High Frequencies

Amy Winehouse - Valerie

From the album Back To Black (w/ German Bonus Songs) (2007)

Late, late last night - well after 2 am -  I found myself walking through deserted city streets in the crisp autumnal air, enjoying the walk, the solitude, and the soundtrack (thank you, classic iPod!).  Sometimes, in the midst of hectic work periods, packed social calendars, and being overextended on numerous fronts, it’s good to steal away for a little alone time, gather my thoughts, and just recharge the batteries. Of course, maybe going for post-midnight walks in the nippy air with music blaring is one of the odder ways of doing it, but let’s not quibble. 

One of the tracks that came on was one I hadn’t heard in awhile, but have always loved: Amy Winehouse's mellow, jazzy cover of the Zutons' Valerie. Not the version that Winehouse had sung on Mark Ronson’s Version album, which was recorded in the Phil Spectorized 60s girl group style that won her raves for the Back To Black album, but a mellower, funkier, more relaxed version that came to me via a bootleg called Soul of Unplugged and Electrified. It contains a performance Winehouse gave in Berlin in January 2007, and the whole feel of the song is just loose and melodic, the backing band is casual but solid, Winehouse’s voice is sultry and in control, and the sound is crisp and immediate. It was clearly recorded onto a soundboard, either professionally or by some amazing bootleggers. Whatever the case, this track is one of the great arguments that, as tragic and as short as Winehouse’s life was, it should never overshadow her gifts, and the wonderful music she was capable of presenting. 

Listening to this track, in between some classic cuts by Otis Redding and Ray Charles, in that cold night time air, seriously hit the spot. 

Weezer - Foolish Father
7,309 plays

weezerland:

NEW SONG!!!!

Foolish Father

OMFG

Weezer - Foolish Father

From the album Everything Will Be Alright In The End (2014)

Something fairly amazing happened the other week. I picked up the new Weezer album - and then started playing it on repeat. Over and over. This has not happened since 2000. And it wasn’t expected to ever happen again.

Weezer was one of those groups that I’d written off over the years as a once-great band that got lost in self-parody, mediocre songs, and diminishing returns with each new album. Yes, there were always a couple of bright spots on each album - a good hook here, an ok track there - but the songs seemed to lack any connection to genuine human emotion, the albums betrayed shadows of what was once inspirational, and the last full disc I could really make it through, with some effort, was 2005’s Make Believe.

Usually, once a band begins that type of creative decline, it doesn’t recover. Attention gets shifted to the live performances, pumping out the greatest hits, and the new studio albums are peddled to only the die hard fans (who have to search harder and harder for any sign of the spark that initially drew them to the band). Some acts - Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney come to mind - have managed to overcome creatively fallow periods to spring back to life with exciting, spirited new studio productions, but they’re the exceptions to the rule.

And, for this one album at least (so far?), Weezer seems to have joined them in the “unexpected creative resurgence” category. Perhaps due to the fear of being written off as irrelevant, creeping into middle age, or simply by virtue of going back to the producer who helmed some of their best work, Weezer has come back with their strongest disc since 2000’s Green Album. Sounding youthful, excited, and inspired, Everything Will Be Alright In The End crackles with an energy that I didn’t think they possessed anymore.

It’s not that the band is breaking new ground or going in a new direction; rather, they’re reminding us of everything they were once capable of, playing to their strengths, producing vital, fresh new power-pop that has all the elements of their best early work.

That tracks like Foolish Father sound as good as anything off of Weezer’s first two discs, or as emotionally satisfying, is nothing short of amazing. That they evoke the same kinds of reactions I had when I first heard Pinkerton in college is…something that leaves me at a loss for words. When the song kicks in with a crowd swelling up, repeatedly singing/urging “Everything will be alright/In the End” at the 3:20 mark, it has the power of a rock benediction, a collective, cathartic moment that suggests not only is Weezer still capable of making great music, but that music has the power to reach in and give its listeners a communal sense of hope and optimism.

Not bad for a group that, just a few years ago, was singing about Pork and Beans. Good to have you back in the game, Weezer.

Dillard & Clark - Out On The Side
16 plays

Dillard & Clark - “Out On The Side”

From the Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968)

During a hectic work week which saw me in full-on “scrambling to get everything done" mode, which dovetailed with "cripes, I just learned I desperately need a root canal!” I’ve been in need of some soothing music - especially since I’m just days away from spending some quality time with the dentist. Anything to serve as a distraction, right? So, for whatever reason, this has translated to the soothing, Americana strains of Gene Clark and Doug Dillard

I’ve written about their 1968 disc before, and about how I was instantly drawn in by the duo’s light, crisp acoustic melodies and their mellow, soulful harmonies - both elements that Clark had brought to his former band, the Byrds, and both front and center on the album’s opening track, “Out On The Side.” When I first stumbled upon this disc, I was amazed that it took me so long to find it - none of these songs ever showed up on classic rock stations, or country stations, MTV, VH1, or any other place a young guy was likely to be exposed to music in the 80s and 90s. But if you dig down deep enough, beyond the greatest hits packages and the endless reissues of your favorite albums, you’ll often find some pretty amazing music. It just takes a bit of patience, a bit of leg work, and an open mind. Listening to this track again, I’m so glad I made the effort to discover this album. And I’ll be rediscovering it again when I head in for the dreaded root canal….

Little Richard Live On The Dick Cavett Show

Somehow, in the whirlwind work-week of the past several days, which have looked/felt something like this, I came across this classic clip of two of my favorite things: Little Richard, and Dick Cavett. This clip of Little Richard appearing on Cavett’s talk show, from 1970, shows the singer ripping through Lawdy Miss Clawdy and then chatting with the host for a few memorable minutes. It’s from the days when talk shows were truly unscripted and unpredictable, and a character like Little Richard could go off in just about any direction.

This is so good, that I’m tempted to revert to 90s-speak and label it hella entertaining. As great as the music is, it’s the interview that really makes it for me…

The Others - I Can't Stand This Love, Goodbye
2 plays

The Others - I Can’t Stand This Love, Goodbye

Single Release (1965)

It’s been a hectic, crazed time at work, lots of early mornings, late nights, and burning the candle at both ends. No real time for additional writing, or posting, or eating regular meals, or sleeping. I’ve got the bags under my eyes to prove it. But I hate letting too much time pass without throwing something up here, so tonight, it’s a track from a little-known garage-rock band from Rhode Island known as the Others. It’s very bare, basic Nuggets-rock, and it won’t get points for originality or virtuosity…but it still captures that primal, adrenalized feeling that kids growing up in the immediate wake of Elvis and the Beatles must’ve felt when they got together, grew their hair out a bit, and actually managed to cut a record. It must’ve felt absolutely amazing, and that excitement is here, in between the grooves. Worth a listen…

U2 - I Will Follow
29 plays

U2 - I Will Follow

From the album Boy (1980)

I believe it’s fair to say that anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to Google News this past week has probably heard at least a little bit about the controversy surrounding U2 giving away their latest album to something like 500 million people for free, without asking if they actually wanted the music or not. The uproar over this seemingly benevolent (if also self-serving) act seemed to strike a nerve in millions (and disturbingly, this seems to have galvanized a more vociferous group than some other, more deserving outrages). It’s a band giving you free music, preempting your routine of going online and stealing it from them…!

It’s funny that, unrelated to this news, I found myself listening to one of U2’s classic songs for the first time in a while the other night; I Will Follow is probably one of their first biggies, and deservedly so. Before the band was hobnobbing with presidents and trying to cure the ills of the world, they were just a hungry young Irish rock band with bad haircuts, trying to cut through the waning days of disco and the echos of punk with something raw, new, and exciting. “Follow” has all those elements, a bare, stripped down assault built on that signature razor guitar slashing of The Edge, Bono”s curt, tense delivery, and a thumping, militaristic vibe that fit perfectly in the post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan era of 1980. Though I’ve never been a huge, huge follower of the band, I’ve always dug this particular track, and my appreciation for it has only deepened over the past decade or so.  It’s always a rush to hear a band letting loose with an electrifying performance like this one, and it’s the blueprint for all the future successes U2 would go on to have.

John Fogerty - You Don't Owe Me (From 7" Single 1973)
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John Fogerty - You Don’t Owe Me

Single Release (1973)

I grew up on classic rock, listening to the local oldies station and hearing the sounds of the Beatles, the Stones, the Temptations, the Supremes, and, of course, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Even before I was necessarily into all this music, I was listening to it as I fell asleep each night - it was just kind of one of those unexplained rituals of childhood. But as I grew older and really started to methodically, deliberately dig into these groups, basking in their albums and searching for the b-sides, I developed an almost spiritual attachment to this amazing, affirming music.

That was certainly the case with CCR. The more I listened to songs like Run Through The Jungle and Green River, the more enchanted I became by the simple, singable melodies, the unfussy production, and the steady, sturdy construction of the band’s hits. Which, I would later learn, was mostly due to lead singer and composer John Fogerty, who had a talent for whipping up this folksy, country-tinged rock. His three bandmates may’ve had the chops to bring his songs to life and give them some added punch, but they were his songs, and his productions. And if there ever was any doubt about who the powerhouse in that group was, Fogerty’s early solo records in the 1970s should’ve put those questions to bed. Songs like “Rockin’ All Over The World” and “Almost Saturday Night" had the same stripped, roots-rock quality of CCR’s best work, yet this was Fogerty flying solo. Still as good as he ever was.

Unfortunately, like many musicians from the 50s and 60s, Fogerty’s high-flying career was weighted down by legal and financial problems (I’m not gonna lie - I was looking for a link to a good article that could summarize this, but I haven’t found anything satisfactory, so I’m bypassing this for the moment) once he acrimoniously split with his bandmates. Fogerty released a smattering of excellent new music circa 1973-74, but it wasn’t enough to create the momentum or self-confidence he needed to reclaim his place at the top of the charts.

That’s a particular pity when you hear tracks like You Don’t Owe Me - a single from 1973 that didn’t make much noise in the music world - because, from the opening, very-CCR guitar chimes (which seem almost a complete lift from the opening bars of Bad Moon Rising), the energy, the vitality, and the spark are all still there, completely intact. The best part is the instrumental break at the 1:26 mark, where the drums suddenly drop out and Fogerty amps up the twang and layers guitar upon guitar upon guitar with each measure, building in intensity before finally releasing back into the chorus. It could easily have been a Creedence track from years earlier, a radio staple that would get endlessly replayed on oldies radio for decades to come. Instead, it got lost in the shuffle, buried in a career most people didn’t even notice in the 1970s, and pretty much forgotten about since then. I only came to discover it through the magical world of bootlegs, and only then as a rather scratchy version. I wonder if Fogerty himself even remembers this one…?

Marvin Gaye - What's Happening Brother
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Marvin Gaye - “What’s Happening Brother”

From the album What’s Going On (1971)

I wasn’t alive in 1971, when Marvin Gaye unleashed this slow-burning, contemplative album of soulful ruminations on the state of the world. From all that I’ve read about Gaye and the times he lived in, though, it seems that life was weighing heavily on his shoulders by this point. He’d had a very successful decade of hit singles with Motown, he’d seen his stock rise after releasing one monster of a song, and money - and all the material possessions it could buy him - were no longer a standing concern. But he’d reached the top of the mountain, and still felt despair; after all, Vietnam was still raging, the assassinations of King and Kennedy three years earlier had cast a pall, and the optimism that was present at the inaugural of President Kennedy just ten years prior seemed to have evaporated. No one was immune to the malaise - not even Marvin Gaye. 

Like any good writer-composer, though (and like many of his musical contemporaries), Gaye channeled his feelings and observations into his art, and produced what many consider to be his finest, deepest work: What’s Going On. The title song, with its slow, jazzy sax intro and that mellow pace, immediately telegraphed to listeners that this wasn’t going to be a rehash of the Northern Soul dance hits like Stubborn Kind of Fellow and Ain’t That Peculiar. Rather, this was going to be slower, more deliberate, more about swaying attitudes than shaking hips. And the second track, What’s Happening Brother, amplified both the album’s mood and its message. 

It’s built on an unusual chord structure, constantly descending down and sounding more mournful gospel than Top 40 pop, with a melody that’s anything but hummable. And yet, Gaye’s weary delivery of lyrics like “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend / Money is tighter than it’s ever been / Say man, I just don’t understand /What’s going on across this land” not only works, it resonates. And a song about feeling displaced and on shaky footing because of economic tumult, racial unrest, and military hostilities is sadly just as applicable in 2014 as it was in 1971. 

They didn’t have Twitter and Facebook back in the early 70s, of course, and perhaps that served to inoculate people to the heaviness all around them to a slight extent. But in place of social media, they did have messengers like Marvin Gaye, who saw what was going on around them and reported their findings in their music. And even if they didn’t necessarily like what they saw or have any ready answers for their audience, they at least had the power to soothe with their music. It’s something that continues to work well, generations later.  

Alison Krause - Down In The River To Pray
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Alison Krauss - “Down In The River To Pray”

From the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

For all the amazing instruments and instrumentalists out there - and there are many - when push comes to shove, I don’t think anything has quite the power and impact of a massed group of voices, flowing in, over, and around each other to form a melody. It’s one of the reasons why gospel music is so intertwined with the chuches and spirituality, and one of the reasons you’ve got such powerful, soulful singers like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding coming out of that arena. The human voice has this power to channel raw emotion, to stir up these primitive feelings and project them outward, to reach people on a level that moves beyond mere language. It’s the reason why, even though I’m not a religious guy, I love me some gospel.

Admittedly, I was not walking into the theater in 2000 to see the new Coen Brothers movie thinking I’d discover a great new sound, but there was one scene in particular that had this song that just hit me so powerfully - this was long before the days of Shazam, so I had to do a little searching afterward to learn that this was sung by Alison Krauss, whom I’d never really listened to before. I knew it was likely an old spiritual number, and sure enough, I’d later learn that Going To The River To Pray has roots going back to the early 1800s. I haven’t heard any other versions of this song yet, but I think it’s safe to assume there’s been quite a few recorded over the past 160+ years.

And I’m sure many of those are good listens, but it’d still be hard to beat this pristine, acapella version led by Krauss and a whole cadre of singers. I don’t know how many singers were in the studio with Krauss when she recorded this, but it’s a stark, simple reading of the religious-themed lyrics, starting with Krauss singing in isolation before being joined by more and more voices, until it swells to this warm, full chorus for the final run through. It’s not a complicated song or a particularly difficult melody, and it doesn’t have to be - instead, it’s just pure, warm, and wonderful. Have a listen.

Jenny Owen Youngs - Secrets
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Jenny Owen Youngs - Secrets

From the album Transmitter Failure (2009)

I was recently going through an old, dying laptop, trying to salvage what files I can before I wipe the drive and get rid of it forever. There was a ton of music on it, and I moved a bunch of albums on to my trusty travel drive. It’s been a great excuse to revisit some of the music that I haven’t necessarily been digging into in recent years - there were some old chestnuts from Sinatra and Grant Lee Buffalo that I’ll likely be posting about soon - and one of the albums I came across was this fantastic, power-poppy disc from Jenny Owen Youngs. I first came across this one about three years ago, and I’ve quietly been following Youngs’ career ever since.

I must admit that I have a soft spot for musicians who (a) crank out quality power-pop (b) seem to have a good, self-effacing sense of humor and (c) are thoughtful without being condescending. Youngs seems to have all these qualities, and for proof of her excellent song craftsmanship, one need look no further than to “Secrets,” a track that starts with Youngs coyly singing “I’ve got secrets up to here, love, don’t you worry your pretty head” over a choppy, stabbing rhythm guitar, before the whole band suddenly thunders in. It’s a basic rock combo that’s augmented by brass coloring and a soulful organ, painting a rich musical backdrop for a tasteful tale of mind games. 

In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have been a train wreck, but this song has a sly, dark humor, a great hook, and a playful, tight live feel to it. Always glad to come back to some tunes from Youngs, so at least there’s a small upside to my old laptop finally biting it.

Paul McCartney - The Mess (Live) (Bonus Track)
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Paul McCartney & Wings - The Mess

Single release (flip-side of “My Love”) (1972)

Continuing on with a bit of the aggressive music I’ve been listening to lately is this hidden gem from early in Paul McCartney's solo years. This track, a smoldering rocker recorded during the first proper Wings tour, way back in ‘72, seems to have largely been lost to time (I’m wondering if even its author remembers that it exists?), and was originally given a studio treatment and intended for the Red Rose Speedway album. It apparently was given some airing during that tour, and McCartney thought enough of it to stick it on the b-side to his My Love single in March of that year. That song was a big hit for McCartney, and a key lift for him at a time when he was still taking a fair amount of drubbing in the press for his role in splitting the Beatles. And, ever eager to prove that he was more than just a balladeer, it was totally in keeping with his character to even out the smooth A-side of this single by placing the harder-edged rock on the flip side.

But, for whatever reason - maybe because “My Love” proved so big and so enduring - the B-side just got swallowed up and all but forgotten. Not played on any subsequent tours, not making it into the greatest hits packages over the decades. It was tacked on to the CD re-issue of Red Rose Speedway, at least, and that’s how I first discovered it: this song with the nonsense words, the slightly dour refrain (“Oh sweet darling, what a mess I’m in”), and that glam-rock vibe. With the loud, crunching guitars, the quick tempo breaks, and that trippy, echo-drenched vocal mid-song, it’s got all the trappings of an early 70s rock ‘n’ roll throw-away, something that McCartney is still talented enough to polish up and make memorable.

Even if McCartney and the world at large seem to have written “The Mess” off, I’m sticking to my guns: it’s a cool little track.

The Who - Underture
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The Who - Underture

From the boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R & B (1994)

It’s been kind of an aggressive summer out there, hasn’t it? At least, for those of us watching the news with any regularity, it feels like it’s been particularly tense out there: from the constant turmoil in the Middle East, to the tumult on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the violent end to Robin Williams, to the Ebola tragedies in Africa, to the siege and political unrest in Iraq - the world just seems to be a mean, murky, malignant place at the moment.

Or maybe it’s just the same as it ever was, but it just all seems more urgent  right now. Whatever the reason, sometimes I feel like aggressive times call for aggressive music, to sort of melodically work through all the tension. Enter The Who, to get the job done. The Who, in their prime, were a famously aggressive band, particularly thanks to the wild, thrashing drumming of Keith Moon and the lunging, dynamic leaping and windmilling of guitarist Pete Townshend. Seeing footage of the band in full flight when they were younger is like watching a musical street fight, and they infused that aggression and attitude into some of their best music. At their peak, they didn’t even need words to effectively communicate it.

This live performance of Underture, a track originally from their Tommy album and performed here at Woodstock in 1969, is a fine case in point. This performance is just Moon, Townshend, and bassist John Entwistle bouncing off each other, weaving around each other, creating this terrific, rumbling, melodic tension-and-release sound with a dynamic pressure-cooker vibe throughout. It’s all the more amazing when you realize there’s just two melodic instruments - Townshend’s guitar and Entwistle’s bass - that are carrying the tune. The music constantly feels like it could veer off course and careen out of control, until the musicians suddenly pull it back into these taut, razor-sharp passages. To the best of my knowledge, this performance remained unreleased until the mid-90s, when the band released the 30 Years of Maximum R & B boxed set. SO good.

Sometimes, you just need some hard-charging rock to get your mind off all the heaviness out there. And that’s when it’s good to plug into the Who.

Weezer - Don't Let Go
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Weezer - Don’t Let Go

From Weezer (2001)

I’ve previously written here that, in the late 90s, I was surprised to learn that Weezer had more going for them than just the one hit song. I’d heard Buddy Holly when it first came out, I’d enjoyed it, but I didn’t start following Weezer or actively seeking out their records. I figured they were a “one and done” kind of deal. A couple of years later, I got to college and a friend would play their Pinkerton album, though, and that got me hooked. It seemed like the band disappeared after that disc, and then, all of the sudden, they were returning with what’s come to be known as the Green Album.

I liked the album from the opening drum thump of “Don’t Let Go,” a high powered track that seemed specifically designed to announce to the music world and to their fans, “We’re Back.” The song is an amped-up, twin-guitar assault that encapsulates the kind of buoyant, frothy power-pop the band excelled at in their prime. The lyrics are a straightforward “I’ll always be here for you, and if you try to dump me, I’ll beg you to change your mind” message - nothing particularly profound or original. But there’s always been a place for energetic, melodic rock tracks like this one, and Weezer has always had a knack for cranking these out. A great kick-off to their last must-own album.

Elliott Smith

I just realized that today would’ve been Elliott Smith's 45th birthday. Seems the best way to remember the man is via his music, and a very quick Google search led me to this Spin article mentioning that there are over 90 complete Smith concerts available for listening and download. While he sadly isn’t here to celebrate the birthday, his music continues to keep his memory out there. Here’s hoping he’s at peace….

Valerie June - You Can't Be Told
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Valerie June - You Can’t Be Told

From the album Pushin’ Against A Stone (2013)

About a year ago, the name Valerie June started popping up everywhere around me. I started seeing her winning praise in various blogs I read, she rated a mention in MOJO, she made an appearance on NPR - hell, even a friend that I’d had a nasty falling out with broke the silence just to tell me that I needed to check her out. So, based on the unmistakable signals that the Universe was throwing my way, I eventually picked up her latest disc around one year ago, and I liked what I heard - but I was also in the midst of one of those crazy work periods that lasts for several months, so I must admit that I never got to spend the proper “getting to know you” period with this album that it deserved. I listened, I liked it - but I didn’t get to live with it. I threw it on the iPod, and that was that.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when I was getting a chance to sit around and just listen to music for what seems like the first time in awhile. This track came on, and it was the audio equivalent of a slap across the face. I was reminded of the fact that I own this album, and of just how good it really is. The missus was actually a bit put off by the fact that this track, in particular, is so heavily influenced by producer Dan Auerbach that it also feels more like his track than Ms. June’s. I disagreed, and thought that his sound and her voice were a perfect match, and it gave this song - and much of the album - a great retro, soulful 1960s heaviness that just works. It works as a contemporary update of a favorite vintage sound, it works due to strong compositions and solid performances, and it works because of Valerie June’s distinctive vocal style. Yes, this song could’ve just as well sat on a Black Keys album, but to my ears, that’s a plus.

So here’s to rediscovering something that was right under my nose. And to continuing to find great new music that looks to the past for inspiration and still sounds fresh.