28 December 2009

Some Things Read On A Dollar Bill

In anticipation of their big New Year's Eve show at Milwaukee's Riverside Theater, Britt Daniel of Spoon talks to the Journal-Sentinel about the band's new album Transference (to be released 19 January) and its allegiance to indie label Merge.

Two noteworthy birth dates of 28 December: (1) Bandleader Johnny Otis, known as the "Godfather of Rhythm & Blues," born 1921. The son of Greek immigrants, Otis blended in with the black community in the Los Angeles area easily and produced a number of hits. The Johnny Otis Show's crossover into pop territory, going all the way to #3, was "Willie And The Hand Jive" (a live TV performance can be accessed here - watch for Lionel Hampton at the end on vibes). Later, Eric Clapton revived the tune on his album 461 Ocean Boulevard. (2) Roebuck "Pops" Staples, patriarch of The Staple Singers, was born on this date on a Mississippi plantation in 1914 (he died in 2000). Together with his children, Staples started in the gospel realm and kept that socially conscious edge even when the group crossed over into the popular music charts with smashes like "Respect Yourself" (here's a live version from the Wattstax festival featuring the one-two dynamism of Pops and daughter Mavis), "I'll Take You There" and "Let's Do It Again."

David Fricke talks to Ed O'Brien about Radiohead's musical output over the past ten years.

Over the next week, BBC 6 Music Programmes is offering a chance to listen to a three part series titled "Bob Dylan: Changing Times." The episodes, each one hour in length, delve into three seminal albums: Nashville Skyline (1969), Slow Train Running (1979) and Oh, Mercy (1989).

The latest Take-Away Show from La Blogotheque is with critically praised band The Antlers.

Like 'em or not, Vampire Weekend is on deck with their second record. The Times of London visits with the New York band.

Step right up: Pop & Hiss chats with Tom Waits. The singer hints at a studio release in 2010.

Adam Sheets of No Depression lists the considerable production credits to date of T-Bone Burnett. (And we'll add one more - the fine Martinis & Bikinis by Sam Phillips).

And since we're thinking about Sam Phillips, TNOP invites you to enjoy the Rubber Soul vibe of "Baby I Can't Please You" from Martinis & Bikinis.

25 December 2009

Happy Christmas

New York City, Christmas 1969. One of eleven billboards rented by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in cities around the world to promote holiday wishes and peace.

24 December 2009

Albums You Must Own (#6 and #7 in a series)

Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy 1965)

In December of 1965, the CBS Television Network broadcast a new animated special based on a story by Charles M. Schulz the author of the popular daily comic strip Peanuts. Since then it has literally been a yearly staple of the holiday circuit, entertaining two generations of fans to its sweet comedic but spiritual message.

At the core of the A Charlie Brown Christmas is the music performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, a mix of holiday standards and new originals in the jazz tradition. Schulz himself picked fellow San Francisco Bay Area native Guaraldi for the soundtrack.

Born in 1928, Guaraldi began playing the piano around age seven. By the time he was a teen, he had learned the boogie-woogie and blues style by listening to masters like Jimmy Yancy and Lux Lewis. In his twenties, like many other jazz musicians, Guaraldi took to the bebop mastery of Bud Powell and the impressionistic playing of Bill Evans. He gained some notoriety in the San Francisco and was signed to local label Fantasy Records. After spending some time on the road with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd and declining offers to tour the country as a solo, Guaraldi settled into regular performance at Bay Area clubs.

In 1962 lightening struck for Guaraldi. He scored an unexpected hit with his own composition of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind." Originally a B-side of a single released locally, a Sacramento DJ flipped the 45 over and kept playing the song every hour. It caught on nationally, reaching the top ten of the U.S. pop charts. In addition, Guaraldi received a Grammy for Best Jazz Composition in 1963.

Planning the special in 1963 with Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson heard "Cast Your Fate" on the radio and decided to contact Guaraldi about authoring the soundtrack. The musician's interested was keen because he was a reader of the comic and had two children of his own. Within weeks Guaraldi presented Mendelson with what would become "Linus and Lucy." Mendelson recalled: "As soon as I heard it, I knew it was perfect. When I brought the tape for A Charlie Brown Christmas to Charles Schulz, he fell in love with it. I have always felt that one of the key elements that made that show was the music. It gave it a contemporary sound that appealed to all ages."

"Linus and Lucy" has become a jazz standard. A rolling boogie-woogie piece, it allows the kids to cut loose and dance to Schroeder's piano while Charlie Brown is trying to get them to rehearse for the annual Christmas pageant.

The other stand-out track has to be "Skating," which translates beautifully onto the screen as the children a try to catch snowflakes in their mouths while gliding along on the ice.

Vince Guaraldi went on to score fifteen Peanuts specials and a feature film before his untimely death in 1976 at the age of 47.

WATCH the entire A Charlie Brown Christmas and enjoy the Guaraldi soundtrack on Hulu.

Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, The Crystals

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (Phillies 1963)

Produced by Phil Spector

Unfortunately released on the date of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector almost was relegated to the permanent cut-out bin. Instead, despite being released on numerous record labels, it has probably become the most critically acclaimed holiday record in the annals of rock and roll. And cited by Brian Wilson as his favorite of all time.

The array of singers on the record were from the stable of "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector. Seasonal classics jump off the album: Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," The Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride," and The Crystals' "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" all are standouts. They have led to notable "covers" by Bruce Springsteen and U2, among others.

The musicians playing on the records are noteworthy for rock enthusiasts. They included Jack Nitzsche (future producer of albums by Neil Young, among others), Hal Blaine (one of the most respected session drummers over the years) and Leon Russell (a fine piano player and singer in his own right, but also a credited player on records by George Harrison, Joe Cocker and Bob Dylan).

The Ronettes sing "Sleigh Ride."

U2's cover of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home."

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band perform "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

23 December 2009

Darlene Love + The Late Show = Christmas

For the 24th consecutive year, the wonderful Darlene Love will appear tonight on The Late Show with David Letterman. Ms. Love will sing the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich holiday classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." [Note: Barry & Greenwich wrote 25 songs that were certified gold or platinum. Ellie Greenwich died earlier this year at the age of 68.] The song was originally released on the 1963 holiday compilation A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector.

Expect a powerhouse performance from Ms. Love, backed by Paul Shaffer & The CBS Orchestra, additional musicians (including strings) and a gospel choir, replicating the "Wall of Sound" production made famous by Spector. Don't miss it.

For a preview, here's her appearance from 1995. TNOP notes it as further evidence that Darlene Love should be elected - not just nominated - to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

21 December 2009

Utimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 108]

Fairytale of New York
The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
Written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan
Produced by Steve Lillywhite
Pogue Mahone Records
Released December 1987

[Editor's Note: This entry was written by Celtic Ray, TNOP 's correspondent from County Clare, Republic of Ireland.]

By their third record, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Celtic folk punk band The Pogues were already approaching their saturation point. The disc, helmed by producer wunderkind Steve Lillywhite, was recorded with a changed lineup of musicians. But their front man remained the same: the volatile but gifted singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan. And the album became their biggest seller to date.

The centerpiece of If I Should Fall From Grace With God would prove to be one of the most popular Christmas records ever in the the UK and Ireland. Originally reaching #2 and #1 on the charts, respectively, in December 1987, "Fairytale of New York" would be re-released another five times over the ensuing twenty years, each time landing in the top ten.

The song is a duet between MacGowan and English singer Kirsty MacColl, at the time married to producer Lillywhite. [Pogues' original bassist Cait O'Riordan was to have filled the role, but she left the band in 1986.] The melody of "Fairytale of New York" fuses barroom ballad with Irish rebel song, and perfectly serves the story written by MacGowan.

A drunken man is sleeping off a bender in a New York drunk tank. He hears an old man (in the cell?) singing the old Irish folk song "The Rare Old Mountain Dew" (not surprisingly, the 1916 tune waxes rhapsodic about homemade Irish whiskey: Let grasses grow and waters flow/In a free and easy way/But give me enough of the rare old stuff/That's made near Galway Bay). Then he drifts (further?) into reverie, recalling hitting an 18-1 shot a the horse track, a sign of dreams coming true for he and his lover.

MacColl joins MacGowan at this point in a call and response between two Irish immigrants on Christmas Eve. They reminisce about what their dreams were on arrival as young people to America, but then just as quickly turn to the dark side of their relationship, dashed no doubt with the aid of substance abuse. So this ain't White Christmas, folks. The contrasts are striking throughout, wonderfully marked by MacGowan's hoarse voice against MacColl's fine singing: love and hate; hope and despair; promise and betrayal.

The time frame is not specifically identified, and purposefully so. The reference to Sinatra places the action anywhere from the 1940s to the 1980s. Otherwise, the atmosphere is quintessentially Irish: immigrants landing on the shores to uncertain beginnings in America's (then) largest Irish diaspora. And the last verse is masterful: each blaming the other for failure, but lamenting that one is nothing without the other.

The chorus is the constant glue to the story: And the boys of the NYPD choir's still singing Galway Bay/And the bells were ringing out/For Christmas day. "Galway Bay" was a huge hit with Irish immigrants around the world in the late 1940s, popularized by both Bing Crosby and Dolores Keane. Reading some of the lyrics, and remembering the reference to the same locale in "The Rare Old Mountain Dew," proves useful in understanding "Fairytale of New York":

My chosen bride is by my side, her brown hair silver-grey,
Her daughter Rose as like her grows as April dawn today.
Our only boy, his mother's joy, his father's pride and stay;
With gifts like these I'd live at ease, were I near Galway Bay.

Had I youth's blood and hopeful mood and heart of fire once more,
For all the gold the world might hold I'd never quit your shore,
I'd live content whate'er God sent with neighbours old and gray,
And lay my bones, 'neath churchyard stones, beside you, Galway Bay.

"Fairytale of New York" is quintessentially Irish. I guess you either like it or you don't. The song is a rolling and tumbling affair that allows the listener to experience what James Joyce may have meant when writing in Ulysses about the precariousness of the human condition ("I fear those big words which make us so unhappy") as well as the absurdity of life ("Come forth Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job"). All the while holding a pint of Guinness and singing along merrily.

Nollaig Shona Dhuit!



The original video for "Fairytale of New York."

Dolores Keane sings "Galway Bay."

The Dubliners' version of "The Rare Old Mountain Dew."

The obituary of Kirsty MacColl (1959-2000) from The Times of London.

Billy Bragg and Florence and the Machine cover "Fairytale of New York on BBC Radio 1.

16 December 2009

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . [Season 2, Episode 1]

With the opening episode of the second season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . ., it has become clear that the series has become an important contribution to the study of the art of rock and roll. The format is unique in that Costello adeptly focuses on musical backgrounds and influences of his guests, not bothering with the celebrity fluff. And the opportunity arises for performances of songs in an intimate setting (in this case, the Masonic Temple in Toronto) .

Costello and his band, The Imposters, usually kick off the show with a cover of a tune made famous by his guest(s), which then leads to a carnival barker-type introduction, revving the crowd up for the episode. In this case, the denizens lucky enough to fill the small auditorium didn't need much coaxing: the stars of this show were the lead vocalist and guitarist of the biggest band in the world, U2.

Entering to a bombastic version of "Mysterious Ways," Bono and The Edge shimmied across the stage and then sat on bar stools to settle in for their talk with Costello. The host - in this case as with a number of guests so far in the series - has the unique advantage of sharing the same time line in a parallel musical career. He recalled U2 being on the undercard with Elvis Costello and The Attractions 30 years ago and - even though he concedes that "I Will Follows" sounded like nothing else on the scene - wonders aloud to the two whether they knew "what the hell you were doing" musically at the time. The Dubliners candidly admit that their popularity occurred in a "backwards" fashion, with their initial style coming from minimalist German groups like Can and Neu! And they cite their attendance at an early Costello show as one of the reasons for starting the band. It was only after U2 achieved a measure of popularity that the band began to truly form its musical influences and expand its skills from a technical standpoint. To that end, Bono and The Edge give credit to the "art schooling" they received from long-time producers Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

This leads into a discussion of the always curious question of: What comes first, the words or the music? According to Bono, the band always starts with the melody. The Edge provides a helpful example of the process in this regard: the underrated gem from Zooropa, "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)." [Listen to this great version of the song from the 1993 ZooTv Tour, performed in Dublin.] He explains that the tune was built up to epic proportions with many overdubs. Then after much toiling and tinkering, it finally struck him that stripping the music to its core of drums, bass and guitar would give the lyrics more punch. The two bandmates then perform a poignant version of the song to confirm this choice in style.

The interview proceeded to touch on encounters with musical heroes, including Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, who urged the boys to look deeply into the roots of American music. But the most charming story related by The Edge and Bono concerned a dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs, California with Frank Sinatra. It proved a jumping off point for the often mentioned, but seldom played, song that U2 wrote specifically for Ol' Blue Eyes, "Two Shots of Whisky, One Shot of Sad."

Dedication to craft rounded out the conversation, with Bono bowing to his partner for his continuing focus on improving his musicianship. While he acknowledges his involvement in many social causes, Bono wonders if it has come at the expense of better songs, better singing. But he believes that these experiences are a valuable jumping off point for many of the lyrics that he has contributed to the band: "When you think of it, we are the perfect band for weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. The happy and the sad." The Edge counters that while practice and editing are crucial, there has to be "chaos within the control" in order to make music that will continue to be relevant.

How rock and roll artists have always fed off each other in order to perpetuate the sound is evident in the closing number of the show. Costello rips into "Pump It Up" (1978), which easily segues into U2's recent "Get On Your Boots" (2009) from No Line On The Horizon. And, in keeping with the theme of musical influence that is the core of Spectacle, the boys double back to Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965) for good measure.

"Mysterious Ways" (Elvis Costello & The Imposters)
"Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" (Bono, The Edge and Costello on lead vocals, backed by The Imposters)
"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" (Bono on lead vocal, The Edge on acoustic guitar)
"Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad" (Bono on lead vocal, Steve Nieve on piano)
"Pump It Up/Get On Your Boots/Subterranean Homesick Blues" (Costello and Bono on lead vocals, backed by The Edge and The Imposters)

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . airs Wednesday nights at 10.00pm EST on Sundance Channel, with some repeats through the week. Check cable or satellite listings.

15 December 2009

News From The Fun House

The class of 2010 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been announced. New inductees include The Stooges (that's Iggy Pop reading the - finally! - good news, above), Genesis, The Hollies, Jimmy Cliff and ABBA. But where are Darlene Love and Laura Nyro?

Mojo reports that Sly Stone has signed a new record deal. We'll believe it when we hear it. In the meantime, there are previews up on the web about a new documentary on the enigmatic artist that is set to premiere in 2010.

Best reviewed album of the decade? Best reviewed pop act? Metacritic lets you in on the answers.

TNOP is looking forward to the US release of Mumford & Sons' debut record, Sigh No More, in February. The Times of London provides a profile of the English band strongly influenced by Americana. Catch them on their current tour in the States or sample their single "Little Lion Man."

Can't say we go digging around in the News of the World too often, but their recent talk with Kinks-man Ray Davies proved fruitful: he's trying to gently coax brother Dave into the music arena again and is also working in the studio with Bruce Springsteen. And word is Julian Temple is directing a film of the brothers' rise to fame in the 1960s.

The xx performs a short set in The Current Studios of Minnesota Public Radio.

Issue 65 of The Fader is now available via free download. Special guest editors: Animal Collective.

We wrote in these pages previously about The History Channel special The People Speak. It premiered the other night and TNOP highly recommends a view. One of the highlights was Bob Dylan (acoustic guitar), Ry Cooder (electric guitar) and Van Dyke Parks (piano) performing Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi." TwentyFourBit gives us a look and listen.

That's it from the news desk for now. Go celebrate their induction by enjoying Iggy & The Stooges' "Search & Destroy" at MAXIMUM VOLUME. The video is from a 2008 performance in Montreal, and man, they still bring it, especially the late guitarist Ron Asheton.

13 December 2009

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 107]

This Christmas
b/w "Be There"
Donny Hathaway
Written by Nadine McKinner & Donny Pitts
Produced by Don-Ric Enterprises
ATCO 7-99956
Released 1970

Flashback to 1979. The only time Christmas themed songs are heard on the radio is on Christmas day, not 24 hours a day for almost two months prior to the holiday on FM stations. And usually these stations will carry a taped loop of canned traditional songs, regardless of their usual everyday format. But during the course of the day, a new concept creeps in: a one or two hour syndicated special that will feature tunes by rock and roll artists. There are stunning standards (Otis Redding's version of "White Christmas") and great originals (Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" or Darlene Love's "Christmas [Baby Please Come Home]"). But from a young man's perspective, these records are "old"; in fact, the only recent Christmas cover to create any excitement is almost impossible to find, since it only exists on bootleg: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's rousing cover of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

But then a stunning sound comes through your Advent speakers via the Technics amplifier: joyful horns and the warmest Rhodes piano backing the unmistakably smooth rhythm and blues voice of Donny Hathaway. You know, the guy who had some duets with Roberta Flack that became hits. But where did this come from? Sexy, but sincere; modern, but traditional: Hang all the mistletoe/I'm going to get you know you better/This Christmas.

And then some melancholy sets in: you know why the song all of a sudden has entered the holiday rotation. Hathaway, after suffering from a long battle with paranoid schizophrenia, had perished earlier in the year after falling from a hotel room in New York City.

But you keep listening. The melody makes you happy, combining the soul of Curtis Mayfield with a hip Nat King Cole vibe. And you savor the three minutes and five seconds of that 45 rpm, especially the cool fade out and return, because you know it will be quite some time before you here it again.

The search of record stores for the vinyl single, called "This Christmas," turns out to be futile. The downtown record store, Radio Doctors, only stocks selected holiday 45s in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and then they disappear for another year when the record labels press a limited number for sale to the public - there just isn't money in producing a large number of the records, because they have limited (if at all) airplay on the radio.

But you remember to special order "This Christmas" the following December. (Yes, that blurry photo above is the actual 45 record.) And thirty years later, you still listen to and remember Donny Hathaway.


A wonderfully researched article by Dave Hoekstra on Donny Hathaway and the recording and enduring legacy of "This Christmas" in particular, featuring quotes from musicians that played on the song, including Phil Upchurch and Ric Powell.

11 December 2009

Damon Albern Preps New Gorillaz Record

The Guardian reports that the third Gorillaz album, due for release sometime in 2010, will be titled Plastic Beach. In a lengthy audio interview with Paul Morley, head cartoon (and sometimes Blur member) Damon Albern also reveals that the first effort of the "band" since 2005's Demon Days will include vocal contributions from the likes of Lou Reed, Mos Def, Snoop Dog, Bobby Womack, The Horrors and . . . the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. Oh, and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees too.

EMI Australia has the art work for the album, which features a fierce Noodle.

While we're waiting, it's always great to listen to the Danger Mouse produced "Feel Good, Inc." featuring De La Soul.

10 December 2009

This Date In Rock History: 10 December

In one of the more noted tragedies in rock and roll history, it was on this date in 1967 that the heir to Little Richard and Sam Cooke, 26 year old Otis Redding, died in a plane that crashed into the icy waters of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. The pilot of the private plane, Redding's manager and four members of Redding's back-up band, The Bar-Kays, also perished in the wreck. (The sole survivor was band member Ben Cauley.)

Otis Ray Redding, Jr. was born in 1940 in Dawson, Georgia. When he was five, his family moved to the city of Macon, also the hometown of "Little" Richard Penniman. Otis was taken by the musical talent and stage presence of Little Richard, and always credited his fellow Maconite as the reason he got into the business.

Otis toured the South starting in 1960 as vocalist for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers, a group popular at clubs and colleges. After a recording session with the band in 1962, there was still some studio time left and he recorded a demo of "These Arms of Mine," a song that he had written. The subsequent record was released on the regional Volt Records, a subsidiary of Memphis' famous Stax label. It became a regional hit and would become one of Otis' signature songs during his career (and world famous posthumously).

Recording for Stax/Volt, Otis became an R&B star: the list of hits is lengthy, including "I Can't Turn You Loose," "Mr. Pitiful," "Respect" (famously "stolen" by Aretha Franklin), a cover of The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Try A Little Tenderness," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and "Tramp" (a duet with Carla Thomas). Many were written by Otis in collaboration with Steve Cropper, the Stax house guitarist and performer in his own right with Booker T. & The MG's.

While the hits listed above were all R&B hits, his impact in the rock realm was minimal. That is, until the "Summer of Love" (1967). Otis' appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival was an out-and-out sensation, leading him into crossover territory. The entire second side of the festival's album contained his performance, highlighted by an electrifying version of Sam Cooke's "Shake."

Three days before his death, Otis went into the studios to record a new single that he had co-written with Cropper: "(Sittin' On) The Dock of The Bay." The now famous outro of Otis whistling was due to the fact that he had yet to compose the remaining words to the song.

Otis Redding was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Long live The King of Soul.


"Try A Little Tenderness," live on the Stax European tour in 1967.

"Shake" and "Respect" from appearance at The Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967.

ESSENTIAL READING: Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom by Peter Guralnick (Back Bay Books 1986).

09 December 2009

TNOP's Best Albums of 2009

10. ST. VINCENT - Actor

After a so-so album debut a couple of years ago and the timid performance we witnessed as an opening act in 2007, this fine effort came out of the blue. Annie Clark a/k/a St. Vincent finds her voice on Actor, adapting a number of personalities in a varied collection of songs. And don't let the sweet voice fool you.

KEY TRACK: "Actor Out Of Work"
BONUS: "Oh Sister" (cover of Dylan song with Andrew Bird, Providence. RI, October 2009)

Italic 9. DAVE RAWLINGS MACHINE - A Friend of A Friend

Previously known as the key co-writer and musician on so many fine works by Gillian Welch, out from the shadows steps Dave Rawlings and his superb band. The mix of originals and unique covers, assisted by Welch and proteges The Old Crow Medicine Show, are delivered in grand fashion.

KEY TRACK: "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High") (live at Grimey's Records, Nashville, TN, December 2009)
FURTHER READING: Alec Wilkinson's excellent New Yorker profile of Welch and Rawlings from 2004.

8. NEKO CASE - Middle Cyclone

A wonderful follow-up to Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, Neko Case takes on another natural disaster and triumphs.

KEY TRACK: "People Got A Lotta Nerve"
FURTHER READING: February 2009 profile of Neko Case from The New York Times Magazine.

7. BOB DYLAN - Together Through Life

In which the Patron Saint of TNOP interprets Chess Records blues with a Tex-Mex undertone. And it works, continuing the Bard's late-career renaissance. [Side note to long time fans: it's like Desire, except David Hidalgo's accordion replaces Scarlet Rivera's fiddle.]

FURTHER READING: Bill Flanagan interviews Dylan about the record.

6. DAN AUERBACH - Keep It Hid

First solo effort from The Black Keys' front man allows him to flesh out his sound. The record gets stronger with each listen, and shows that Auerbach is now a major player on the music scene. He's in a prolific stage, as evidenced by the BlakRoc project and the expected new Keys' release in 2010.

KEY TRACK #1: "My Last Mistake"

5. THE DECEMBERISTS - The Hazards of Love

America's least-likely rock stars continue their musical ascendancy, using little known folk tales as their narrative compass. We admit it took us a little longer to warm up to this effort than previous favorites like The Crane Wife and Picaresque, but this "Folk Opera" treats the listener to bombastic shapeshifters, ghostly kids and a psychotic queen. Too adventuresome? Pretentious prog rock gone bad? Some thought so. But head man Colin Meloy clearly believes in the album concept, and dares to push back at the iPod singles mentality. And it doesn't hurt that he sure knows how to pen a melody.

KEY TRACK #2: "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" (with Shara Worden, Los Angeles, CA, May 2009)
FURTHER LISTENING: David Dye of The World Cafe interviews Colin Meloy.

4. U2 - No Line On The Horizon

After two albums of straight ahead rock cementing the familiar "U2 sound," the Dublin lads decide to step out of the box again. The result is their best studio record since Achtung Baby. Their massive stadium tour will continue into 2010, a sign of how much they believe in the new work.

KEY TRACK #2: "Get On Your Boots" (live at the 2009 Grammy Awards)
FURTHER READING: Producer Brian Eno talks to The Telegraph about the recording of No Line On The Horizon.

3. WILCO - Wilco (The Album)

The top American band hits a solid groove from beginning to end in this self-titled (kind of) CD. Major fans of Wilco's experimental, atmospheric side will be disappointed to an extent, but the album brims with confidence from a line up of musicians who clearly listen to and love all shades of rock and roll - and learn from it.

KEY TRACK: "You Never Know"
KEY TRACK #2: "You And I" (with Leslie Feist on Late Night With David Letterman, July 2009)
KEY TRACK #3: "Wilco (The Song)" (The Colbert Report, October 2008)
FURTHER READING: Time talks to Jeff Tweedy about the album, the passing of Jay Bennett and a fellow Chicagoan.

2. PHOENIX - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Regular readers of TNOP know that we are suckers for the unadulterated joys of pop. After three promising tries, France's Phoenix stormed the U.S. shores this year with its sunny, percussion driven sound. We dare you not to like it.

KEY TRACK: "Lisztomania"
PERFORMANCE: "1901," "Lisztomania/One Time Too Many" and "Long Distance Call" (from La Blogotheque Take Away Show, December 2009)
FURTHER READING: "Phoenix Remains A Band Apart" from September 2009 issue of The Fader.

1. GRIZZLY BEAR - Veckatimest

The Beach Boys-like harmony and hollow bodied guitar sound - with production finished, appropriately enough, in a New York church - made this record by the Brooklyn quartet Grizzly Bear TNOP's most played record in the car and on the stereo and iPod during 2009. Although its production is sparse and tones often hushed, there is an unique and youthful exuberance about this work. It is a record that will be played for many years to come.

KEY TRACK: "Two Weeks"
KEY TRACK #2: "All We Ask" (Blue Ribbon Vision @ Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, WI, June 2009)

KEY TRACK #3: "While You Wait For The Others" (KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, February 2008)
INTERVIEW AND PERFORMANCE: Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions, November 2009.

The Next Ten
Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It
Dawes, North Hills
Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk
Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Drippers, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!
Levon Helm, Electric Dirt
The Swell Season, Strict Joy
Various Artists, Dark Was The Night
Passion Pit, Manners
Andrew Bird, Noble Beasts
Lisa Hannigan, Sea Sew

08 December 2009

John Lennon, 9 October 1940 - 8 December 1980


Jann Wenner: What are your personal tastes?

John Lennon: Sounds like "Wop Bop A Loo Bop." I like rock and roll. I don't like much else. That's the music that inspired me to play music. There is nothing conceptually better than rock and roll.

Jann Wenner: Do you have a picture of "when I'm sixty-four"?

John Lennon: No, no. I hope we're a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that - looking at our scrapbook of madness.

07 December 2009

New Fleet Foxes In 2010

Seattle-based Fleet Foxes are recording their second full-length album and plan to release it "the second early half, or the mid-second half of 2010," band member Robin Peckhold tells The Guardian. His description of the tone and direction of the new songs? Well . . . Peckhold's explanation is about as clear as the release date. But it seems as though the boys are looking to deliver a minimally produced sound that will reflect their strong live performances.

Peckhold also grants an extended sit-down to Pitchfork and discusses his side projects as well as on-going involvement with Fleet Foxes.

Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut was TNOP's 2008 Album of the Year. To see why, revisit their performance of "Mykonos"on Saturday Night Live as well as the Take-Away Show at La Blogotheque.

06 December 2009

Special Screening of "Still Bill"

Back in October, we Italicwrote at length about the enduring musical legacy of Bill Withers and the limited release of the new documentary on his career, Still Bill. This Tuesday night, the good folks at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee will host a special screening for listeners at the Hi Hat Garage at Brady & Arlington Streets in Milwaukee. The benefit showing will be followed by a performance by the great Paul Cebar and the up and coming talent Evan Christian. It's only $10 and the fee benefits an independent radio station which is an oasis on the radio dial.

05 December 2009

Tribute (In Memoriam): Liam Clancy

[Editor's note: Celtic Ray, TNOP's correspondent from County Clare, Republic of Ireland, contributed to this report.]

Regular readers of this blog know that one of TNOP's goals is to ensure that our readers are aware of the vital roots of popular music in addition to keeping abreast of the latest news about today's performers. As the history of rock and roll reaches past its fifth decade, the inevitable (or sometimes untimely) deaths of its singers, songwriters, musicians and producers become more common. And sometimes there are those on the periphery that, unbeknownst to most fans, have made a noted impact on some of rock's most important artists.

Liam Clancy (pictured left with Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, above) was one such fellow. And music fans should know why Bob Dylan called him "the best ballad singer I have heard in my life." He died at the age of 74 this past week in Cork, Ireland.

Born in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Clancy was one eleven children. His mother was a noted singer, and because of that fact in the mid-1950s he met Diane Hamilton Guggenheim, who was in the Republic to record noted Irish folk singers. It was during his travels in 1955 with Guggenheim that he would meet his future band partner Tommy Makem, whose mother also was a singer of some repute.

Young Liam's dream was to be an actor; after studying in night school at the National College of Art, he had minor success in Dublin, including an appearance in the production of The Playboy of the Western World starring Siobhan McKenna and Cyril Cusack. He struck off for the United States, landing fortuitously in Grennwich Village, staying with his brother Paddy and his wife. In between toiling through auditions and landing small parts in television and small films, Clancy would frequent establishments like the White Horse Bar and Gerde's Folk City, meeting jazz musicians, folk singers and actors aspiring to success in their respective crafts. It was during this time that he met Bob Dylan and they became regular acquaintances. Dylan would later recall a particular line of Liam's in the early days, after a number of pints of Guinness: "Remember Bob: No fear. No envy. No meanness."

But achieving success as an actor was difficult, and Liam reunited with Tommy Makem in New York. Along with his bothers Pat and Tom, the four recorded an album of republican rebel ballads entitled The Rising of the Moon in 1959. Not surprisingly, Clancy indicated he chose music over acting because "the pay was significantly better."

On St. Patrick's Day 1961, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem got their big break. An act cancelled on The Ed Sullivan Show, a very popular national variety show on CBS Television. The boys' set was extended to 16 full minutes, and Irish traditional songs were suddenly in the vogue. Liam's wonderful baritone was a key reason for the group's artistic success. And as fate would have it, the boys had recently received new sweaters from home, knit by the Clancy Brothers' Aunt Peggy; the group had "a hook and a look" according to their agent. John Hammond of Columbia Records (also responsible for the signing of artists like Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen) signed The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, and they became international stars, riding the accompanying wave of folk music popularity in the early 1960s. Millions of albums were sold. Carnegie Hall was conquered. An audience with the first Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy, occurred in 1963.

By 1964, it was claimed that one-third of all albums sold in the Republic of Ireland were Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem records.

The folk music boom faded by the late 1960s with the emergence of a different brand of rock and roll. The group would break up and Liam Clancy, suddenly less well off because of bad business decisions, found himself in Canada, where he remade himself as a popular TV personality. Over the coming years, he would reunite in various configurations with Makem and his brothers.

Liam Clancy was the last surviving member of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. So lift "The Parting Glass." But every June, their hometown of Carrick-on-Suir will continue to hold a festival to celebrate the musical legacy of their native sons.


The New York Times obituary of Liam Clancy (1935-2009).

Liam Clancy's final published interview from The Irish Times in September of this year.

Liam sings lead on "I Never Will Play The Wild Rover No More" with his brother Tom, Tommy Makem and Pete Seeger on the first episode of Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger.

Liam talks a couple of years ago on RTE about meeting Dylan in the early days and having a drink with him and Bono in Dublin.

View the trailer from the 2007 documentary The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy.

03 December 2009

Albums You Must Own (#5 in a series)

Pearl (Columbia 1971)
Produced by Paul A. Rothschild

Janis Joplin's meteoric rise and fall on the rock and roll music scene is well documented; indeed, almost 40 years (!) have passed since her death and there is still talk of a movie biopic in the works (this time with Zooey Daschanel in the title role). Aside from Aretha Franklin, it is hard to identify a woman with a more soulful, powerhouse voice in popular music. But while she lives eternally in that famous clip from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, her recorded body of work is a mixed bag. Although it was released four months after Janis' fatal overdose, Pearl finally captured the promise so many had envisioned. Heaven knows it wasn't easy.

The album's title refers to the alter ego name Janis gave herself: "Pearl," the fun-loving, outgoing, hard drinking woman that was the furthest personality from the little girl blue that grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. On "The Dick Cavett Show" she famously announced that she was returning to her hometown for her tenth high school reunion. And that she did, with a full blown hippie entourage. Dressed in flamboyant regalia that embarrassed her mother so much that she left town, news cameras recorded the entire circus. Teetering back and forth from alcohol and drug use, her moods ran the gamut from cackling devil-may-care to wounded duckling.

Yet she put herself together in the fall of 1970 just enough to deliver a classic performance on an inspired grouping of songs squired by producer Paul A. Rothschild (who helmed albums by The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley and Neil Young). The key to this reviewer was the band from Ontario, Canada that she had been plying her trade with for most of the summer, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, anchored by guitarist John Till, pianist Richard Bell and organist Ken Pearson. Back in 1967, Janis' original splash came as lead vocalist for Big Brother & The Holding Company, a muscular garage band with the psychedelic sound popular in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. There are still many fans who think Janis made a mistake by following manager Albert Grossman's suggestion to split from Big Brother. As evidence, critics point to the bad fit with her next backing musicians, The Kosmic Blues Band, which overpowered Janis' vocals with a full R&B sound (complete with horn section).

But on Pearl, the opening salvo, "Move Over" (the only track authored by Joplin) immediately tells the listener that Full Tilt Boogie is one tight outfit, and Janis trusts them. The time spent together on the road is evident; Janis pleads (Please don't you do it to me baby!) and cajoles (You know that I need a man/Honey, I told you so) with a recently departed lover to come back into her arms, only to end in exhaustion (Either take the love I offer/Or honey let me be) - and the band twists and turns with her the whole way.

"Cry Baby" hearkens back to the "classic" Janis in full throated blues wail, telling her man to come back home whether he finds himself at the end of the road in Detroit or even Kathmandu. The end is simply thrilling with Bell's gospel chords punctuating her gut bucket soul reading of the Jerry Ragovoy composition.

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's "A Woman Left Lonely" is the production centerpiece on Side One. But Rothschild resists the temptation of going over the top, and Janis stays inside the ropes just enough to wring out every tear. The mournful church organ of Pearson compliments the plaintive lyric beautifully.

Then it's time to turn it up. The full sound of Full Tilt Boogie steps to the front and Janis strides along effortlessly; you can close your eyes and see her interacting with the players, finally erupting at the end in a penultimate invitation to her lover to "bring it on home." The first half of Pearl ends in much the same vein with an rolling instrumental called "Buried Alive In The Blues." It was a backing track that was originally scheduled to be combined with a Janis vocal. Given the circumstances, the listener can't help but wonder about the title.

The flip side starts with "My Baby," and finally some sun shines on the lyric front. What starts out as a confident vocal based on the familiar refrain that home is where her man is, no matter how tough work or life is in general, becomes a tour de force for Janis. Following is another tune about the simple satisfaction of being with the right partner - albeit a more famous one: Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee," which would become Janis' musical signature.

Listeners probably still don't know what to make of "Mercedes Benz." A Shel Silverstein knock off penned by Janis with Dylan pals Bobby Neuwirth and Michael McClure, it carried some social bite in its day but now is just another novelty song.

Thankfully, deep soul becomes the order of the day to close out the album. Bobby Womack's "Trust Me" is to these ears the highlight of Pearl. Controlled but convincing throughout, Janis asks for simple trust from her partner and she pledges unrequited love in return. And "Get It While You Can," upon repeated listens over the years, sounds like Janis as older than her years, imploring her fans to cherish and live life to the fullest.

What could have been is the lingering question, of course. But what was is captured eloquently on Pearl.


The original review of Pearl by critic Jack Shadoian as it appeared in Rolling Stone in its February 18, 1971 issue.

Listen to Janis Joplin perform the studio version of "Trust Me."

Watch Janis belt out "Cry Baby" live in Toronto with Full Tilt Boogie in the summer 1970.

02 December 2009

Tribute (In Memoriam): Bob Keane

Bob Keane, who founded independent label Del-Fi Records in the the 1950s and is best known for discovering the young Ritchie Valens (seen above with Keane), died last Saturday at the age of 87.

His first splash in the music business was releasing Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" on his Keen label. (Ironically, the song was the B-side to "Summertime.") In 1957 "You Send Me" spent six weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart and three weeks as the top single on the pop chart.

As for the 17 year old who would later be inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Keane recalled: "I saw (Valens) at a little concert in a movie theater. There he was, a Latino kid doing just a few riffs and a couple of songs. But I was very impressed by his stage demeanor. The girls were going crazy, screaming."

Demos of Valens were recorded in Keane's home studio, eventually leading to a formal session at Gold Star Recording Studios in L.A. Memorable hits followed, including "Come On, Let's Go" (co-authored by Keane) and "Donna." But the biggest of all was "La Bamba," a Mexican folk song that Valens transformed with a rock and roll rhythm and became a hit in 1958. (Interestingly enough, after the premiere of the movie of the biographical movie based on Valens' life, Los Lobos' cover of the song shot to number one on the charts in seven countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.)

On February 3, 1959 while on tour, Valens perished in a plane crash that also famously claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. In 1994, Keane said: "I still miss him. He was like a son to me."

Bob Keane went on to found Mustang Records, and in the 1960s had notable chart successes with songs like the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought The Law."



Listen to the original 45 version of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba."

Watch Los Lobos cover "La Bamba" in a live performance from 1985, prior to their involvement with the movie soundtrack.

The incomparable Sam Cooke performs "You Send Me" on American Bandstand in 1958.

01 December 2009

Carry The News

The Thin White Duke helps all the boogaloo dudes at TNOP troll the web for the latest news. . .

Sufjan Stevens gives a lengthy interview with Brandon Stosuy in Interview magazine, discussing his new work The BQE, why he doesn't perform on TV and whether there will ever be anymore "state" records.

The seventh CD from TNOP faves Spoon will be released on January 18 in Europe on Anti- and on January 19 on Merge. It's called Transference and both NPR and Stereogum have a stream of the first single, "Written in Reverse." Sounds cool to us. The new material will probably get a workout when they ring in the New Year with Jay Reatard at The Riverside in Milwaukee on December 31.

Overdosing on the decade and year end "best of" lists? (We hope not, because TNOP's are still to come.) In addition to the Spoon record, here are some of the releases we are looking forward to in 2010:
The National (TBA)
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks (March 9)
MGMT - Congratulations (Spring)
Los Campesinos! - Romance Is Boring (January 26)
LCD Soundsystem (March)
++++ Ten Questions for James Murphy (Drowned In Sound)
Interpol (Early 2010)
Midlake - The Courage of Others (February 1)
The Hold Steady (TBA)
Massive Attack - Heligoland (February 9)
Arcade Fire (TBA)

Jim DeRogatis profiles Matthew Santos in advance of his appearance at Lincoln Hall in Chicago this Friday.

The Times of London catches up with Brian Ferry and finds him pretty grumpy. But he still looks good and offers you a free download for putting up with him.

Paul McCartney wrote the closing song for the new Robert DeNiro movie, "Everybody's Fine." He talks about it as well as his recent CitiField shows in New York and the coming Gershwin Prize For Popular Song, which Macca will receive in the spring at the Library of Congress.

A few weeks ago we wrote about the pending release of Ben Sidran's album of Bob Dylan covers. Dylan Different is released tomorrow. Rob Thomas of The Capitol Times talks with the Madison based jazz pianist about his passing encounters with the Patron Saint of TNOP. Sidran's put his own stamp on familiar, but sometimes daunting, material.

Paste continues its list-o-mania with the 30 Best Covers of the Decade. Audio included.

And happy birthday to John Densmore, drummer with The Doors. Instead of a cake, this dynamic live performance of "Love Me Two Times" is served up for your listening pleasure.

This Date In Rock History: 1 December

In the aftermath of one of the most traumatic events in American history, Capitol Records unwittingly lit a spark that would provide a healing balm in the matter of a couple of months. On this date in 1963, The Beatles' first U.S. single was released, the double-sided monster pairing of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There." Both written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the lads from Liverpool had vowed that they would not touch American soil until they had their first number one.

On February 1, 1964, the record hit the top of the charts and stayed there for seven consecutive weeks. (TNOP still has its 45 rpm copy in the archives.) And the music world was literally never the same.

"I Want To Hold Your Hand" remains the biggest selling single of The Beatles' career.


The Beatles perform "I Want To Hold Your Hand" live over the screaming throngs on The Ed Sullivan Show early in 1964.

Producer George Martin talks about the record and the Fab Four lip-synchs to the studio version of the hit song.

30 November 2009

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 106]

Family Affair
b/w "Luv 'N Haight"
Sly & The Family Stone
Released 6 November 1971
Epic 5-10805
Written & Produced by Sly Stone

San Francisco Bay Area native Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) took the music world by storm in the late 60's along with his interracial band, emphasizing a message of hope and empowerment with hit songs like "Stand!," "Dance To The Music" and "Everyday People." But by the end of the decade, the full-bodied sound of the group took a sudden turn that would foreshadow what would eventually be recognized as Sly's most influential work.

"Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" was still a communal work by the band, featuring traded vocals by Sly, his sister Rose, his brother Freddie and bassist Larry Graham. The heavy funk sound (which clearly would influence Miles Davis and George Clinton, among others)featured the soon to be popular slap bass style of Graham, the horns of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson, and was anchored by the dependable drummer Greg Errico. But the lyrics bordered on bitter, with Sly tweaking his listeners for supposedly demanding a recycling of the band's positive message and for not letting him "be myself." It shot to number one on the pop and soul charts in February 1970.

And then Sly and The Family Stone went dark for close to two years. Sly moved to Los Angeles, fell into copious drug use, and disassociated himself with the majority of the band. Clive Davis of Epic Records released "Greatest Hits" as a result of the dearth of product. Although the collection was a big seller (there is no doubt it is one of the finest of the genre), the lack of new music also started to draw loud whispers in the press, wondering whether this was the premature end of one of the finer talents in rock.

But by the end of 1971, Sly had personally delivered the master tapes of a new album to Davis, produced at The Record Plant studios in L.A. There's A Riot Goin' On (a title supposedly in answer to Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On) was released on 20 November 1971. The lead single was shipped to radio stations two weeks earlier: "Family Affair." While the lyrics are a measured study of the difficulties that commonly exist within families, the sound and production were a stark departure not only for Sly, but rock itself.

"Family Affair" is motored by a drum machine track and Sly's bass. The production is murky, supposedly the result of Sly's constant overdubbing in the studio. (Whether intentional or not, The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street, released six months later, would adopt this same muddy mix rendering many of the vocals undecipherable.) The only member of The Family Stone that contributes to the song is sister Rose, who provides the title's refrain while Sly digs into the low register of his voice, contrary to his then-familiar gospel style. The instrumental lead is carried by the Fender Rhodes played by Billy Preston, with the wah-wah guitar of Bobby Womack weaving in and out of the song.

The result is strangely affecting, its slow funk always inducing the listener to want to shuffle across the room. Sly thought "Family Affair" wasn't strong enough to merit single status, but his management and Epic Records convinced him otherwise. It would become the biggest selling 45 of his career, spending three weeks at number one on the pop charts and five weeks at the top of the R&B listings.

There's A Riot Goin' On would prove to be another gold album for Sly & The Family Stone. Despite mixed reviews upon release, it would also eventually be recognized by critics as one of the most influential records of all time. Unfortunately, Sly Stone would only continue his precipitous decline, eventually all but disappearing from the music scene, another casualty of personal foibles. Rock and roll still misses him.


Listen to "Family Affair."

25 November 2009

This Date In Rock History: 25 November

On this date in 1976, The Band played its last concert as an original quintet. Now famously known as "The Last Waltz" (original concert poster pictured above), the show took place at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom, an old ice skating rink located in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood. Immortalized in the Martin Scorsese documentary, The Band was joined by a Who's Who of the music world at the time.

Just in time for the 33rd anniversary and holiday listening, Wolfgang's Vault is streaming the entire, four hour show unedited for the first time! (Note: Listening is free, but you must register simply with e-mail address and password.) So, as Van The Man says, turn up your radio.

SET LIST (Links are to video performances from the film)
Shape I'm In
Life Is A Carnival
This Wheel's On Fire
W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
Georgia On My Mind
King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
Stage Fright
Rag Mama Rag
Intro/Who Do You Love (with Ronnie Hawkins)
Such A Night (With Dr. John)
Down South In New Orleans (with Dr. John)
Mystery Train (with Paul Butterfield)
Caledonia (with Muddy Waters)
All Our Past Times (with Eric Clapton)
Further On Up The Road (with Eric Clapton)
Four Strong Winds (with Neil Young)
Shadows and Light (with Joni Mitchell)
Furry Sings The Blues (with Joni Mitchell)
Dry Your Eyes (with Neil Diamond)
Tura Lura Lural (with Van Morrison)
Acadian Driftwood (with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young)
Genetic Method
Chest Fever
The Last Waltz Suite: Evangeline
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (with Bob Dylan)
Hazel (with Bob Dylan)
I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met (with Bob Dylan)
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (reprise) (with Bob Dylan)
Instrumental Jam #1
Instrumental Jam #2
The Band: Rick Danko - bass, fiddle, vocals; Levon Helm - drums, mandolin, vocals; Garth Hudson - organ, piano, accordion, synthesizers, soprano saxophone, violin; Richard Manuel - piano, organ, drums, clavinet, dobro, vocals; Robbie Robertson - guitar, piano, vocals

Horn Section: Richard Cooper - trumpet, flugelhorn; James Gordon - flute, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jerry Hay - trumpet, flugelhorn; Howard Johnson - tuba, baritone saxophone, flugelhorn, bass clarinet; Charlie Keagle - clarinet, flute, saxophone; Tom Malone - trombone, euphonium, alto flute

22 November 2009

In Search of News

The talented but troubled music critic Robert Palmer was recently profiled in the New York Times. His estranged daughter has produced a documentary of her late father's travels in search of the muse and writer Anthony DeCurtis has edited a compilation of Palmer's essays.

The Guardian reviews the London Jazz Festival, headlined by the saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins. Even if you are not a jazz fan, treat yourself to Rollins' virtuosity by listening to the Rolling Stones' "Waiting On A Friend."

Paste picks the ten best movie soundtracks of the decade.

Speaking of the cinema, the end of the year means the push for the Oscars is about to begin. Potential soundtrack entries are no exception. Stereogum provides streaming audio of U2's "Winter" from Jim Sheridan's upcoming film Brothers as well as a couple of tunes by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis featured in the adaption of the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road.

The so-called "Never Ending Tour" of Bob Dylan wrapped up its latest chapter with multiple nights in, fittingly enough, New York City. TNOP thought the review from Roger Catlin at the Hartford Courant was interesting, particularly his discussion of the atmosphere created during Dylan's set and the words devoted to his under appreciated opening act, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dion DiMucci.

And happy birthday to Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom-Tom Club fame. Celebrate by dancing without inhibition to "Genius of Love."

21 November 2009

My Back Pages

Cornflakes With John Lennon
and Other Tales From A Rock 'N Roll Life
by Robert Hilburn
Rodale, 280 pages

For a musical genre that has only been in cultural focus for about 50 years, rock 'n roll has produced some notable books, from definitive biographies (Peter Guralnick's dual volume on Elvis, Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love) to rock as relevant sociology (Mystery Train by Greil Marcus) to collections of the advent of rock criticism (Lester Bangs' Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). And while first person accounts of "rock as it happened" are becoming increasingly less rare, especially as the survivors reach their golden years, witnesses of a more dispassionate kind do not come along as often.

Enter Robert Hilburn, the chief music critic for the Los Angeles Times for over thirty years. Though certainly a fluid writer, one would expect Cornflakes With John Lennon to predictably be a compilation of his best columns and features published over the years. Instead, we are rewarded with a touching memoir of not only his unique relationships with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, as well as Lennon, but the author's personal chronology of a life that parallels the birth of rock 'n roll to the present.

As a young boy growing up in the deep south, Hilburn recalls the wonderful sounds of Hank Williams and black blues artists that filled the air via the phonograph and radio. The family then moves to Southern California, and we get a first person account of attending the movie Blackboard Jungle, with teens literally dancing in the aisles to "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets during the opening credits. Something different was in the air, and Hilburn found it one day listening to XERB, a powerful AM radio station broadcasting across the border in Mexico: the Big Bang of Rock, Elvis Presley. Although over the years he would pursue personal audiences with "The King" to no avail, and write sadly of his declining years, Hilburn's enduring love of the artist would create his thesis for Cornflakes: "What linked Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, the Beatles and Bob Dylan was the old-fashioned American notion that each individual can make a difference, whether you are a truck driver from Memphis or a blind piano player from southwest Georgia. Rock 'n roll is the promise of a better day, and the best artists spread that message with an almost missionary zeal. I've always believed in that liberating message, which is probably why I respond most to artists who fight to keep the promise alive."

Because of his long familiarity with - and love of- country music, Hilburn works his way into the Times, first as a stringer, then as a full-time reporter. His big break comes as the only writer accompanying Johnny Cash for his now legendary performance at Folsom Prison in 1968. An early acquaintanceship with Kris Kristofferson leads to a famous interlude with Janis Joplin, and Hilburn convinces his editors that features on rock should be regular items in the newspaper.

The author straddles a fine line through the years between journalistic objectivity and championing the "next big thing." Just as Robert Shelton trumpeted the arrival of a young folk singer named Dylan in 1961 in the New York Times, Hilburn's excitement with the initial U.S. shows at L.A.'s Troubadour club of Elton John propels the singer-songwriter's career.

The memoir takes off from there and we are treated to a travelogue of Hilburn's favorites: John Prine, Randy Newman, Springsteen, U2 and Kurt Cobain. And while these artists make for more than interesting reading, the most gripping passages involve his various encounters with the post-Beatles John Lennon and post-motorcycle accident Bob Dylan.

We get a front row seat at Lennon's "lost weekend," the months in L.A. he spent usually in the besotted company of Harry Nilsson and producer Phil Spector (himself the subject of frightening and sad reminiscence of Hilburn). Their mutual love for Elvis will prove to be the glue that cements the relationship between newspaperman and artist, and gives us the sweet story behind the book's title: Lennon's habit of treating himself to corn flakes doused in real cream, staples rarely available in the rationed Liverpool of his youth. Hilburn spends significant time with Lennon during the genesis and recording of Double Fantasy. And sadly, he is the first writer to spend time with Ono in the initial hours following Lennon's murder.

Dylan, predictably, is a tougher get. Hilburn's initial approaches during the huge "comeback" tour with The Band in the early 70's are met with the famous Dylan indifference, bordering on mockery. But the author plows ahead, and with an open mind is granted the first audience with the singer after his immersion into Christian thought and beliefs. Hilburn clearly recognized the epic shadow that Dylan continued to cast on popular music despite the gyrations of popular opinion. And his faith in Dylan's missionary zeal with varying musical genres is rewarded with Dylan's renaissance in the 90's and into the 00's. Ironically, perhaps the most fascinating section of Cornflakes turns out to be the reprinting of an extended article Hilburn penned for the Times a couple of years ago in which Dylan talks for the first time at length about the songwriting process.

While Cornflakes sometimes devolves into cloying speech (patting himself on the back for supposedly changing Bono's early stage presence or providing Dylan with a set list of favorites for a concert in Israel), Hilburn keeps his eye on the initial premise and continues to hope (against hope?) for a next generation of rock saviors, casting his ballot for present day performers Jack White and Conor Oberst.

But it is his continued passion as a fan and his ability to bring the humanity of the famous to the written page that serve this memoir best.