A little break from politics – some music.
Those of you who follow my musical interests will know that my tastes run in two seemingly contradictory directions. Half the time I like extremely harsh, visceral music – squonking jazz like Ornette Coleman, aleatory compositions like John Cage, Frank Zappa’s orchestral music, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Edgard Varese, Boulez, Howlin’ Wolf, Sun Ra and all that good stuff.
But the other half of the time I like extremely melodic stuff, in very conventional song structures, with interesting chord changes and vocal harmonies and witty lyrics – the Beach Boys, the Zombies, the Move, Elvis Costello, the Kinks, the Beatles, ELO and so on.
For much of the last decade or more, music in that second category has been pretty much absent from the pop charts, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not been being made. I’ve listened to far more ‘new music’ from the last decade or so than I did in the 90s, but almost none of it has made any impact outside a very small group of people. So I’ve put together this playlist of some of my favourite Californian music (a lot of this stuff comes from California, for some reason).
Unlike many of my other playlists, this is on 8tracks.com , which means my foreign friends will be able to listen to it. This is because 8tracks allows you to upload MP3s to create your playlists, and a lot of this music isn’t on Spotify. It also means you won’t need any special software (other than a web browser with a Flash plugin) to listen.
Devil May Care by Kristian Hoffman & Russel Mael is from Hoffman’s &, an extraordinary album of duets with everyone from Van Dyke Parks to Pee Wee Herman by way of Lydia Lunch and El Vez (the Mexican Elvis) along with many of the other people in this playlist. Here he reworks the Give Me Some Loving riff with the lead singer of Sparks, with an extraordinarily witty and literate lyric, the two singers one-upping each other for who can do the silliest falsetto while singing lines like “Gonna put the ‘ooh’ in the human condition”. Not many lyricists would dare to write a glam-pop song with lines like “Some postulate reward if you should mortify the flesh”. The lyric is almost Cole Porter good…
Clever Things by Blake Jones & The Trike Shop is by a friend of mine (Blake guested on the most recent National Pep EP on vocals, theremin and melodica) but it’s also a favourite of mine anyway. I was privileged to see Blake live a couple of years ago in Bradford, doing a fifty-minute set to an audience of ten people (only two of whom were paying customers – I know, Tilt and I promoted the gig), but it was still one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. I am frankly in awe of Blake’s talent, and he’s a lovely bloke as well. Buy his records and make him rich.
Tracy Hide by the Wondermints is from their first album, which was essentially just a release of their four-track demos. How come *MY* four-track demos never sounded this good? Oh yes, because I’m not a group of incredibly talented musicians who can all play about a dozen instruments as well as singing wonderfully. The Wondermints have since become the core of Brian Wilson’s backing band, and while I’m eternally grateful for the music that’s brought us, they haven’t recorded a new album as themselves in eight years, which is *MUCH* too long.
Ken by The Negro Problem is a touching song about the difficulties of being a gay Ken doll. Stew, the lead singer/songwriter of TNP, is also here as a solo artist, and to my mind is the greatest songwriter of the last twenty years. (He also wrote the song for my wedding, which I also think is one of his best songs). This is hilarious and heartbreaking – “Some day soon I’ll be in your child’s room/I’ll be forced to kiss Barbie’s plastic tits/And I will hate myself but what’s more I’ll hate you/For not allowing me to love as I wish to”.
Hey Ann Margaret by Cosmo Topper is just perfect pop – “Hey Ann Margaret do you wanna dance?/Elvis has left the building, maybe I got a chance”, with one of the best piano parts I’ve ever heard.
Silly Place by Chewy Marble was originally a track Brian Kassan, Chewy Marble’s leader, wrote as the B-side to the Wondermints’ single Proto-Pretty, before he left to form his own band. Chewy Marble are by far the most commercial-sounding of the bands on this playlist, and I’m astonished that they’ve never had a hit.
Man In A Dress by Stew is one of two songs here from his first solo album, Guest Host, which for some reason is not on Spotify yet. This one has some of the best backing vocal lines ever – “I hated Titanic, you see”, “I don’t even like chicken soup” and especially “some cake and ice cream by the way”, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it.
Proto-Pretty by the Wondermints is what early Elvis Costello records would sound like if he sang more about trilobites and DNA.
Rehab by Stew manages to be both hilarious and sad, and to use the word ‘very’ ninety-six times in four minutes and forty-three seconds and have that be a good thing.
Virginia Woolf by Blake Jones & The Trike Shop is the emotional centrepiece of Pop Songs & Kyries, their most consistent album. It loses something out of context, not getting the repeated themes of that album, but it’s still an astonishing song.
Shrink by Carolyn Edwards is a soft-pop Bacharach-esque song about being uncomfortable with someone coming on to you far too strongly.
Cross-Hatched World by Chewy Marble is a melodic, staccato song along the lines of some of the best Beach Boys or Kinks songs.
MacArthur Park by The Negro Problem is an absolutely straight cover of the first part of MacArthur Park, except for one crucial word change…
And Scarecrow by Kristian Hoffman & Rufus Wainwright is one of the most beautiful, upsetting songs I’ve ever heard, about the homophobic murder of Mathew Shephard in Wyoming:
What penalty must we perform
for craving someone warm, somewhere upon this chilly planet?
A rifle butt against the head,
because we’d heard it said
that only God can make a man. It’s true.
But only man can make a scarecrow out of you.
And only man can make a God who might approve.
OK, so it’s not *all* completely apolitical…
A couple of things about today’s Spotify playlist. Firstly, I’m starting to lose track of what I’ve posted before, so if some tracks come up more than once, forgive me. I’m assuming no-one’s listening to *all* of these, anyway, just the ones that sound interesting to them.
The other thing is the notable lack of female artists. This is partly because my record collection is male-dominated, but also a lot of my favourite female performers (Carolyn Edwards and Joanna Newsom to name two) aren’t on Spotify yet. Anyone know of any really good female singers/songwriters I’d like?
Anyway, today’s playlist
Cossacks Are by Scott Walker is the opening song from his most recent (and to my mind best) album, The Drift. I have absolutely no idea what it’s about, but it sounds astonishing. Remember, this is someone who started his career in a boy band doing Four Seasons covers…
The Knife by Genesis is included after reading Gavin B’s post about it – it’s almost good enough to forgive them for Phil Collins.
Pale And Precious by The Dukes Of Stratosphear is XTC in their guise as a fake 60s psych band doing a perfect Beach Boys pastiche, while still managing to be a truly great song in its own right. Gorgeous stuff. Just listen to the “Don’t care what the others might say” section – it’s got *exactly* the same unexpected chord progression – and indeed the same distrust of other people in general and wish they’d disappear attached to an absolute adoration of one person in particular – that would happen in a Brian Wilson song at that point.
At this point, the playlist is a little proggy, so there’s a couple of simpler songs.
I’m Leaving It All Up To You by Don & Dewey is a song I found on a wonderful compilation called Frank Zappa’s Jukebox, which consists of stuff that Zappa listened to as a teenager, and so is a mixture of ‘difficult’ modern classical, skronking jazz and greasy blues and doo-wop. It’s an absolute treasure of a compilation.
Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates is one of those records that was an absolutely massive hit in Britain in the early ’60s but almost no-one outside the UK knows. It’s a shame as it’s one of the great records of that period between Elvis getting drafted and the first Beatles record, which is generally regarded as a dead period in music but in fact produced people like Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and others who were far more influential than people now realise.
Movie Magg by Carl Perkins is a great record in its own right, but also a window into a time that seems a million years ago – this is a song about taking a girl to the cinema, but on the back of a horse. And recorded in the 1950s. The weird juxtaposition of the modern (the electrical kinematograph still seems modern to me, I am afraid) and what feels like the ancient, a song about a lost way of life that is still in the memory of many living, in a song that was a modern pop song at the time my Dad was born, seems very strange to me…
You Don’t Have To Walk In The Rain by The Turtles is from one of the very great overlooked albums of the 60s, Turtle Soup. This was the Turtles’ attempt to make their own Village Green Preservation Society and was produced by Ray Davies, and is a halfway house between the Kinks’ English pastoral and the Turtles’ California pop whose closest comparison is probably Odessey & Oracle. This was the single from the album, and the most conventional track on it, but I love the line “I look at your face/I love you anyway”.
Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? by Buddy Johnson is for my wife, who’s spent most of the last few weeks watching rounders over the internet rather than talking to her long-suffering husband ;)
Opening Titles by Don Preston is another of Preston’s orchestral pieces. I’m becoming more and more convinced, the more I hear of Preston’s work, that he had the potential to be a true great had he not spent the last forty years in the shadow of his old boss. Shame.
The Prelude to the first Lute Suite in E Minor by Bach is just here because I like Bach’s lute pieces. So should you.
Lady Came From Baltimore by Scott Walker is as different from the opening track as you could get – a cover of a folk-pop song by Tim Hardin – but is still a lovely little track, overlooked in comparison to the darker stuff on Walker’s first few solo albums.
Arnaldo Said by the Wondermints is the only Wondermints track on Spotify at the moment, unfortunately. Weirdly, this is on an Os Mutantes tribute album, even though it’s a Wondermints original. But speaking of Mutantes…
Bat Macumba by Os Mutantes is my favourite track by Brazil’s greatest psychedelic band – not much of a song, but just listen to it as a *sound*, the way the totally different sonic environments are laid on each other…
Everyone Says I Love You by Janet Klein is a lovely little acoustic performance of the Marx Brothers song from Horse Feathers (and if I lent any of you my box set of Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers and Monkey Business, could I have it back, please? I’ve completely forgotten who I lent it to…)
Wonderful/Song For Children by Rufus Wainwright is a stunning performance of the first half of the second movement of Smile, and shows that Smile wasn’t just a great record, but the songs were great songs. Wonderful, especially, deserves to be regarded as part of ‘the great American songbook’.
Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair by Bessie Smith is another track by one of the all-time great blues singers, but to be honest I’ve included it for the horn playing.
And Over The Reef by Duncan Browne is a song I’m not even sure I like, but there’s something to it… it’s a very twee, folky thing which could smack of James Taylor, but there’s a sort of Incredible String Bandness about it that makes it work… I think… what do you think?
Anyway, I’m off til a week on Tuesday. Don’t turn this place into a tip while I’m gone…
Sorry for the lack of posts recently – I’ve had a touch of post-viral depression. I *will* spend all next week posting about Batman along with my usual posts though. (The couple of weeks after will be light again though as I’ll be visiting the in-laws in the land of dial-up). So expect two posts tomorrow – Batman and Big Finish.
& by Kristian Hoffman is one of those albums that everyone who hears it loves, but which flies under the radar. On the very few occasions I’ve spoken about it to anyone who’s heard it, they’ve always said “Wow, I love that album, but I don’t know anyone else who’s heard it!”
Hoffman is someone who’s been on the fringes of success for decades – he was in the obscure art-punk band the Mumps in the 70s, and since then has worked with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Carolyn Edwards – and &, his third ‘solo’ album, is actually an album of duets that pulls collaborators from throughout the world of interesting music. Hoffman’s style is closest to the glam-punk of 70s Sparks, but he also has elements of powerpop, prog-pop of the ELO/Wings variety and a healthy helping of pre-rock pop. Possibly the easiest way to describe his music is to imagine Sondheim or Cole Porter as produced by Jeff Lynne, and while & is his third album it feels in many ways like a first album – it’s a collection of songs written over several decades, Anyone But You, for one, dating back to the 1970s.
The list of collaborators on the album could easily double as a list of the most interesting still-working musicians alive in 2002 (when the album was released) – Stew, Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, Russel Mael of Sparks, Van Dyke Parks, Rufus Wainwright – combined with some choices that one could see as being chosen for camp value ( Maria McKee, El Vez (“The Mexican Elvis”), Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Rubens) but who actually all turn in performances every bit as good as the more critically acclaimed performers.
From the opening “Gimme Some Lovin’” riff of Devil May Care, with Hoffman affecting an almost Dylanesque nasal voice (very different from the rest of the album) doubled by Russel Mael’s vibrato falsetto and backed by crunchy Big Star guitars, it’s obvious that this is going to be a musically interesting album, but it’s when that song gets to the middle eight that Hofmann’s real songwriting strengths start to show, with the line “Some postulate reward if you should mortify the flesh”.
Hoffman is one of the most articulate lyricists I’ve heard in years, with a huge working vocabulary and a wicked sense of humour. The album is just full of quotable lines – “Devil may care but I am disinclined to lend belief/to any square who spends his time bemoaning just how brief it is”, “It’s like a hideous chorus by the post-Mary Wilson Supremes”, “We sensed by scent that this brief sentiment was overripe”, “No sex in heaven – where do I sign?”, “This passion play was engineered, but when the mutant sheep appeared,”.
I’m more of a music person than a lyric person, so when even *I* am quoting huge chunks of the lyrics you know they’re special, but the music more than matches them. Get It RIght This Time, for example, has a first verse that could come from one of Noel Coward’s better musicals, all sparse strings and elegance, before going into a big musical-theatre chorus. The second verse then duplicates the arrangement of the first, but with Abba-esque piano, before we have two instrumental variations of the melody, one a perfect baroque pastiche, all piccolo trumpet and harpsichord, the other shredding 80s hair-metal guitar, before a return to the chorus and a final “Little Help From My Friends” tag. But none of this is in quotes, it just feels like the natural place for the music to go.
The album’s full of things like that, and even the less musically ambitious material is still well worth a listen. Anyone But You, with Stew and Heidi of the Negro Problem, for example, is one of only four or five guitar-based pop songs recorded in the last decade to be worth a damn.
And while the album is nothing so gauche as a ‘concept album’ (except in the sense that every song is a collaboration) there are themes that recur over and over again. Religion comes up in almost every song – obviously in song titles like God If Any Only Knows, No Sex In Heaven and Devil May Care, but also in lines like “Scarecrow, those who seek metaphor compare/Scarecrow, that other man left hanging there/But it seems to me/That comes too easily” and the whole of Anyone But You. There’s also a carnality to the lyrics, and an examination of sexuality and what sexuality means in modern life, and especially what it means to be gay – Scarecrow, the song just quoted, is about the murder of Mathew Shephard, a gay man murdered in Wyoming by homophobic fuckwits ten years ago, and is a haunting counterbalance to the more upbeat lines like “gonna put the ‘oo’ in the human condition” that predominate.
The best song by far is the ballad Sex In Heaven, one of the best ballads I’ve heard in years, whose lyrics deserve quoting in full:
It’s heaven sent, this miracle soprano you employ
That makes an angel of a boy, earthbound.
My soul took wing upon the sound.
I guess I still can’t face the implications of this gift.
There’s something pagan in the lift — airborne.
And why should soul from flesh be torn?
That’s what it costs to buy a note so pure and high
and so divine: no sex in heaven.
The bottom line: no sex in heaven. Where do I sign?
Then came the man whose eyes professed the love that we had sought;
a love that’s never to be caught or held.
Some ancient pact can’t be dispelled. What’s the surprise?
The storied sacrifice is often told: that this perfection must be cold,
and hard — where once we joined by scalpel scarred.
What gimpy God aflame with jealous rage decreed that you
Like him must be unwhole; allowed to yearn?
But if the need that you profess is once returned,
You slap it down! (If I should ask, and I always ask.)
I guess I still can’t help the sickened impulse to admire
the score that this castrati choir translates
that soothes as it emasculates.
What amazes me about this album is that it’s one of the *very* few albums I’ve heard in recent years where *everything* is well-crafted. The songs are absolutely superb – they remind me of Elvis Costello at his best or a less grating Randy Newman, oblique and intelligent with lines echoing and commenting on each other (for example in Revert To Type there’s a line about “the island of Dr Morose”, which is quite a good pun in itself, but is also an echo of the ‘mutant sheep’ earlier in the song), the arrangements are imaginative, ranging over almost every form of popular music from Sparks to Cole Porter to the Beach Boys, and the performances are stunning (my favourite is Stew’s full-throated roar on Anyone But You, but there’s not a bad performance on there).
& can be bought on CD and MP3 from CDBaby, or downloaded from eMusic. His first two solo albums, and a compilation of the Mumps’ 70s recordings, are also available from the same sources and well worth getting, but this is his masterpiece. He’s apparently also working on an album produced by Nick Walusko from the Wondermints, which I can’t wait to hear…
As we are now at the start of Advent I thought I’d supply a set of Christmas music that’s a little out of the ordinary. This is partly in memory of my friend Pete Fenelon, who died a month or so ago and did this last year – some of the tracks here were on his compilation.
I’m not a very Christmassey person, generally, but nor do I ever want to be a killjoy, and so there’s a tension in these songs between the traditional “Isn’t Christmas great?” and the non-traditional “Bah, humbug” – sometimes even in the individual song. I’ve tried where possible to choose songs that people won’t be familiar with – the whole point of this list is that much as I love Wizzard and Slade and the Ronettes and Bing Crosby, I expect to wish to massacre everyone in sight if I hear them from about a week from now. However, some of the songs will undoubtedly be familiar to some of you, if only because there’s a difference between what was a hit in the US and what in the UK.
Our Prayer by Dave Gregory, the former XTC guitarist, is a cover of (part of) a wordless a capella track by the Beach Boys, from Remoulds, an album he made of note-for-note cover versions of 60s pop songs. I’ve included it even though it’s not strictly a Christmas song because it’s got the right kind of feel for this, and also because it leads beautifully into…
It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas by Half Man Half Biscuit. While, as I said before, I’m not the most festive of people, I find this song a valuable reminder not to inflict my curmudgeonly misanthropy on everyone else, and at least try to get into ‘the festive spirit’. I also have it on good authority (from my friend Tilt, who interviewed him for his radio show) that this is in fact Father Christmas’ favourite Christmas record of all time.
Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl is a Christmas perennial over here, but I’ve been told it’s barely heard in the US, hence its inclusion here. This is a shame, as nothing is quite as cheery as the cognitive dissonance of walking round Tesco or Woolworths (RIP) and hearing “You’re a bum, you’re a punk, you’re an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on that drip in that bed/You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas me arse I pray God it’s our last” over the tannoy. There is a certain breed of tedious poseur who refers to this as ‘the only good Christmas song ever’ – while this is absolute nonsense, the song itself is quite beautiful, and far more romantic and life-affirming than the lyric I quoted suggests. Just a beautiful, gorgeous song.
Sugar Wassail is by Waterson:Carthy. The Waterson/Carthy clan have for nearly 50 years been at the forefront of traditional English folk music – pushing the music forward and incorporating new influences while stlll ensuring that the music they play is an honest representation of the traditions that inspire them, and also while being genuinely enjoyable music. This is from their album Holy Heathens and the Green Man, a collection of mostly winter/Christmas themed traditional music which can be downloaded from eMusic.
Joy To The World by Brian Wilson is a recording from his ‘second comeback’ ten years ago that was made available as a free download from his website, and more recently was included as a bonus track on his 2005 album What I Really Want For Christmas. You can tell that he hadn’t sung much for a few years – he’s neither got the purity of his youthful voice nor the assured but limited range of today – but this still sends shivers down my spine.
Remember Bethlehem by Jake Thackray is one of the first songs Thackray ever wrote – he actually wrote it as a carol for the school where he was teaching, and the finished studio version included a school choir. One of the things I love about Thackray’s music is his Yorkshire bluntness – even his religious music (and Thackray was a deeply religious man) has the same real world love of humanity with all its smells and warts as Chaucer or the York mystery plays. This is a demo version, from disc four of the wonderful Jake In A Box box set, which I reviewed here (still one of my favourite pieces of my own writing) if you want to know more about Jake…
I Want A Girl For Christmas by The Knickerbockers is just a fun bit of pop music from the band who did Lies, possibly the best Beatles soundalike record ever. Here, the lead singer is clearly still trying to be John Lennon, but the rest of the band can’t decide if they’re the Beach Boys or the Four Seasons. There’s a couple of wonderful little a capella breaks here. It’s not a great lost classic or anything, but it’s a nice song (it’s available on eMusic).
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis by Tom Waits is one of the most depressing songs to feature Christmas as a subject, and very far from festive. On the other hand, it’s a great song, and also I include it because I’ll be spending at least part of the Christmas period in Minneapolis, en route to the tiny Minnesota town where my in-laws live… This is from Blue Valentines, one of the best of Waits’ early beatnik period, just before he went into his Beefheart-by-way-of-Kurt-Weill mode.
What Child Is This by Mahalia Jackson is just a stunning performance. I’m sure you’ve all heard it, but it’s wonderful anyway…
The Happiest Time Of The Year by Candypants is a Christmas single produced by Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, which has been available for download most years from Candypants’ MySpace page. Candypants are one of my very favourite bands of the moment, and I can’t wait for the new material Lisa is apparently working on.
Morning Christmas by Dennis Wilson is a typical piece of late Dennis Wilson, all bass harmonica, gruff vocals and ARP string synthesiser. Recorded for an aborted Beach Boys Christmas album in the late 70s, it was eventually released on the Beach Boys’ Ultimate Christmas CD in 1999. It’s very much of a piece with his brother’s Joy To The World, actually.
A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer is on because everyone needs a bit of Tom Lehrer. I was going to include I’m Spending Hanukkah In Santa Monica, but this is far better. It’s from the box set The Remains Of Tom Lehrer
Christmas Day by Squeeze is an interesting attempt at something that doesn’t quite come off, but is still worth a listen.
Tinsel and String by Neil Innes is a lovely, tongue-in-cheek take on the normal sort of Christmas music by one of the finest songwriters alive today. For those who don’t know, Innes was the principal songwriter with the Bonzo Dog Band, co-wrote several songs with the Monty Python team and appeared with them on stage and in their films, and was the songwriter for The Rutles, in which he played Ron Nasty. When he’s on form, he’s as good a songwriter as anyone, and if he’d stuck to ‘serious’ music and not indulged his tremendous comic talent he’d probably be regarded as another Paul McCartney or Ray Davies. This was downloaded from his website, which has tons of MP3s and RealAudio files of his work.
Christmas In Suburbia by Martin Newell is from the album The Greatest Living Englishman (which is available from eMusic), which was produced by Andy Partridge of XTC, who also played many of the instruments. As a result the album bears at least as much resemblance to Skylarking or the Dukes Of Stratosphear album (the instrumental figure here seems distantly related to the melody of Vanishing Girl) as it does to Newell’s work with the Cleaners From Venus – but that is, of course, no bad thing. I just wish Newell didn’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Christmas…
Jesus Christ by Big Star is one of those songs you should already own. But just in case, here it is… from the classic Sister Lovers.
Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ray Charles and Betty Carter (from the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album) is the only version of this song – don’t give me your Bing Crosbys or Dean Martins or Tom Joneses, this is the *only* version worth owning. Until recently, I never understood why this was a ‘Christmas’ song, but Brad Hicks put forward a good case in a two-part blog post that this was a ‘date rape Christmas carol’. Which it is, at least in some versions, but Betty Carter sounds far from unwilling here…
Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming by Pete Seeger (from the album Traditional Christmas Carols, another one available from eMusic) is a lovely banjo-and-vocal version of the hymn.
In The Bleak Midwinter by Bert Jansch is included mostly because it follows very well from the previous track. I’m a big fan of Jansch, but the production on here is too wet, and the song doesn’t sound bleak enough. But it’s a nice version, and a good closer to the collection proper.
However, as you can fit a *little* more onto a CD, I’ve included two more tracks…
Santa Claus Has Got The AIDS This Year by Tiny Tim may be the most offensive track ever recorded – “He won’t be singing out ‘ho ho ho ho’/But he’ll be crying out ‘no, no, no, no!’” . When Tim realised how badly everyone had taken the song, he tried to claim it was about the slimming bar Ayds, but the lyrics (and the fact that the B-side of the single was called She Left Me WIth The Herpes) tell a different story.
And there’s a final little message from Andy Partridge, wishing everyone a psychedelic Christmas…