High Frequencies

Hot off the presses, I just heard this brand new cut from Paul Weller, and it’s quite fantastic. One thing I truly love about this guy is that, decades into his career, he is constantly pushing himself to keep producing interesting, new records, even when he could easily reform the Jam, do the endless Greatest Hits tours, and cash in. Instead, he’s still at it, sometimes hitting the sweet spot, sometimes having the admirable miss, but still plugging away nevertheless. “Brand New Toy,” a fresh, tuneful, and Beatley number, is definitely one of the former….

Four Tops - Reach Out I'll Be There
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The Four Tops - “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

From the album Reach Out (1967)

My past gripes about oldies radio notwithstanding, it did introduce me to a wealth of great music that has stood the test of time. For instance, it was on the local oldies station that I first heard the Four Tops sing “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and even when I was 10, that song just sent shivers down my spine. And it still does.

Actually, the sound of the track was kind of haunting and spooky, but that somehow made it even better. The opening bars, with the flute floating over the galloping, clicking baseline, and then the husky voice of Levi Stubbs suddenly jumping into the mix, front and center, catapulting the song forward - it was just an awesome sound to my young ears. But the minor chords the song was built on had an almost threatening, ominous vibe, and the music seemed to not entirely sync up with the optimistic message Stubbs was offering up, one of love and protection to the audience he was singing to.

It sounded almost like a man singing out of panic and desperation, rather than a place of strength and security. But the performance was so strong, and the melody so captivating, that the eerie nature of the track just added to its appeal. Those were the feelings the song evoked for me, twenty-plus years ago, and it has consistently been one of my favorite songs, from anyone, ever since.

Interesting trivia note on this one: several years back, I read that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had this song in mind when he was writing Good Vibrations. I never really heard it before - it’s hard to reconcile the light surf pop of the Beach Boys with the light soul sound of Motown, on first glance - but after I listened to the minor-chord intro of “Vibrations,” with that ethereal flute gliding over it, and then “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops, I never heard either song the same way again. And then it all made complete sense to me.

In any case? You’ve been warned.

Old and In The Way - “The Hobo Song”

From the album Breakdown (1973)

Bluegrass is one of those music forms I always enjoy when I hear, but which I’ve never really been much of an expert on. In terms of my musical education, it’s a genre I’ve yet to really dig deep into, to learn about the roots, the major players, the essential albums, and so on and so forth.

Fortunately, one needn’t be a musical authority in order to just enjoy the music tracks (though I’m always looking for the stories behind the music. Thank you, VH-1!). And ever since an ex introduced me to this old nugget from Jerry Garcia's bluegrass offshoot from the early ’70s, it’s been an easy favorite. I had first really started getting exposed to, and enjoying, the Grateful Dead back in college, when their music was floating around the dorms like time had stopped in 1972. Hell, I still have some pictures from those days that certainly look like they were taken 25 years earlier. In any case, I never really went for the “space jams" and the endless musical noodling that could be found in the Dead’s live sets. 

But when I heard their acoustic music, a whole other side of the band was revealed to me, and that was really my pathway to really digging ‘em. From there, I started learning about things like the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and the Pizza Tapes, and I found my appreciation and enjoyment growing for Garcia’s acoustic projects.

Still, I can’t recall really learning about Old & In The Way until an ex played this album on a long road trip we took several years ago. It was a road trip I was sort of forced into, after we’d had a fight and I was trying to keep the peace, and the music she slipped on was melodic, laid-back, and soothing. Songs like “The Hobo Song,” written by a Californian contemporary of the Dead’s named Jack Bonus (featuring chords that echo the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses) just seemed to hit the spot during that long road trip, and I’ve been coming back to this album ever since. Good stuff.

Even if I’m not much of an expert on it….

Diane Birch - Fire Escape
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Diane Birch - “Fire Escape”

From the album Bible Belt (2009)

On this grey, rainy Friday afternoon, I’m plowing through work, cranking out correspondence and winding down after a busy, intense week. As always, I’ve found myself subconsciously searching for a fitting soundtrack, and just came across some Diane Birch on the ol’ laptop. Right away, it hit the spot.

Specifically, I came across the soulful, kick-off track from her Bible Belt album, which I only just discovered last year, even though it has been out for quite a while now. The sound and the vibe are very much throwbacks to an earlier era, a time when Carole King and James Taylor were in their prime and packing the airwaves, and the “singer-songwriter” label wasn’t something to roll one’s eyes at yet. It’s that kind of mellow, relaxing music that I’m jonesing for this afternoon. And Diane Birch fits the bill perfectly.

For what it’s worth, after I got turned on to Birch last year, I was really looking forward to some new music from her. Luck would have it that she was due to release a new album only months later, but sadly, I just could not get into it. The whole vibe of the newer disc just left me cold. Still, nothing takes away my love of this debut album. And since it got the seal of approval from Daryl Hall, who can quibble…??

Nirvana - “In Bloom”

From the album Nevermind (1991)

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was a bit slow to catch on to Nirvana when they first hit the national stage. Mainly because I was a snotty, snobby teen who wouldn’t dare listen to modern music rather than the far superior sounds of the Beatles. “Modern music?” I (rhetorically) scoffed. “What’s the point?”

I have my older brother to thank for bringing Nirvana into the house, though, and even though ours was a relationship built around who could drown out the other’s music first, from opposite ends of the hallway, I quietly developed a grudging enjoyment of “In Bloom.” Lord knows, when my brother would crank up the Tool or the  Mr. Bungle, I would roll my eyes and slip on my headphones, whenever possible. But if he slipped on Nevermind - particularly if this song came on - I didn’t really mind it so much. 

Sometimes, in less guarded moments, I even caught myself enjoying it. Damn him!

Over the years, as the music snobbery largely mellowed and I started to just embrace the music I enjoyed, I really came to appreciate Nirvana, and my love of “In Bloom” is now unqualified. I’ve always dug the thin bass line that slithers throughout this song, the treble-y guitar chords Cobain wove on top, and the catharsis of when the song launches into the loud, fuzzy chorus. Even if I never could make out the words, I just dug the overall sound of the track. 

All that said, we’ll just leave alone how old it makes me feel to realize this song is over 20 years old. How the hell…??

Since I just took a couple of minutes to look over the fruits of the past 500 posts, I thought I’d take the opportunity to re-post an oldie that deserves another look/listen. Love the sound of this duet….

Gaz

Mojo Mag

……Here she is: the 500th post of this blog. I’ve unfortunately been swamped at work and sadly haven’t had much free time to devote to any extracurricular writing, but I didn’t want to let too much time pass here without updating. And what better way to update than to post a link to a serious time-killer? Have a look at this great list the fine folks at MOJO put together recently. I don’t agree with all the choices, but it’s definitely a good read. Enjoy!

(Also, since this is the 500th post, I thought I might as well link to the first post that kicked this whole thing off….)

Nikka Costa - “Everybody Got Their Something”

From the album Everybody Got Their Something (2001)

Ever since I hooked up with the iPhone, which of course doubles as an mp3 player, there have been plenty of times I’ve left the house without the trusty iPod, simply because it’s one less thing to carry, charge, and worry about. But it’s the difference between walking around with a couple of hundred songs, versus walking around with 20,000 songs, and that’s clearly a huge, huge gap. It means that I’m less likely to dig deep into the music collection and listen to cuts from artists I enjoy, but I’m maybe not fanatical about.

On the flip side, though, when I do take the iPod with me, as I did the other day, I’m apt to start flipping through it to see just what music I’ve got buried in those 20,000 tracks, and this often leads me to rediscover some great music I’d forgotten I had. Case in point: “Everybody Got Their Something,” from the album of the same name by Nikka Costa. It’s been less than a year since I’ve started listening to Costa, and I’ve really enjoyed her funky, retro soul sound. And truly, it doesn’t get much more retro and funky than on this cool, mellow track. 

As I mentioned in my first post about Costa, I love the fact that she creates music that’s unselfconsciously retro, proudly retro, without veering into self-parody. It’s just good music that borrows a vintage vibe, similar to the music that Amy Winehouse or the crew at Daptone have crafted. Ultimately,  good music is good music is good music….

Beck - Say Goodbye
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Beck - “Say Goodbye”

From the album Morning Phase (2014)

Beck's Back. After what seems like years of being lost in the wilderness of esoteric side projects, it’s nice to welcome him back to the music scene with what I feel is his strongest effort in ages. It’s sort of like getting an unexpected visit from a dear old friend.  

For what it’s worth, this is not the irreverent Beck we first met twenty years ago, nor is it the musical-blending Beck that was featured on his landmark Odelay. If this album has a precursor at all, reviewers are pretty much pushing the idea that it’s 2002’s slightly morose Sea Change. I’m not sure I totally agree; whereas that earlier disc seemed to exude a sad heaviness, and it liberally borrowed from Serge Gainsbourg, this new album seems lighter, more confident, and more listenable. If anything, it reminds me most of my favorite vintage Beck album, Mutations

Just like that earlier disc, Morning Phase seems less concerned with hitting us over the head with Beck’s Sadness, and more concerned with painting intricate, carefully textured soundscapes. Sixteen years after stripping down his music and producing a toned-down, experimental collection of songs on Mutations, Beck has matured as a songwriter and as a producer, and my first listens to Morning Phase evoke similar feelings to the vibes I got listening back in ‘98. Two particular early standouts here are the acoustic-based numbers “Blackbird Chain” and the lovely “Say Goodbye.” Both shuffle along, with unexpected orchestral flourishes, layered harmonies, and some subtle studio pixie dust that give the songs some room to breath and stand on their own melodic and lyrical merits.  

I’ve only made it through the disc once in its entirety, so far, but this is the first time I’ve felt genuinely excited listening to a new Beck offering in well over a decade. I’d almost forgotten how nice it feels…

Lydia Loveless  - Really Wanna See You
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Lydia Loveless - “Really Wanna See You”

From the album Somewhere Else (2014)

Score another one for NPR, and for contemporary music. As I was browsing through the Facebook feed last week, I came across an NPR post with the above picture, which caught my eye. I glanced at the article, which was an announcement that Lydia Loveless was streaming her forthcoming album on NPR. I hadn’t heard of Loveless before (but what a perfect name!), but I’ve definitely heard of her label, Bloodshot Records, which was more than enough to pique my interest. So I went ahead and nabbed her album, and I’m very glad I did. 

To paraphrase and (intentionally) mangle Shakespeare, though she be but young, she is fierce. Only 23 years old, this girl’s got a gritty, melodic Americana sound, a classic country lilt to her strong vocals, and an album sound reminiscent of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker disc. High praise, indeed. She definitely knows how to write a catchy melody and a strong hook, which is half the battle. 

I’m always interested in someone who can straddle the line between garage rock and that Gram Parsons strain of country, and it’s looking like Lydia Loveless is gonna be one to watch over the next few years. So far, 2014 is turning out to be a good year for the music fans out there…!

The Doors - Soul Kitchen
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The Doors - “Soul Kitchen”

From the album The Doors (1967)

As I’ve noted in the past, I’ve had an interesting relationship with this band. As a teen, I was briefly very much a fan, then the band felt too precious by half, and it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that the music merited another listen. What I finally came to realize was that, if you stripped away the cult of personality that built up around Jim Morrison, the Lizard King silliness, and all those pesky naked Indians, the Doors were actually a cool little singles band. As hundreds of guitar-based combos sprang up in garages in the mid-1960s, inspired by the Beatles and the Stones, the Doors came together and produced a unique sound that was based around these ethereal organ notes. Some of the lyrics could be pretentious, the band was sometimes guilty of taking itself too seriously on the deep cuts, but there were also maybe a dozen singles that can easily stand alongside the best of what their contemporaries were putting out during that golden age of rock music. 

Soul Kitchen is one of those tracks. It has always been kind of an overlooked b-side, but I’ve always dug the swampy swing on it. It was the flip side of their monster Light My Fire single, and also placed on their debut album in 1967, creatively also titled The Doors. There’s actually a couple of interesting factoids that probably only I care about, but they’re worth sharing. The song starts with just Ray Manzarek's organ notes bouncing off of a rumbling bass guitar, setting the groove of the song. But the only two melodic instrumentalists in the Doors were Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger, so I wondered who played the bass that we hear on the record.  A little digging shows that the bass on this track is by studio musician Larry Knechtel, who was a member of the infamous Wrecking Crew in LA in the 1960s. As a studio musician, Knechtel played on cuts by the Doors, Johnny Rivers, the Monkees, and - wait for it - the Partridge Family

That’s right: we now have an official link between the Doors and the Partridge Family. I think I love this. 

In any case, “Soul Kitchen” is a smoking little cut, self-consciously cool and swaggering in the way that the Doors excelled in. Always a fun track to dig into. So go ahead and do that…..

Michael Kiwanuka - I Won't Lie
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Michael Kiwanuka - “I Won’t Lie”

From the album Home Again (2012)

When it’s deep in the middle of a frigid New England winter, the music I tend to keep returning to more than any other is soul music. Not sure if it’s because the music is often warmer, slower, and maybe slightly more mellow than some of the other music I like, and therefore I’m possibly associating it with warmth in general? Whatever the case, I’ve been hitting the soul something fierce as the temperature outside has remained sub-arctic. And that means I’ve been listening to Michael Kiwanuka quite a bit. 

His debut album, Home Again, is now just about two years old, and it’s definitely remained a favorite since I first heard it. I can’t wait to see what this guy does next, just as I can’t wait for him to tour the East Coast. Until then, though, I’m continuing to enjoy tracks like “I Won’t Lie,” a languid, brass-driven meditation on having a wearied mind, most suitable for that winding down, post-midnight listen. Again, this guy will probably never win a Grammy, which just goes to show that it pays to dig deep. 

Mitch

Mitch Ryder - “Takin’ All I Can Get”

Available on The Best of Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels (here)

Rock music, like the music business in general (maybe just like life in general) is littered with stories of people who almost made it big, who could’ve made it big - who absolutely deserved to make it big - but who took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. Maybe a singer wasn’t psychologically suited to the rigors of the business, or they had a shifty business agent, or they signed with the wrong label. It’s not entirely clear which of these categories Mitch Ryder falls into, but one thing *is* clear to me: if the music business were just about which records jump out of the speakers with electricity and excitement, then Mitch Ryder would’ve been a giant. 

Granted, Mitch Ryder has unquestionably secured his place in rock history. His absolutely breathtakingly primal cover of Devil With The Blue Dress On from 1966 pretty much laid the template for all garage rock to follow, capturing the raw excitement of basic mid-60s rock ‘n’ roll, and inspiring everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the White Stripes. But sadly, that one song has pretty much defined Ryder, it was definitely his commercial high point, and it has painted him as one of the dreaded “one hit wonders.” Which is unfortunate, since there really is more to this guy. 

When Ryder was at his best, he was pumping out gritty rock covers and blue-eyed soul epics like this track, “Takin’ All I Can Get,” from 1966. I haven’t been able to find out any information on who actually wrote it, but it’s a fantastic hidden gem from one of the overlooked greats of the 1960s. 

Nicole Atkins - It's Only Chemistry
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Nicole Atkins - “It’s Only Chemistry”

From the album Slow Phaser (2014)

A couple of weeks ago, following the airing of the Grammys, I was talking with my folks about the telecast. They had watched it, and I hadn’t bothered, since most of the music I care about doesn’t rise to a level of sales that would register in Grammys-Land. After they pointed out that they didn’t recognize most of the names of the acts being awarded, and that most of the music they did hear was awful, my folks lamented that all of today’s music was just dreadful. 

After some gentle teasing where I told them they sounded like cliche, grumpy old people (“But that’s exactly what we are!” they teased back), I suggested that there absolutely is good contemporary music out there - great music, even - but that you’ve gotta be willing to seek it out. If you’re willing to look, though, you can be rewarded with some real pleasures. Like with the latest release by Nicole Atkins, for example.  

I stumbled upon this musician a couple of years ago, by way of Time Magazine and their coverage of South By Southwest, and I was hooked. I’ve posted a few of her tracks over the past three years, and I was pleased to hear through the grapevine a few weeks back that she was coming out with new music early this year. The album, Slow Phaser, was just released last week, and it is beautiful.  Atkins’ strength remains her incredibly soulful, melodic vocals, and elegantly crafted songs that sit somewhere between classic rock and chamber-pop. On the new disc, she adds a happy, disco beat to several of the songs, hymnal organs swirling on others, and on “It’s Only Chemistry,” a happy, sing-along backing chorus, banjo plucking - and always that strong lead vocal, cutting through everything. It’s instantly catchy, the disc as a whole holds together well and stands up to repeated listening, and it proves to me as much as anything else that sometimes the best music out there is the stuff that’s still being newly released. 

All you have to do is listen.

The Monkees - “Goin’ Down”

Single Release (1967), Available Here 

There was a time when I looked down my nose at the Monkees (when I was in full-on “music snob" mode). They were a manufactured band, a Beatles knock-off, a lightweight pop outfit. And if it wasn’t, ahem, serious music, then I just didn’t have time for it. 

Happily, I did grow up a little bit over the years, and I lost a bit of the precious attitude. Didn’t rock music start out as being basically lightweight pop music? What the hell was Little Richard singing that was so terribly deep…? So I eventually was able to listen to groups like the Monkees with less cynical ears, and to judge the music on the only things that count: if it sounded good, if it swung, if it had a catchy hook, etc. And it turns out that this group deserves some props, since they actually did release a number of cool little tracks. Like “Goin’ Down,” a hyper, jazzy mid-60s vamp released as the B-side to their monster single, “Daydream Believer.”

This track was sung in rapid-fire, machine-gun style by Micky Dolenz, over a frantic guitar/bass/drums combo, gradually augmented by screaming horns, a snazzy sax solo in the middle, and lyrics about a guy who drank too much and tries to drown himself by jumping in the water, only to reconsider things on the way down. It’s not quite as morbid as it sounds, and has what I’m assuming was a consciously campy, lounge-y vibe. The overall sound is very much of its time, and it makes no pretensions at being anything other than a fun little track. 

And sometimes, that’s all you really need.