High Frequencies
blake babies - nothing ever happens
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The Blake Babies - Nothing Ever Happens

From the album God Bless The Blake Babies (2001)

Dear Juliana Hatfield: I’m like 99.9% certain that was you in front of me in the Whole Foods line earlier tonight. And I really wanted to (1) confirm that it was, in fact, you, and (2) tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your music over the years. Partially because I’ve read your book and I know that you sometimes lose sight of the fact that people really do feel a connection with your music, and they/we really do appreciate it. And partially because I didn’t want to be the creep that’s just doing that “Is that her? I think that’s her…” staring thing that people do when they see someone famous or musicianly or whatever. In any case, it was the dinner hour, you were wearing shades in the store, and I didn’t want to annoy you by interrupting while you bought what I can only presume was organic popcorn. Because even cool indie musicians deserve to buy their popcorn in peace, don’t they?

So in lieu of pestering you in the checkout line, I thought I’d just post a link to one of my favorite tracks off your 2001 reunion album with your old band, Blake Babies. I’ve written previously about how much I loved this album when it came out, and how the gig the band played in support of it is still one of my all-time favorite concert experiences. This track, Nothing Ever Happens, is a great example of the kind of high-quality power-pop that makes this album such a standout, more than a decade after it was released. You didn’t write this song, but you gave it the bite and attitude, anchored with those choppy, crunchy power chords propelling the song forward, that makes it so punchy, sloppy, and great. It’s about as fine a rock song about ennui and growing older as I’ve ever heard, and it’s one of the standouts on a criminally under-appreciated album.

Anyway, you go enjoy your Whole Foods purchase, and I’ll just enjoy the rest of this disc. Seems like a fair deal.

Beastie Boys - So Whatcha Want
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Beastie Boys - So Whatcha Want

From the album Check Your Head (1992)

I will always have my older brother to thank for exposing me to a lot of music I’d otherwise probably not have heard when I was growing up. Granted, this isn’t like those stories you hear about all the cool music your older siblings hipped you to, which led to your developing such a keen ear for great stuff and being cool before your time. With my brother, it was pretty much the opposite, where he and I would battle to drown out each other’s music. I’d turn up the Beatles, so he’d turn up his Powerman 5000. I’d crank the Stones, and he’d crank up Tool. Often, I’d sort of just give up and put on the headphones, blocking out his music and disappearing into the sounds I was devouring as a pre-teen and teen. Glory days, folks. Glory days. 

Still, in retrospect, I’m glad to have been exposed to my brother’s music, even if most of it never resonated with me. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s great if anyone can get a thrill out of any music at all, and whether I happen to like it is irrelevant. Do I listen to Britney Spears? No, but if her music is making someone happy, or getting them through the day, or bringing them some comfort, I can be down with that. 

But back to my brother’s music. There were one or two bands he listened to that did start to wear down my resistance a tiny bit, back in the day. One of those was Red Hot Chili Peppers, and another was Beastie Boys. Particularly, I remember liking the rhythmic, aggressive sound of So Whatcha Want, which never made a whole lot of sense to me, but definitely was kind of catchy. One need only scroll through this blog to see that I never became obsessive about the band or hip-hop, but there are a number of tracks this band did that I’ve grown to love over the years, and this was definitely the first to get me hooked. So I’m sending out a shout-out to my bro on the west coast, and cranking up some vintage Beastie Boys to kick off the weekend…!

Wilco - I Must Be High
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Wilco - I Must Be High

From the album A.M. (1995

Sometimes the simplest songs are the best songs. Case in point: the lead track off of Wilco’s debut album, A.M., which I was just knocked out to realize is now almost 20 years old. Where does the time go?? I was actually just going through my car, cleaning it out to prepare it for the scrap heap, and I came across some old mix CDs I’d made ages ago. On the first CD was this track, which I probably haven’t really sat and listened to - I mean, really listened to - in a few months. Suddenly, it all came back to me: the tight rhythm section, the breezy acoustic guitar pushing it along, Jeff Tweedy's familiar, slightly raspy voice pleading out some very basic lines about the regret of letting someone slip through his fingers, the simple, circular melody that keeps winding around and repeating, the thumping bass-line pounding against a stomping drum pattern below. It's a perfect little Americana track, an oddly happy-sounding song about a failed relationship, made for blaring out your car speakers on a sunny summer’s day….

….which is exactly what I would do, if my car wasn’t falling apart on me. Nevertheless, hearing this song again and blasting it through my headphones, I’ve fallen back in love with it. I’ve always felt that this was the best song on A.M., and was always a little let down with the music that came immediately after it. Still, it showed that Tweedy had some serious potential as a songwriter, which he definitely lived up to on subsequent albums. He’s just winding down a solo tour at the moment, and I’m looking forward to the release of his upcoming album

Bee Gees - Spicks And Specks
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Bee Gees - Spicks and Specks

From the Ultimate Bee Gees (2009)

Earlier today, I came across an article in Rolling Stone that was notable for a number of reasons: it was actually well-written, it wasn’t chasing the musical fad of the moment, and it was quite poignant. It was a sketch of Barry Gibb, the last surviving member of the Bee Gees, looking back on his family, his career, his success…and now sitting in an empty room, surrounded by the echoes of that success and the memories of times he probably thought would go on forever. 

In some ways, this Rolling Stone article reminds me of the Levon Helm documentary, Ain’t In It For My Health, which focused on this once-young, dashing, charismatic musician who had the kind of fame and success most can only imagine, but is now looking back on lost friends, declining health, and missed chances. It’s the kind of moment I think most people face, if they live long enough, but it seems to take on an interesting dimension for someone who lived their live on-stage, in the spotlights, at a perhaps more intense level.

In any case, since it’s so rare to come across a piece like this in Rolling Stone - and so rare to see the Bee Gees handled with anything other than a wink and a laugh - I thought it was worth sharing, and worth juxtaposing it with the brothers in full-flight, singing their earliest hit live in concert. If you missed the Rolling Stone link earlier, here she is again

Kula Shaker - Avalonia

Single Release 1999 (available here)

Well, summer is officially here - and with it comes the heat, the humidity, the sluggishness, and the feeling of wading through pea soup each day. But with the help of cold beers, a working AC unit, and some good music, I’m making my way through. One of the songs I’ve turned to recently is this probably not well-known acoustic track from BritPop band Kula Shaker. I’ve written about the band - one of the many English bands that gained some attention after Oasis briefly made some noise in the States back in the mid-90s - on several previous occasions, noting that they never really hit it big in America, even though they had the tunes, the swagger, and the talent to go further. But the music business is fickle, I suppose. 

In any case, the summer heat often makes me think of people sitting around campfires, pulling out their acoustic guitars and lightly strumming away. Which is probably why this beautiful acoustic track has always resonated with me, and why I’ve recently been going back to it. For a band that hasn’t had many hits, this would probably be considered a deep cut, but the light touch they gave it, the lilting melody sung by Crispian Mills against the slight drone of the guitars, and the vague echo of that old Beatles sound just works. So have a listen, and don’t get too overheated out there.

Gerry Goffin: 1939 - 2014

Sadly, news came in yesterday that songwriter Gerry Goffin passed away the other day. Goffin was, of course, famous putting the Goffin in “Goffin-King" partnership in the early-mid 1960s, along with then-wife Carole King. The duo had a slew of hits back then, pretty much helping to write the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles DNA of rock and pop music with hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” “One Fine Day," and countless others. Of course, the Beatles and many other British Invasion bands also covered Goffin-King songs on stage and on record, including "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby.” I was going to link to the Beatles playing this from their Live At the BBC disc, but the quality is a little dodgy. I love their take on it, though, so I’ve gone and probably committed sacrilege by posting this cover from a random Beatles cover band, who are faithful to the Fabs version (and the quality is a keeper). Besides, a good song is a good song is a good song, right? And what better way to pay tribute to Goffin than to enjoy his music…?

Jose Feliciano - (There's) Always Something There To Remind Me
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Jose Feliciano - “There’s Always Something There To Remind Me”

From the album Feliciano! (1968) 

The things I’ll do to get a post up. I’ve done battle over the past 45 minutes with a constantly seizing laptop and a tenuous internet connection. I choose not to believe that the computer is judging my taste in music - and it really shouldn’t, because you don’t mess with Jose Feliciano. He’ll cut you.

I can’t really say how I first found this album, but I know I’ve always dug his cover of the old Doors song, “Light My Fire.” My best guess is that I was probably browsing through one of the many music blogs out there that offers up samples of music, came across the write-up for this disc, and thought “Why not?” And I’m glad I did. It’s not one of those monster albums from the ’60s that continually gets the love and adoration it should, but it has a quiet, easy listening sound that has made it a durable sleeper over the decades. And rightfully so.

I particularly like the treatment Feliciano gives to this Burt Bacharach classic. The song has gone through many permutations over the years, with everyone from Dionne Warwick to Naked Eyes having a go at it. But I think Feliciano’s soft, acoustic approach comes the closest to capturing the haunting melancholia the song (about a guy who sees remnants of his old relationship everywhere he wanders) is trying to convey. What could’ve ended up as a sappy or depressing song gets handled with a sense of mournful dignity here. It’s nostalgia for lost romance done right - Feliciano style. 

(Wait…is “mournful dignity” a thing? Or did I just make that up?)

Scott Bradley & Postmodern Jukebox - “We Can’t Stop”

From Twist Is The New Twerk (2013)

I’ve probably mentioned this in prior posts, but it bears repeating: I’m a big fan of cover songs. I mean, I just am. I’m always fascinated by how, when done well, a good cover version can completely change how you hear a song, or how you conceive it. Sometimes, the cover is a dud and sucks all the charm out of what made the original great; sometimes, it’s a powerful re-working that brings a new urgency and vitality that you didn’t even realize was missing from the original. And sometimes, a cover song is so fresh, so vital, and so enjoyable that it can bring out a song’s greatness that you just didn’t realize was there in the first place. 

And that’s what today’s post brings us: a cover version that drew me to a song I otherwise would’ve completely passed over. I absolutely would’ve passed it over. Which shouldn’t be too surprising: if you’ve spent any time at all on this blog, you’ll have guessed that I’m not a huge Miley Cyrus fan. Fluffy pop music has its place, and I won’t knock people who enjoy her music, but it just doesn’t do anything for me (and I’m sure Ms. Cyrus would be completely fine with this, since I really don’t think I’m in her target demographic). Of course, Miley’s music is floating around out there whether I wanna hear it or not, so I’ve at least heard the songs. And they get a big fat Meh.

But I was on a blog several weeks back - I can’t recall for certain, but I feel like it was probably Pop Candy? - that linked to a cover of “We Can’t Stop" that unexpectedly hit the spot. It was a re-working of the song in a piano-based, 1950s style ballad, and even though I gave a listen out of morbid curiosity, I was surprised by how much I dug it. It stripped the song down to just its melody and it was surprisingly catchy. "Get the %$#@! out of town," I thought.

So score one, once again, for the World of Cover Versions. Once again, a song has been shown to have some merits, beyond what even its writer probably realized. And I must humbly give it the thumbs up. And just to keep with this whole “open mind/open ears” attitude, if anyone reading this has any other suggestions for unexpectedly solid cover songs, please give me a shout in the comments section!

OK. So I just burned the better part of 3 hours getting lost in your tumble. Bumped into it off of the New review. This is good stuff. Found the Binder interview which was cool as I recently got a copy of TAMI. My question; Where can I enjoy more of your work?
Anonymous

Thank you very much! I sometimes forget that these posts are actually floating around online, so I’m glad to know someone’s enjoying ‘em! Sadly, this is my outlet for pretty much all music writing at the moment. I used to freelance for a bunch of different magazines that have all been wiped out by the recession and budget cuts. There were some great publications like the Boston Phoenix, Amplifier, and Gadfly, but all of them went under in recent years. But so long as MOJO is still out there, I’ve got something to shoot for….

Irma Thomas - Long After Tonight Is All Over
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Irma Thomas - “Long After Tonight Is All Over”

Available On This Compilation (2008)

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted any Burt Bacharach-related music…so no time like the present, eh? I’ve made no secret of my love of Bacharach’s dramatic, cinematic epics from the mid-1960s; yes, the guy could be cheesy (song titles like “This Guy’s In Love With You” and “Make It Easy On Yourself" are proof enough), and he may’ve come at his material with a more stagey, theatrical sense than his contemporaries like your Paul McCartneys or your Brian Wilsons, but he had a gift for coming up with catchy, inventive melodies, and his decades of hits didn’t happen by accident or payola; the guy is just good.

Bacharach, with his long-time partner Hal David, had a string of massive hits in the 1960s and 70s, writing songs that were covered by everyone from Dionne Warwick to Dusty Springfield to the Posies to Elvis Costello. And their “Long After Tonight Is All Over” is no exception, having been covered by a handful of singers over the years. My personal favorite is this version by Irma Thomas: it features the crisp production, the slow-burning build-up from just her vocals and some light percussion to this grand climax of what sounds like a mini-orchestra and wailing backup singers, the crashing drums, the strings floating over the top and then jabbing at the melody…it’s Bacharach turning an everyday occurrence like a Saturday night dance into this epic, romantic event. The song somehow elevates the routine into the extraordinary, into an urgency, and it’s something that masters like Bacharach and Phil Spector seemed to be able to do in their sleep when they were at the top of their game.

This is probably one of Bacharach’s lesser-known tracks, but it’s definitely a killer. Enjoy.

Minuteman - “Words Fail Me Now”

Released in 2001, Available Here

This is one of those rare times when I’m posting a track about which I have very little information on the song, the band, the musicians. Here’s what I can tell you, though: in late 2001, I was kind of drifting through my immediate post-college life. I hadn’t found a stable job yet, hadn’t settled on a real career path yet, and was searching for inspiration. And then, over the span of maybe two weeks near Halloween, it suddenly came to me: New York City. Move to NYC.

I’m not sure quite where the idea came from, though God knows that NYC was all over the news at the time, so maybe it was planted at that time. In any case, I started plotting, looking for an in to the city, and landed on getting an internship with Nasty Little Man PR, which handled Beastie Boys, among other clients. The job started immediately in the new year, and I still remember the excitement I had: for the job, for the jolt of energy, for exploring the city. It was an amazing time. And on one of my first nights after work, as I went exploring, I wandered into a record shop in Greenwich Village and stumbled across a long-forgotten compilation CD - possibly affiliated with Q Magazine, possibly not - because I’d recently heard a song by the Coral that I liked that was on this disc. The rest of the disc was hit or miss, but one track that always stuck with me was “Words Fail Me Now" by Minuteman, a band I’d never heard of before and have never heard of since.

I’m not sure what got me thinking of the track recently, since the laptop I had with that song on it is long dead, and I haven’t heard it in years. But thank you, Youtube, for allowing me to call it right back up. The singer’s voice was always a little grating at first, but I loved the dirty, crunching guitars and the soaring chorus, and it’s always been a funky little track. No more, no less, but it instantly brings me back to those intense days in early ‘02….

Duffy - Smoke Without Fire
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DUFFYDuffy - “Smoke Without Fire”

From the Soundtrack to An Education (2009)

It’s been a period of heavy work loads and lingering stomach flu symptoms here in High Frequencies Land over the past week +, so unfortunately that hasn’t left much time for listening to music, much less writing about it. Happily, though, the fog seems to be lifting (on the stomach flu, at least), and that means I’ve been slowly getting reacquainted with my music collection.

As I’ve been easing back into the swing of things, I’ve been listening to some smoother, more mellow music - lots of Ray Charles, some James Govan, and Duffy. Not quite sure what made me think of Duffy, but ever since I came across her Rockferry album in 2008, I’ve dug her retro British soul sound…even though there hasn’t been a plethora of material from her (from what I’ve read, it sounds like fame hasn’t exactly agreed with her). Whether or not she jumps back into the fray, she has still left behind a handful of quality records, including this track from the soundtrack of 2009’s An Education. It played during the end credits of that movie, and it wouldn’t have been stretching believability if you’d told me that it was a song from some obscure, Dusty Springfield type singer from the late 60s. It has this sparse, moody quality, built on the echo-drenched Duffy vocals haunting their way over a somber piano line. Very bare, very raw, and very effective. Quality tune.

Michael Jackson - “Love Never Felt So Good”

Single Release, Available Here (2014)

I am not much of a Michael Jackson aficionado. If he were a sports team, I’d be there for the playoffs, but that’s about it. I enjoy the hits, particularly those early, light-soul classics with his brothers during the Jackson 5 heyday. If I’m at a party and someone slips on Off The Wall, I’ll dig it. But by the mid-1980s, Jackson got weird, and his music from that period on just sounds cold, synthetic, and joyless to me.

So what does it say about the man that Love Never Felt So Good, the new posthumous track just released far, far outdistances anything he managed to put out during the last two decades of his life? Others have been comparing it to an old Off The Wall cut, and it might as well be one. It’s got a breezy, ridiculously catchy melody, it’s light on synths and other unnecessary frills, and Jackson’s in good, strong voice. In short, the song has been officially out less than 24 hours, and it’s the best thing I’ve heard from Michael Jackson since forever. Which, really, I never would’ve dreamed would happen. Go figure.

It’s worth noting that this track was apparently written by Paul Anka, And here at High Frequencies, Paul Anka commands more respect than you’d first think. In any case, Michael Jackson may ultimately may not have been the best judge of his own material in his later years, but this song proves that, when the conditions were right and the right collaborators were allowed to have a say, magic was still possible.

Mavis Staples - Don't Knock
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Mavis Staples - “Don’t Knock”

From the album You Are Not Alone (2010)

Growing up a secular Jew, I wasn’t really exposed to gospel music as a kid. At all. As with most of the music I’d eventually fall for, I had to do a lot of discovery and self-education by listening, reading, and trying to figure out the influences of singers like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. I loved these musicians from the first time I heard them, and eventually I’d get curious and wonder who they listened to, or where they got their styles and ideas from. It was always a great musical adventure, mixed with some detective work, trying to trace the lineage. And since I’m friends with other music fanatics, we’d always have a good time trading albums and turning each other on to new discoveries and long hidden gems. Good times. 

Even though I’m not at all religious, I’ve always been drawn to the sound of gospel music. I can’t pinpoint when it started, but I suppose I really started digging into the music when I was in my early 20s. To me, it’s always been analogous to a quote I read about Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, who once mentioned to an interviewer that he liked the sound of church bells, just for the sound they made. For me, I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics or the message of a gospel song - it’s just about the sound of all those passionate voices, weaving together and over the church organ or the piano, the stomping in the risers, the echo throughout the church hall. The sound is what draws me in, regardless of whether the song is about having a friend in Jesus or is something packaged to appeal to the more secular-minded folk like me. 

SO - somewhere along the way, as I made the links between Aretha and Ray and the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir, I eventually made my way to the Staple Singers, who had a gritty, rootsy, church-based sound. I was knocked out. And, being a fan of Wilco, I was even more knocked out a few years back when Jeff Tweedy started writing songs for and producing an album for Mavis Staples. One of the results from their first collaboration, You Are Not Alone, is this gorgeous reading of an old Staples classic, Don’t Knock. It sounds like it could’ve been recorded in the back room of a neighborhood church, with Staples’ husky vocals, tight backing vocals, a bouncing, echo-drenched guitar stomping out the chords, and a sparse rhythm section. 

It might be sacrilege to state it, but I think this version might even top the original. But I’ll let you be the judge. 

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….