits — Just Remember I’m A Woman
Carolyn Edwards — Shrink
Klaus Nomi — Simple Man
One of the things it’s very easy to do – and something I do a lot myself – is to romanticise scarcity. I used to be a record collector, because being a record collector and being a music lover were, until very, very recently, the same thing. I remember the excitement of finding a 60s copy, on lovely thick, heavy vinyl, of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, for 50p in the pile of unfiled albums they always kept in Empire Exchange in Manchester city centre in the back section with the old porn mags. I remember being the first person in the UK to hear a recording of Brian Wilson live with his new band, because of a tape trade I arranged with someone on the internet!. I remember a friend in Sweden sending me a CD in the post, and my dad being worried when he saw the stamp in case I was receiving material from ‘behind the iron curtain’ (this was in 1998).
I remember making a sixteen mile round trip, on foot, to the nearest decent record shop when I was growing up, to order a single. And then repeating that trip a week later to pick the single up.I remember buying my very first bootleg – a terrible double CD of Get Back sessions. I remember treating music as a scarce resource that needed to be hoarded – I have maybe a dozen Johny Cash albums that I’ve not listened to more than once or twice, but which I bought because I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to get them again when I found them in second-hand shops.
No-one growing up today has that experience, and they’re missing out on something very precious.
I can even understand, in this context, the cretins who don’t want the Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions to be released next month because it will stop that music being something ‘special’, for the cognoscenti only. They’re wrong, for many reasons – not the least of which is that the amount of effort it takes to spend £120 on a nine-disc box of what is mostly two-chord plinking harpsichord instrumentals is much greater than the effort it takes to type “Smile bootleg” into Google – but I can sort of see it.
But the benefits of having essentially unlimited access to music are, paradoxically, so great that they’re easy to miss in this nostalgia. I have 26935 MP3s in my MP3 collection (a mixture of five years’ worth of eMusic (RIP) purchases, things I’ve ripped from my CDs, and downloaded bootlegs – only a very, very small proportion is commercially-available but illegally-downloaded music) and if for any reason I don’t fancy listening to any of those, I can use Spotify to find the exact piece of music I do want to hear, or play last.fm radio and discover new music.
But the benefits are greater than that, even. I have a huge record and CD collection, too. But I’m mildly autistic (in the actually-autistic sense, not the ‘all men are *so* autistic, am I right girls?’ sense of newspaper columns) and I have a tendency to become fixated on a single band or single album. If I’m left to choose a piece of music to listen to, I’ll often choose the same thing for months on end – right now, for example, I’m in a mid-period Monkees phase, and were you to ask me to choose an album to play, it would be either Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd or The Birds, the Bees And The Monkees – or maybe my live DVD of the Monkees I got last week and have already played ten times.
But this isn’t good for me, because there is so much beauty in music – so much good stuff out there, so much that will move me, give me ideas, make me feel better, make me a better person. And so I can use shuffle.
In fact, I have a playlist in Rhythmbox, automatically updated, which plays only MP3s I’ve not played before (or at least not played in Rhythmbox since I last lost my home directory or whatever – I have multiple pieces of music software on my computer, and if I want to listen to a specific album I’ll use something more lightweight), on shuffle.
So, just as an example, the last five songs I’ve heard as I type this are The 59th Street Bridge Song by Simon And Garfunkel, Density 21.5 by Edgard Varese, You’ll Be Mine by Howlin’ Wolf, The Casket by Mike McGear and Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’ by Duke Ellington. Currently Drowning Butterflies by the Cleaners From Venus is playing.
Now, all those songs have two things in common. Actually, they have three, but the male-centric nature of my music collection is something I am slowly working on. The first is that they are all worth listening to – they vary in quality from astonishingly brilliant (Varese) down to catchy-but-inane (Simon & Garfunkel), but all improve my life in some way – all have moments that make me want to dance, or move me emotionally, or make me think “that’s clever…”
(Imitation Of Life by R.E.M. just came on).
The other thing they have in common is that I wouldn’t have listened to them if I had to play them on a record player. If I had to get up, take the Simon & Garfunkel album off, put the Edgard Varese record on… it would just be easier to just play the same album again.
(Girl On The Phone by The Jam)
But even more than the ease of it, I didn’t remember half those tracks – I didn’t even know I had the Mike McGear album – and so it wouldn’t occur to me to put them on. Yet there’s some genuinely wonderful music there.
(The Allegro from Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto)
So I can hear all this music – music that I know I’ll enjoy, because it’s music I’ve chosen to own, but music that would possibly have lain unlistened for decades had I had to own it physically, and be overjoyed by it. And I can share it with my friends.
(Henry Lee by Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey)
(My wife just phoned, and Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles by Captain Beefheart came on while I was on the phone).
I can create a playlist of all the songs I’ve mentioned (except the McGear one which isn’t on spotify), and now anyone who wants to hear that music that’s made me feel so good over the last hour or so can hear it too.
And they don’t have to go into the second-hand-porn-mag section of a shop to do it.
I’d planned to do this later in the week, but Xianrex asked me on Twitter if I had a list of twenty Monkees songs for the neophyte, and in fact just last night I put together this twenty-song playlist. I’m posting it now, before finishing the Cerebus post, because my wife’s not a Monkees fan, and she’s out – I don’t especially want to subject her to multiple plays through of this music while I write about it.
I’ve been asked about this because I’ve been hugely excited that I’ve this week bought tickets to see the reunited Monkees (minus Mike Nesmith, who has decided to spend the time rolling around in his estimated $300M fortune and going “ha ha ha! I have *ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD!” Probably.) and most people have been saying “You mean the Monkees as in on the TV show? Why on Earth would you do that?”
I’m doing that because the run of four albums Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees and Head is about as good as any four-album run in popular music, is the simple answer. But to explain why, before I get to talking about the individual tracks here, I’ll just deal with the two most common criticisms of the band.
The first one, and the stupidest, is “they didn’t play on their records!”.
It’s true that on the first two albums (of the nine they released during their original period together) they didn’t play on the backing tracks (though apparently Peter Tork added a few bits of guitar and banjo even there). That was, however, just common practice at that time. The Byrds didn’t play on Mr Tambourine Man, The Beach Boys barely played on anything during their commercial peak, the Mothers Of Invention were ‘augmented’ on their first album by session players, there are a couple of tracks on Forever Changes where Love don’t play, the Rip Chords didn’t even *sing*, let alone play, on their hit Hey Little Cobra… even in the UK, where the notion of the band was stronger, Ray Davies and Mick Avory of the Kinks didn’t play on their early records, Ringo didn’t play on Love Me Do, Jimmy Page filled out the sound of early Who records, and so on.
And unlike those other bands, the Monkees had a rather good excuse – they weren’t, at least to start with, a band. Rather they were performers in a TV show *about* a band. As they often say themselves, “no-one complains that William Shatner never really captained a Starship”.
What *is* worth noting is that after those first two albums, they *did* take control of their own music – even on the first album Mike Nesmith was writing songs for the band and producing tracks, in fact – and that the music *got better* when they got rid of the professional session musicians, producers and songwriters (or hired some of them on the Monkees’ own terms). On top of that they had the artistic bravery to make Head – a film which, as my friend Tdaschel puts it, is in a genre with only one other example, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. (Head both came first and is far more adventurous than Zappa’s film. It also features Zappa in a cameo, along with Sonny Liston, Victor Mature and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson also wrote the script).
The other criticism is that they were a purely manufactured band. This is true – and it’s actually their greatest strength. Under normal circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine these four people ever working together. Micky Dolenz is a former child star who just happened to turn into one of the great soul vocalists of all time (it’s not just me who says that – Carole King apparently thinks Dolenz is the greatest interpreter of her songs ever, which given that she’s had songs performed by everyone from the Beatles to James Taylor by way of the Righteous Brothers and the Beach Boys says a lot). Mike Nesmith is an intensely literate country songwriter and vocalist, someone who manages to tie the simplicity and emotional power of country music of the Steve Earle or Willie Nelson style to a literate, complex lyrical style. Peter Tork is a folk and blues musician, and a virtuoso on several different instruments. And Davy Jones is a great song and dance man and showman.
To show the differences between them, we just have to look at the songs they perform (or performed) as their solo spots on Monkees reunion tours. Micky will sing the blues song Since I Fell For You (most famously performed by Nina Simone). Mike would perform his solo hit Rio. Peter would perform a Bach two-part invention, and Davy would sing a medley of songs from Oliver! (he originated the role of the Artful Dodger on Broadway).
That combination would never, under normal circumstances, have been brought together. They’re neither musically, nor by all accounts personally, compatible in any normal sense, but it gave their music a breadth and diversity matched by few other bands.
This playlist is a mixture of hits, fan-favourites and genuine obscurities that I’ve put together to try to explain why I think the Monkees deserve to be treated as one of the more interesting, inventive, and talented bands of the 60s. It’s biased towards songs by Mike, and towards songs with Micky on lead, because those are my personal favourites, but I hope it gives a good flavour of the band as a whole.
St Matthew from the rarities collection Missing Links Vol 2 is a country song written and sung by Mike Nesmith. The lyrics to this actually remind me of Leonard Cohen, but musically this – and many of Nesmith’s other songs from this era – could only be described as psych-country, with the ‘heavy’ sound of the era applied to arrangements that are at base standard country songs. This is the kind of thing that Gram Parsons would get a huge amount of credit for several years later.
(I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love is a very odd track indeed – a pseudo-Elizabethan, almost madrigal, song by Nesmith’s friend Michael Murphy, turned into a baroque pop track by Nesmith’s production. This was actually recorded with vocals by three different band members – a version sung by Tork appeared on the 331/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV special, and this backing track with vocals by Jones appeared as a bonus track on the CD release of More Of The Monkees. It’s sung here, though, by Micky, who is far and away the best vocalist in the band. This version is also from Missing Links vol 2.
Randy Scouse Git is written and sung by Micky and is from Headquarters, the band’s third album, on which they played all the instruments themselves. It manages to go through an astonishing array of different musical styles in its 2:34, from angry almost proto-punk to scat-sung semi-jazz. The fact that Micky didn’t actually know what a ‘randy Scouse git’ was when he wrote the song just makes it all the better.
Calico Girlfriend Samba is a Nesmith song that was recorded for The Monkees Present but not released until it became a bonus track on the CD reissue (though Nesmith later recorded it on his solo album Magnetic South. It is, as the title suggests, a samba, and a good one.
Mommy And Daddy is a rather sixth-formish political song by Micky, a bonus track on The Monkees Present, but it’s quite astonishing sounding, sounding to me like an early 80s post-punk thing far more than late 60s pop – until the ending, which is pure 60s pop apart from the dissonant horns and throbbing drums.
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You is a non-album single included as a bonus track on Headquarters. A Neil Diamond song, this shows just what a master songwriting craftsman Diamond is, under his Vegas exterior. Davy Jones does a decent enough job on lead vocals.
Magnolia Simms is a Nesmith song, a gorgeous Western Swing number made to sound like an authentic 1920s 78, right down to the slight speed wobble and the needle hiss. (And note that this was from more than a year before the Beatles did something similar with Honey Pie). Nesmith is the only Monkee credited on this track, the rest of the instruments being provided by session musicians, but as well as Nesmith’s guitar there’s definitely a ukulele on there, and I think either a mandolin or banjo as well. I wonder if they were Tork?
Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care is another Nesmith country song, left unreleased in this version until the Missing Links Vol 3 rarities collection. Nesmith gave this song to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and later recorded it himself on his solo album Nevada Fighter. As with many of Nesmith’s songs, this sounds now ‘just’ like extremely good country-rock, but Nesmith invented country-rock – this was before Gram Parsons and Gene Clark started following in Nesmith’s footsteps.
Cripple Creek is a low-fi live recording from 1967. I’ve included this because Peter Tork is often overlooked in the Monkees, because he took very few leads on the studio recordings (the only ones on the ‘canonical’ albums are the comedy track Your Aunty Grizelda and the second verse of awful ballad Shades Of Grey). However, he was the only first-rate instrumentalist in the band – and a multi-instrumentalist at that. This live performance shows off his banjo-picking on an old-time folk song.
Two Part Invention In F Major and here’s Tork on the piano, playing a Bach piece. He fluffs a couple of notes, but then this was just him playing around in the studio between takes, not intended for release. Pretty good for someone in a band who ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ – especially as keyboard is Tork’s third instrument, after banjo and guitar.
Don’t Call On Me is Nesmith stepping outside of his comfort zone, providing a gorgeous soft/lounge pop-jazz song in the vein of Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach. Melodically similar to Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying, Nesmith actually wrote this long before joining the Monkees, and it’s hard to see why it was left until the band’s fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, before they recorded this. Nesmith’s lead vocal also sounds utterly different to anything else he did.
Cuddly Toy is another track off Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, this time written by Harry Nilsson. The bouncy, cheery melody covers up possibly the most vicious, misogynistic, nasty lyric ever written in pop music (though Nilsson was, of course, writing in character). Davy Jones takes the lead, and Micky is harmonising with him.
Love Is Only Sleeping a song from the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill songwriting team, this actually sounds like a Nesmith original. A psych-country track in the vein of What Condition My Condition Was In, this has a driving riff in 7/4 time and a great air of menace. From Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.
Goin’ Down was a B-side, now included as a bonus track on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, that grew out of a jam session around Mose Allison’s Parchman Farm. This is one of the most startlingly good vocal performances in the Monkees’ repertoire, with Micky Dolenz apparently effortlessly managing a song whose rapid flow of syllables would tie the tongue of pretty much any rapper. The lyric (about an attempted suicide by drowning who eventually decides just to float down the river on his back) is a great one too, though it takes many listens to make it all out.
Porpoise Song is the theme from Head, the Monkees’ film, and seems to have been written by Goffin and King as a parody of psychedelia – certainly I can’t imagine them writing lyrics like “a face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice” with a straight face (the line “riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is all right for a while” is a reference to the TV show Circus Boy, on which Micky had been a child star). But musically it’s gorgeous, and the vocals (by Micky on the verses and Davy on the choruses) absolutely sell the song. Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement is also stunning – the coda, with diving bells (representing the images in the film, where the band have all committed suicide by drowning at the start) is an extraordinary piece of arrangement work.
She Hangs Out is a great little garage rocker by Jeff Barry, of the sort that could have been done by a thousand bands of the time, but is still enjoyable enough. Davy turns in one of his better vocals here. From Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd
The Door Into Summer is, yet again, from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd (guess my favourite Monkees album? Bet you can’t…) . Written by the band’s producer Chip Douglas and Nesmith’s friend Bill Martin, this is a country rocker based on a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel, with Nesmith on lead.
A gorgeous Paul Williams/Roger Nichols soft pop song, this was the B-side to Listen To The Band and was eventually released on CD as a bonus track on Instant Replay, the band’s first album after Peter Tork left. Structurally, this is fascinating, with all sorts of different little melodies coming and going, and shows again why the easy listening and soft-pop end of the musical spectrum from that time is far more interesting than much of the supposedly more ‘progressive’ music of the same period. Davy Jones sings lead, and does a far better job than you’d expect.
Daddy’s Song is another Nilsson song, this time a Broadway-style uptempo song-and-dance number about Nilsson’s parents’ divorce. In the film Head this was sung by Davy Jones, but this version, a bonus track on the soundtrack album, has Nesmith singing lead in the style he used on Magnolia Simms.
Daydream Believer You probably know, but it’s still one of the best singles ever recorded. Written by folk musician John Stewart, this is sung by Davy Jones and has Peter Tork on piano – apparently the only track on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees on which Tork features, the band having started to drift apart by that point (Tork would remain for one more album, Head, before quitting). Tork also arranged the track.
I’ve now downloaded and listened to my penultimate eMusic set for the year, so given that I won’t have enough time to absorb next month’s in time to make a reasonable judgement, I thought I’d do my Albums Of The Year now. If nothing else doing it this year will give some googlejuice to the post, which will in turn hopefully bring some attention to these artists, many of whom are very obscure.
My criteria for this are simple – the album goes on here if either I’ve obsessed over it and listened to it repeatedly (even if I didn’t think it was very good at first) or if I’ve not listened to it as much but have listened enough to know it will one day be a favourite.
The only album to be released this year that I haven’t listened to but think I might include is Joanna Newsom’s new one. It’s not on eMusic, and I use that for pretty much all my new music these days. I’ll get it one day.
I’ve created an 8tracks.com playlist, containing my two favourite tracks from each of these albums (8tracks is a legit streaming service and pays royalties) here . Take a listen and let me know what you think, and if you like them I’ve included links to the eMusic pages for most of the albums.
EDIT Didn’t embed properly, but you can get to it here.
1) Kristian Hoffman – Fop (emusic link)
Kristian Hoffman’s last album, &, which I wrote about here, is a very strong candidate for best album of the last decade, and while I’m not sure Fop is of quite that quality, it’s definitely the album of the year.
Hoffman writes about religion, politics, sexuality and the intersections of the three from the perspective of a gay, liberal (in the USian sense) sceptic, but manages to avoid polemic – there’s nothing as strident and obvious as Dear God or Tramp The Dirt Down. Rather, he’s one of the most subtle, moving lyricists I know of.
Those two songs are not chosen at random though – Hoffman is a unique talent, but XTC and Elvis Costello are two of the reference points I would point to to give some idea of his music. The others, though, would be Queen, ELO, Sparks, The Kinks, 20s revivalists like Janet Klein, Rufus Wainwright, Candypants (and the rest of that LA powerpop set of musicians, especially the Wondermints), Corn Mo, Van Dyke Parks, Stephen Sondheim, Abbey Road era Beatles…
Basically if you like witty lyrics, a glam feel, a sense of fun, intricate arrangements and strong melodies, that manages to do bombast while still showing restraint where necessary, buy Fop – straight after you buy &.
The two songs I’ve chosen from Fop are Imaginary Friend, which starts out as a foxtrot with fairly accurate 20s-style instrumentation before going into a gigantic Queen big ballad chorus, about the solace that can be gained from religion even when the religion in question is controlled by people with less than benign motives. Hey Little Jesus on the other hand is a fantastic strutting rocker, a 50s pastiche melody (with more than a touch of Stupid Cupid to it) about the crucifixion, from the perspective of someone taunting Jesus, with a wonderful arrangement, far more subtle than it first sounds (a harpsichord, hammond organ and steel guitar solo, just for starters, and the string part is wonderfully detailed).
2) Blake Jones & The Trike Shop – The Underground Garden (emusic link)
Some might accuse me of bias here, because Blake is a friend of mine, and guested on my last EP. He’s also, though, a wonderfully talented songwriter and performer who gave the single most impressive live performance I’ve ever seen when he and the band played the Love Apple Cafe in Bradford to an audience of less than ten paying customers but still played an hour of everything from Zappa pastiche to a performance of Harlem Nocturne on the theremin. His songwriting is astounding, reminiscent of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson – but *ACTUALLY* reminiscent of them, not just copying their musical and lyrical tics in a pale imitation. Rather, he’s doing the same thing as them. While the two selections I’ve chosen here don’t show it, as well, his music is also remarkably varied, showing influences as varied as Dick Dale, Frank Zappa, old horror films and the Beach Boys, often in the same song.
Sing Along is my personal favourite of the songs on the new album – the lines “sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still play guitar/It’s not like they’re in line to be rock stars/There must be some kind of belief in a better world/Where we can strum and smile and get the girl” got to me especially. And Christmas Sale is a nice attack on the people who complain about the “War On Christmas” – “Your money don’t say feed the poor/And your courthouse won’t say blessed are the merciful/And your fences don’t say love your neighbour now/But you’re mad ’cause Macy’s won’t call it a Christmas sale…”
3) The Asphalt Orchestra – Asphalt Orchestra (emusic link)
The Asphalt Orchestra are a marching band from New York, but one that plays fiendishly complex jazz and art-rock covers. Their debut album features pieces by Stew & Heidi Rodewald, Charles Mingus, Bjork, Frank Zappa and Goran Bregović among others, and they just recorded a single with David Byrne. They make very good skronking noises indeed.
The two tracks I’ve chosen here are Zomby Woof, a cover of the Zappa track from Over-Nite Sensation, and Carlton, a specially composed piece by Stew & Heidi of the Negro Problem (which is how I first heard about them), which sounds like TV theme music, but in a good way (Tilt will know what I mean).
4) Imagined Village – Empire And Love (emusic link)
The Imagined Village are a ‘supergroup’ of sorts, a loose collective of musicians brought together by Simon Emerson of Afro-Celt Sound System in an attempt to reinterpret the English folk tradition in a way that incorporates elements of all the different cultures in the UK today – partly as a gigantic “fuck you” to Dickibegyourpardonnick Griffin, who tried to link traditional folk to the Bastard Nazi Party. (Incidentally, apparently Dickibegyourpardonnick is in hospital at the moment, with suspected kidney stones. Apparently they can be very painful…).
Their first album, a few years ago, was interesting but suffered from too many cooks – it featured Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Benjamin Zephaniah… basically everyone who anyone who read the Guardian in the 80s likes, and so was a bit amorphous. This one, on the other hand, while still featuring a large backing band with English and Indian traditional instruments mixed with electronic music, limits the vocals to folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood.
The two songs I’ve chosen here are Space Girl, an old Ewan MacColl song about the dangers of copping off with a spaceman, and Scarborough Fair.
5) Roky Erickson – True Love Cast Out All Evil (emusic)
This was the real surprise here. For those who don’t know, Roky Erickson was the leader of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, a seminal mid-60s psych-rock group, but was arrested for marijuana possession, took an insanity plea, and unfortunately, because of the state of psychiatric medicine in the late 60s, became severely mentally ill. His music since then has had moments of power, but has been for the most part best judged as ‘outsider music’.
This new album, though… it’s still clearly the work of an ill man, but for the first time in decades he’s working with musicians who are sympathetic to his songs, and a producer who knows what he’s doing. The result is something close to Skip Spence’s Oar, The Beach Boys Love You, or Syd Barret’s early solo work, rather than to Wesley Willis or someone. Still the work of a fractured psyche, but one with the tools to express himself properly.
The two songs I’ve chosen are the first two from the album. Devotional Number One is deliberately recorded in the style of a field recording, and features the best vocals I’ve ever heard from Erickson. The organ coming in on the line “Jesus is not a hallucinogenic mushroom” sends shivers down my spine. Ain’t Blues Too Sad is a short alt-country song, and the difference in vocals is astounding – Erickson sounds like a totally different singer here, but an equally good one. And anyone with any knowledge of his personal history will be moved to tears by the line “Electricity hammered me through my head, til nothin’ at all is backward instead”.
This is raw, harsh music, borne out of immense torment, but still beautiful.
6) Al Jardine – A Postcard From California
I wrote about this here, but in brief this is a Beach Boys reunion album in all but name, featuring the full band on one track and Brian WIlson and David Marks on several, and better than any Beach Boys album since 1979′s LA (Light Album). That still doesn’t make it great, but it’s surprising what a grower this one is – a lovely, pleasant, relaxing album, that has absolutely no ambitions other than to be nice background music, but fulfils that ambition admirably.
The two tracks I’ve chosen are Looking Down The Coast, the most interesting song on the album, if overproduced – a miniature suite originally dating back to the late 70s, and a remake of Jardine’s old Beach Boys song California Saga, done as a duet with Neil Young, and also featuring Crosby & Stills, Jardine’s son Matt, and a sampled Brian Wilson. They’re probably the most representative tracks from the album, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
7) Eliza Carthy & Norma Waterson – Gift (emusic)
Emusic lists this as being an Eliza Carthy solo album, but it’s definitely a mother-and-daughter collaboration – Emusic just seem to randomly label albums by the members of the Waterson/Carthy family, but that’s fine, because they’re all worth getting. Singer Norma Waterson and her daughter, vocalist/fiddler Eliza Carthy are two of the greatest interpreters of traditional English music alive, though they occasionally venture into other territory.
While this album is mostly folk, the two tracks I’ve chosen aren’t. The first is a medley of the 20s song Ukulele Lady and the old Amen Corner song If Paradise Is Half As Nice, while the second, Prairie Lullaby, is a solo vocal by Eliza Carthy backed by Martin Simpson on banjo. When I say this version stacks up well against the versions by Jimmie Rodgers and Mike Nesmith, you’ll know what high esteem I hold it in.
8) Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
I wrote about this here and my opinion pretty much stands – this is a fundamentally flawed album. But it’s a fundamentally flawed album by one of the great creative forces of modern popular music, interpreting music by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Of the two tracks I’ve chosen here, I’ve Got Plenty O’ Nothin’ is a showcase for Paul Mertens, Wilson’s principal collaborator on the album, who provides the various lead harmonica parts. But the clanking, banjo-driven arrangement calls back both to Wilson’s own Smile and to the ‘hot jazz’ early arrangement of Rhapsody In Blue, and makes this easily the most successful track on the album. Someone To Watch Over Me, on the other hand, is the most ‘Wilsonesque’ track – while one can, again, question how much input he had into the arrangement (which sounds like someone trying to be Brian Wilson, rather than like Brian Wilson), the subject matter is so close to Wilson’s other work that this still sounds the most heartfelt track on the album.
9) Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard (pay-what-you-like download)
I only discovered Messersmith this year, but my wife’s known about him for ages – he’s from her home state, Minnesota, and very popular on their NPR affiliate. He seems to be popular in ‘geek’ circles too – he seems to have done a song about Star Wars or something, and gets webcomic artists to design his T-shirts. Don’t let that put you off, though, there’s some genuinely good stuff here. Unfortunately, all the comparisons I can come up with are people like Elliot Smith or the Eels, and he’s not really very like that either. I don’t want to put people off, so just listen.
The two songs I’ve chosen here are John Dillinger’s Eyes, a Big Star-esque powerpop song about John Dillinger, and John The Determinist, a chamber-pop song about determinism, with a nice string backing (obviously going for an Eleanor Rigby feel).
10) Mark Bacino – Queen’s English (emusic)
This is actually the kind of music I criticised earlier, in that this album sounds exactly like a Harry Nilsson album. I could honestly believe that Bacino has never heard an album other than Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet and maybe, maybe, Nilsson sings Newman. Maybe.
But the music sounds so exactly like those albums that it’s hardly fair to criticise him for it – because I like Nilsson, and this really is like having another prime-era Nilsson album.
Of the two songs I’ve chosen here, Happy sounds like a Harry Nilsson song, while Middle Town is the least Nilssonesque song on the album, sounding closer to Squeeze or Marshall Crenshaw.
Bubbling under – Thom Hell – All Good Things (sounds like 70s soft rock crossed with the Beach Boys – for fans of ELO and LA-period BBs, but a little derivative) Heaven Is Whenever – The Hold Steady (they’re missing Franz Nicolay’s keyboards), Apples In Stereo – Travellers In Time And Space (sounds like every other Apples In Stereo album, which means it’s great but breaking no new ground). Belle & Sebastian Write About Love (sounds like every other Belle & Sebastian album, which means it’s pretty good but breaking no new ground)
I *am* working on my Batman posts (and on PEP! 2 – which I had to put off slightly, because I realised that I could write an essay about Doctor Who that *also* served as an example of what a truly Liberal attitude towards copyright would look like, and tie the issue together much more nicely than it is at the moment). But today I had some important displacement activity to do, so I decided to try to create a Spotify playlist containing covers of every Beach Boys song (or the originals, where the Beach Boys did a cover version). (Note, for these purposes ‘every Beach Boys song’ only includes tracks on the twofer CDs (except Concert/Live In London and Party/Stack ‘O’ Tracks), Still Cruisin’ and Summer In Paradise. I wasn’t going to go looking for cover versions of Kokomo (Spanish version) or Happy Endings).
I couldn’t quite find every one, but I did manage to put together a seven-hour, 149-track playlist which you can find here.
However, because I know most people won’t want to listen to that, I’ve also put together a much shorter sampler playlist, 54 minutes long, which can be found here, and it’s this that I will be annotating here. However, go for the full playlist if you want to hear such curiosities as a band who only do Beach Boys songs in the style of the Ramones, a Norwegian ‘doom metal’ band covering a Bruce Johnston song, the bloke who covered the whole of side two of the Beach Boys Today! album on the ukulele (including the spoken word studio chatter track Bull Session With “Big Daddy”), Lulu duetting with Sting, the King’s Singers pretending to be ‘cellos, or a cover of Still Cruisin’ done for an exercise CD…
So here’s the short version.
Wonderful/Song For Children by Rufus Wainwright is a straight cover of the first half of the second movement of Smile, and one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard.
Ne Dis Pas by Souvenir is The Beach Boys’ Ticket To Ride knockoff Girl Don’t Tell Me reworked as breathy French pop, and exquisite.
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder by Anne Sofie Von Otter is from an album Elvis Costello produced for von Otter, a classical singer, about a decade ago. At the time, Costello was interviewed saying that this song, originally from Pet Sounds is one that should be listened to every single day, and I can’t argue with him. This is an absolutely beautiful arrangement, only slightly inferior to the original (just because of the lack of the bass ‘heartbeat’).
Angel Come Home by Sal Valentino is the lead singer of the Beau Brummels reworking the Carl Wilson song from L.A. (Light Album) as Americana (or whatever we’re meant to call rockish country music that sounds more like Steve Earle or Mike Nesmith than Garth Brooks this week). More straightforward than the original, and an odd choice for a cover version.
Let’s Put Our Hearts Together by The Pearlfishers takes what was originally a duet and turns it into a solo piano ballad, making it much more plaintive and wistful, while still keeping all the eccentricity of the original.
Heroes & Villains by Geraint Watkins reworks the Smiley Smile track in the style of Louis Prima, scat singing and all. And is bloody fantastic.
The Warmth Of The Sun by Murry Wilson is by Brian, Carl & Dennis Wilson’s dad, and is from his muzak album The Many Moods Of Murry Wilson. I remember when you’d have to pay fifty quid and up for a vinyl copy of this album, but now you can have it piped into your home just like real muzak. Isn’t the internet brilliant?
Don’t Go Near The Water by Kirsty MacColl is actually a rather pretty cover version of what was originally a rather silly song by Mike Love and Al Jardine from Surf’s Up. If only she’d taken the advice in the title… Her harmonies on the tag are exquisite.
I Can Hear Music by Larry Lurex is a pre-Queen Freddie Mercury solo track, presumably an attempt to hop on the Gary Glitter bandwagon, though the music stays pretty close to the Spector original.
I’d Love Just Once To See You by The Elastic No-No Band is a very simple cover version of what was a very simple song to start with. I’ve always loved the melody of this one, and that lovely melody combined with the completely tossed-off lyrics has always somehow made it even better.
Wild Honey by Nazareth is the proto-metal band covering the Beach Boys’ attempt at R&B. It works better as a heavy metal song than you might expect (but then when I played the original for my mum a few years ago, she thought it was the White Stripes, so…)
On And On She Goes by Sandy Salisbury is a Curt Boettcher/Gary Usher reworking of what was originally a gentle ballad into an uptempo horn-driven track that is as influenced by Motown as by the Beach Boys.
MIster John B by Sylvie Vartan is odd, in that the lyric is reworked into French, but the English word Mister is stuck in for some reason. Other than that, it’s pretty faithful to the Beach Boys’ version.
Unlike Surfin’ USA by Melt Banana, a Japanese noise-rock band, whose version does settle down eventually into a fairly straight punk cover, but starts off wonderfully fragmented and distorted.
Disney Girls by Art Garfunkel is the polar opposite of that. Disney Girls is a song with which I have an uneasy relationship. I’m aware that it’s the single cheesiest song ever written (“She’s really swell, ’cause she likes church, bingo chances and old-time dances”), and that pretty much every time Bruce Johnston’s sung it other than on the original version he’s descended into lounge-singer hell. But for some reason, it still moves me far more than it theoretically should, and here Art Garfunkel gives one of his best vocal performances, his frail sincerity pushing the song well away from the elevator and into something close to genuine beauty.
Anna Lee, The Healer by The High Llamas takes this song, mostly by Mike Love, even further from its Louie Louie roots than the original version on Friends did, with the usual High Llamas combination of electronica and easy listening.
And finally A Day In The Life Of A Tree by Suzy And Maggie Roche is a cover of a song I’ve always loved (though no-one else does). Co-written by Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley, this environmentalist song is also clearly a metaphor for Wilson’s life at the time, and has one of his most gorgeous melodies. Jack Rieley’s original vocal was weak, and the song suffered by its placement on the Surf’s Up album (three Brian Wilson songs in a row were placed together, all with