High Frequencies

The Rolling Stones - “I Wanna Be Your Man”

Single Release 1963, Available Here

Hard as it is to believe, Keith Richards turned 70 today. There’s not too much I can add to the general amazement over this fact that hasn’t been said by many, many others recently – it’s kind of cliché at this point to mention how he was one of those musicians people were privately (and not-so-privately) imagining wasn’t too long for this world back when he was still in his 20s. But clearly he’s a stubborn survivor, so hats off to him.

To celebrate, I was trying to think of some of my favorite Keith Richards performances. There were some of the obvious ones, like “Tumblin’ Dice” with its snaky, bluesy guitar intro, or “Happy,” the definitive Keith Richards pirate-rocker number. I actually came very close to posting “Gimme Shelter,” which has what I think is his finest, best-crafted guitar figures, and which Richards also wrote the entirety of. Such a lovely, well-executed song. But ultimately, I decided to post the Stones’ cover of “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Given to them by the Beatles when the Stones were still new to the charts and needed a hit, the Lennon/McCartney name on the label virtually guaranteed the record some notice, but it was the band’s primal performance that truly won it raves.

Even though it’s not a self-penned number, this track captures everything I love about the early Rolling Stones: the snarling vocals from Jagger, the stinging slide lead from Brian Jones, and the chugging rhythm, courtesy of Richards. They took a really slight song and gave it this delicious, lo-fi garage sound, playing the hell out of it, and making it exciting. That’s what Keith Richards has been able to capture on record at his best, and it’s why I’ve always loved this song, his playing, and the spirit he’s brought to his music. It takes a special talent to go into a studio and lay down music that jumps out of the speakers and just grabs you, but this guy has made a career out of it. Hopefully he’s been enjoying the day with some cake, some friends, and some good music….

Gregg Allman - Please Accept My Love
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Gregg Allman - “Please Accept My Love”

From the album Low Country Blues (2011)

Covers albums are generally hit-or-miss affairs. Some are stop-gap measures, designed to put out some product while a musician or group looks to regain their muse; some are calculated exercises to re-package (and re-sell) collections of songs that had already proven their ability to bring in a tidy profit; and some actually are passion projects, bringing out a sense of the initial fires that ignited our favorite musicians in the first place, placing them on a path toward musical greatness. That last category is quite rare….

….but two years ago, Gregg Allman did his part to add to that cannon. Like many musicians that first came to the fore in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Allman’s career had seen its share of peaks and valleys, and both the quality and the quantity of his output has diminished in recent years. Fair enough, since the guy has given us quite a bit of great music already; it’s only natural to expect the guy to slow down and burn out a bit by this stage of the game. But in 2011, Allman came roaring back in a big way, teaming up with producer T-Bone Burnett and crafting the exquisite Low Country Blues, a covers album that sounds fresh, vital, and alive. Unlike many of his peers from his younger days, Allman’s voice lost none of its original husk or authority, and - surrounded by top session musicians and the desire to really dig into the material - Allman and his crew breathed new life even into old chestnuts like B.B. King's “Please Accept My Love.” 

I cannot overstate how much I love this disc. It sounds like vintage Gregg Allman vocals, placed in a warm, live, exciting studio performance (which is pretty much because it was). Have a listen to this track and enjoy. And then join me in patiently awaiting to see if a second volume will ever see the light of day. Here’s hoping…!

Smith

….So it seems that work has kind of swallowed me into this deep, dark black hole over the past couple of weeks, and the world of High Frequencies has unfortunately been pushed onto the back-burner. And that’s just how it is when you’ve gotta pay the bills, right? But just because I haven’t been posting doesn’t mean that I haven’t been keeping the soundtrack going in the background. And this link of many, many Elliott Smith cover songs was just too good to not point out. So, consider this my shout from the dark, a forget-me-not, and hopefully I’ll come up for air soon. In the meantime, keep on keepin’ on…!

Amy WInehouse & Paul Weller - “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

Available online as a video only - (circa 2006)

While I’ve been on a big Marvin Gaye kick lately, this seems like a good time to post this great collaboration between Amy Winehouse, Paul Weller, and Jools Holland, from one of Holland’s new years eve specials. Damn, why do the Brits have much better NYE television than we do? It takes a truckload of talent to tackle a song that is so closely identified with Marvin Gaye, and to be able to actually pull it off, but Winehouse and Weller were on fire during this performance

Whenever I watch and listen to this, I think three things: (1) Great song; (2) Paul Weller is one of those rare musicians that keeps growing, innovating, and surprising, long after his initial burst onto the stage; and (3) It’s such a shame that Winehouse's great troubles and early death hang over her legacy, because she was such a talented singer and songwriter. Hopefully people ultimately focus more on that….

The Flying Burrito Brothers - “Do Right Woman”

From The Guilded Palace of Sin (1969)

The first time I remember hearing the name Gram Parsons was way back when I was in high school, and I had just come across a copy of Stanley Booth's classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones in the local library. I didn’t know who Booth was, and I didn’t really know who Gram Parsons was; but I was going through that magical first brush with the Stones, getting to sink my teeth into the music (the music beyond just hearing “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up”, that is) for the very first time. I must’ve been about 15 or 16, and hearing songs like “Midnight Rambler" and "Gimme Shelter" just opened up a whole new world for me. It was exciting. The sounds just had so much more life to them than anything I was then hearing on the radio. 

Naturally, I wanted to read about the people behind the music, so I devoured as many books and articles about the Stones as I could get my hands on; if there had been much of an Internet to speak of back then, I’m sure I would’ve been online researching the band all hours of the day and night there, as well (this was just before the world went digital, though, so how much information could I really have found on a dial-up connection??)… 

This quest for reading material on the Stones ultimately led me to Booth’s book, which chronicled the band’s American tour in 1969. That was the tour that infamously ended in horrific violence; it was also the tour where the band spent a fair amount of time hanging out with country-rock musician (and one-time Byrds member) Gram Parsons. At the time, Parsons was launching his new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, with fellow ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, and they were flying high with their now-classic debut album, The Guilded Palace of Sin. Throughout the book, whenever Booth writes about the band playing, he paints this picture of soulful, pristine country sounds cutting straight through the filth, sleaze, and muck of the times or the circumstances, almost like beams of sunshine escaping through dark grey storm clouds. Yet I must admit that, not being a big fan of country music, I was not initially inclined to check this band out. 

But as I read and re-read (and re-read some more) the book over the years, and as I constantly absorbed Stanley Booth’s high praise of the Burritos, I finally had to check them out. I believe the first track I ever heard that really hooked me was their version of “Do Right Woman.” I’d heard and loved the original gospel-flavored version released by Aretha Franklin in ‘67 - classic soul with that unbeatable Muscle Shoals sound - but the Burritos slowed the song down, gave it a hazy, Southern feel (for some reason, I always picture acoustic guitars being lazily played on a front porch on a hot summer’s day), and infused it with a completely different, equally satisfying vibe. It’s rare when I can hear a cover of a song that I love as much as the original, but this was one of those times.   

The ache in Parsons’ vocals, the close harmonies on the chorus, and the way Parsons slowly, passionately drawls out the “They say that it’s a man’s world/But you can’t prove that by me/ So as long as we’re together baby/You better show some respect for me” line just hits that sweet spot. Ever since I heard this song for the first time, I’ve been a fan. And now, with the hot weather of summer coming back, this song has been making a comeback to my playlists in a big way…. 

Fourmost - I'm In Love

The Fourmost - “I’m In Love”

Single release from 1963, Available Here

I may’ve mentioned over the past few weeks that I’ve been on a bit of a power-pop tear. And really, if you’re going to go on have a power-pop bender, you really can’t exclude the Beatles, can you? After all, they practically invented the genre. I’ve been listening to this band for over 20 years, and it never ceases to amaze me just how melodically inventive they were, how they were able to adapt and evolve to the changing times. Just a brilliant, brilliant band.

I’m also always amazed at how productive they were as songwriters. in 2013, aside from a handful of folks like Ryan Adams, it’s practically unheard of for a band to be cranking out albums and singles every few months. But in the early ’60s, Lennon & McCartney were practically bursting with songs, writing not only high-quality material for themselves, but also for a number of other acts on their manager’s roster. One of those acts, the Fourmost, was lucky enough to land what I believe is primarily a Lennon number, “I’m In Love."  

I must admit that I cannot locate the source, but I’m fairly certain that I once read that this song was originally considered for the Beatles and deemed too weak, and therefore offered up to a number of other bands. Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas did a fairly tepid version of it, but for my money, the best contemporary version of this is from the Fourmost. The group stuck very close to the Beatles/Merseybeat template, and any American ears that heard this at the time of its release could be forgiven for mistaking the recording for the Beatles. 

The song itself is a slight, fluffy love song, with lyrics proclaiming the joys of innocent new love - but the melody is incredibly catchy and interesting, and the band delivers the track with a crackling forcefulness that’s enhanced by a clean, crisp production. Would’ve fit in quite well on the Beatles’ debut album, and practically sounds like a lost track from that session.

It’s pretty amazing that the Beatles could toss off a very sturdy track like this in ‘63 - a track many bands would’ve been proud to have produced - and just give it away.  

Kula Shaker - “Hush”

Available on Kollected - The Best Of Kula Shaker (2002)

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been hitting the ol’ laptop and cranking out copy over the past few days, being powered along by coffee, Red Bull, and high-energy music. Which has led me back to this old chestnut, which is a cover of an even older chestnut. Originally a hit in the late 1960s by Deep Purple, “Hush" was dusted off and given a workout by Brit-Poppers Kula Shaker back in 1997. I’ve always loved this version of the song - it’s far from deep, but it’s loud, it’s fast, it’s got a cool organ sound and a chunky rhythm guitar riff. Of course I’d like it….!

More info on the compilation album this landed on, back in 2002, can be found here. Kula Shaker has never really gotten a ton of attention in this country - they sort of piggybacked on Oasis’s moment in the sun in the mid-90s, and then the U.S. charts just kind of lost interest. But they’ve always been a fun band with heavy retro influences. 

Irma Thomas - Time Is On My Side
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Irma Thomas - “Time Is On My Side”

From the album Wish Someone Would Care (1964)

I love classic soul, R&B, and gospel music, and I love the Rolling Stones. I think my record on this all is pretty clear. So it would only stand to reason that I would dig this gospel song, sung by the great Irma Thomas, and popularized by the Rolling Stones in 1964. As an interesting side-note, the song was written by producer Jerry Ragovoy, who also wrote and produced some classic tracks by singer Howard Tate.  

All that aside - “Time Is On My Side” has always been most closely associated with the Stones, since they had the big hit with it, and they’ve had the most durable career. Yet Thomas, I think, captured the true flavor of the song. Backed up by a gospel choir, and sung with a gritty earthiness, Thomas just blows young Mick Jagger out of the water on this one; admittedly, I would argue that Jagger didn’t really find his voice until “Satisfaction" brought out his snarl the next year. The early-mid 1960s were a time when many of the British Invasion bands were seeking inspiration from, and trying to copy, American R&B, and one listen to this track gives a compelling idea why. The song just works

Like Howard Tate, who released some fantastic music in the mid-60s but who somehow got lost in the mix, Thomas never quite found the success that she should have. As this whole disc shows, it wasn’t due to lack of quality material….

The Rubinoos - Heroes And Villains (Beach Boys)
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The Rubinoos - “Heroes & Villains”

From the album Crimes Against Music (2003)

It’s a foolish group that thinks it can out-Brian Wilson Brian Wilson. After all, this is one of the pioneers of layered, harmony-drenched pop-rock masterpieces. He’s the guy who created such timeless, emotionally satisfying songs as “This Whole World,” “Til I Die,” “God Only Knows,” and dozens upon dozens more. For “Wouldn’t It Be Nice" alone, the guy should have his permanent place in rock history secured. And in the mid-60s, Wilson could do no wrong. This one-man hit factory was churning out   such high quality material that he even kept the Beatles on their toes, forever worrying that he was crafting better goods.  With the release of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, they certainly had good reason to worry.  

And then, in late 1966, things started to unravel for Brian Wilson. Business pressures, inter-band creative arguments, heavy drug abuse, and escalating mental illness started to rob him of his golden touch and his confidence as he worked on the Smile album. The first big single from the album, “Heroes and Villains,” was issued in the summer of ‘67, and it landed with a thud.  After the thundering success of “Good Vibrations" - a dynamic, exciting rock single - several months earlier, expectations for this track were sky high. But instead of another scorching, danceable rock song, the listening public instead got a complex, confusing rock-meets-barbershop-meets-Americana pastiche of sounds with a less accessible hook. It was still an ambitious, interesting track, but it was simply too out there to truly catch fire, and the public rejection profoundly stung Brian Wilson. 

Fast forward a few decades, and power-pop rockers the Rubinoos released a cover of “Heroes and Villains” on their 2003 disc “Crimes Against Music.” And lo and behold, they actually bested Wilson with one of his own songs. The Rubinoos’ version of “Heroes and Villains” is everything the Beach Boys’ version was, only better. The band opted to cover it acappella-style, allowing the intricate harmonies and the ambitious melodic twists and turns to take center stage. The resulting track is both direct, crisp, and exciting in a way that the greatest Beach Boys tracks were. 

I can’t vouch for other tracks by the Rubinoos. Haven’t heard much of their original stuff, and what I have heard sort of washed right over me. But on this one, at least, the liberated one of Brian Wilson’s great songs from its own studio excesses. And amazingly one-upped him. No small feat!

John Lennon - “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)”

From Sometime In New York City (1972), Available Here

For the past thirty plus years, December has been - in addition to being that time of year where that Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet gets pulled out of the trunk - associated with John Lennon. This is due, of course, to Lennon’s being gunned down outside his Manhattan apartment on December 8, 1980. While I always generally enjoy this time of year, and the music associated with it, I also find myself listening to more of Lennon’s solo material in the early part of the month.  It’s just the way it is.

As a matter of personal preference, though, I always tend to gravitate towards Lennon’s harder-edged stuff, his roots-rock, as opposed to his peace anthems. No disrespect to Imagine or Power To The People meant here; but when you hear Lennon let his hair down and throw his all into the songs that he got a charge out of, such as this cover of an old Olympics cut, or on his live version of Dizzy Miss Lizzy with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, you hear one of the all-time great rock vocalists at work. It’s the voice that electrified British dance halls in the early 1960s and powered the early Beatles success on the charts. Reports are pretty universal that Lennon never cared for his voice, but when you hear this track, you’ve gotta scratch your head and wonder why. It was powerful, passionate, and just a bit dangerous - all the elements needed for timeless rock ‘n’ roll.

The backing band on this is actually Frank Zappa and company, and the wailing you hear is Yoko, doing whatever it was that Yoko did. Not really adding much to the song, but in her defense, not really ruining it either. Eye of the beholder. In any case, here’s a track of John Lennon letting it all hang out and seemingly having a blast. Good stuff for the holiday season.

Gregg Allman - “Little By Little”

From the album Low Country Blues (2011)

How can I tell if a good album is, in fact, a “timeless” album? It’s a truly subjective answer, of course, but for me, the answer boils down to this: do I enjoy listening to an album 1 year, 2 years, 5 years after it was released - as much as I did the first month I owned it? When I get my hands on new music that I really dig, it’s not unusual for me to play the hell out of it, over and over, for a month or so, and then the frequency gradually fades as it becomes more familiar and the disc settles into its rightful place in my collection. But - if I can return to the album a year later, and it still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did upon that first month? Timeless!

Such is the case of Gregg Allman's most recent album, Low Country Blues. I picked this one up the week it was released, at the start of 2011. Now, nearly two years later, I still keep on coming back to it, and the songs, the production, the playing, and Allman’s passionate vocals all still sound as fresh and engaging as they did on that first listen. It’s not often that a musician in this late stage of his career comes up with something so strong, but Allman came up with the goods, no question about it. Today, I’ve been listening to “Little By Little,” a gritty blues shuffle that sounds like it was recorded in a tiny, sweaty nightclub on the wrong side of the tracks. Considering that one of my great laments about modern blues discs is the fact that too many of them sound so sterile and clinical, Allman and producer T-Bone Burnett did an outstanding job in keeping this entire disc sounding raw, live, and exciting. Simply love this album.

Rubber Band - I'll Keep You Satisfied
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Rubber Band - “I’ll Keep You Satisfied”

Single Release, Available Here (2004)

Reminding us that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had an embarrassment of talent, even back when they were fobbing off lesser songs for the likes of Billy J. Kramer, a Scandanavian Beatles tribute band named Rubber Band recorded this proto-punk, gloriously ragged version of “I’ll Keep You Satisfied.” The song, originally given the light and fluffy treatment by Billy J. in 1963, is revealed by this tribute band to have serious legs. Turns out it just never got the garage-rock treatment it deserved until just a few years ago. Makes me wish that more people would hear this one…

Gregg Allman - “Midnight Rider”**

From the album Laid Back (1973)

Another long summer’s day, another sultry scorcher, another thick swampy evening fueled by coffee, air conditioner (and bless whoever invented the window unit - it’s the only thing that’s kept me going), and smokey soul tracks like this 1973 slow burner by Gregg Allman. As I previously mentioned, this hot, sticky weather makes my listening tastes veer toward the sweaty old soul numbers; while the Allman Brothers' original 1970 version of “Midnight Rider" was more of a brisk acoustic shuffle (and a lovely one, at that), this remake from three years later takes the song in a very different, more soulful direction. It’s slower, more deliberate, with a richer, more filled out sound. The original track was built around dueling acoustics and tied together by Duane Allman's unmistakeable slide guitar, but this gorgeous remake features brass, and a more plaintive, almost desolate lead vocal from Gregg Allman. In the three years between these two versions, Allman had lost a brother and a bandmate, and the good life wasn’t turning out to be quite so carefree - so it shouldn’t be surprising that this remade “Midnight Rider” sounds a little more weathered and lived in.

This track, incidentally, is one of those rare times when it’s hard for me to pick one version of a song over another. Similar to the Rolling Stones releases of “Honky Tonk Women" and its variant, "Country Honk,” or CSNY's version of “Blackbird" versus the Beatles’ version, sometimes a great song is equally great in its different versions. Thankfully, we get to enjoy ‘em all. And on hot, sweaty nights like this, why not?

**By the way: I have no idea why the Youtube clip of this is accompanied by a Drive-By Truckers album cover. It appears to be totally random. Much like so much of the internet. Enjoy the music, just the same…!

Wilson v. McCartney - Who Made The Better Throwback Album?

Wilson in '66

Just had a few thoughts kicking around, what with Paul McCartney releasing his latest disc, Kisses On The Bottom, this week - topping off a flurry of recent activity that will culminate with his appearance on the Grammy Awards this Sunday. It’s the same program that his old friend & competitor, Brian Wilson, will be appearing on with his old band, the Beach Boys.

Back in their 1960s heyday, when both men were at the top of their creative powers, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney egged each other on as friendly rivals atop the charts, continually upping the ante and expanding the possibilities of what we could expect in popular music. In the mid-60s alone, they produced classic discs like Pet Sounds, Revolver, Sunflower, and the White Album. Heady stuff.

Each man has seen artistic peaks and valleys since their glory years, and each has proven, in their way, to be a durable survivor. As of 2012, both Wilson and McCartney are considered elder statesmen in the rock world, and while each has amazingly entered into an unexpected creative resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting that each man has dipped back to the Great American Songbook on recent albums. The question is, who does the better job of it?

Recent Macca

Surprisingly, I’ve gotta give the nod to Brian Wilson. While McCartney has admirably stated that he hasn’t wanted to retread the same popular songs that Rod Stewart (among so many others) has been covering, and while McCartney has never had to overcome the drug and mental health issues that have haunted Wilson over the decades - his new disc is kind of dull. Backed by Diana Krall's ace band, McCartney does a classy job of crooning these lesser-known songs, but he doesn't do anything to place his own stamp on the material, or to elevate it beyond what we've come to expect. Beyond offering his voice, there's nothing on the set that suggests McCartney's musical signatures or personality, and it ultimately ends up sounding like a perfectly pleasant, perfectly blah affair. Nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t add much to McCartney’s cannon. (Contrast this with his old bandmate Ringo’s similar disc from 1970, Sentimental Journey. It’s an endearing listen, and it definitely screams out, for better or worse, Ringo!)

Wilson, on the other hand, put out an unexpectedly strong album in 2010, which focused on one of the biggest names in that Great American Songbook, George Gershwin. Rather than hewing as close to the original tunes as possible, Wilson and his band worked to infuse Wilson’s signature sounds into the material, updating, revamping, and re-energizing songs that have been done thousands of times over, breathing new life into such chestnuts like “Someone To Watch Over Me.” The end result has echos of Wilson’s best work in the 60s, while his singing - something that has sadly decayed over the years - is strong and engaging. The production is tight and crisp, and the album is one of the strongest and most fun discs Brian Wilson has been involved in in decades. I can’t overstate how fantastic it is.

So Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney: two towering figures in the pop music world, two men who have reshaped the boundaries of rock, and two men who have reached far into the past for inspiration on their present. Despite the solid efforts of both, this round definitely goes to the once and future Beach Boy. Can’t wait to see what comes next….

Tom Jones - “Help The Poor”

From the album Praise & Blame (2010)

Tom Jones is one of those curious popular singers who has always had a powerful set of pipes, could hold his own with the likes of Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin (!), and who always had tremendous potential to be taken more seriously than he has been. But when he first gained prominence in the mid-60s, wearing his smart tuxedo on the Ed Sullivan Show, he went down the more traditional “show business” path, rather than the hipper “rock” path. Think Ethel Merman as opposed to the Rolling Stones. So, despite those sterling pipes and the hip-shaking swagger, Tom Jones has always been considered something of a musical lightweight, fairly or not. And I suppose clips like this didn’t help him gain any serious street cred.  

But there’s a funny thing about pop music, at least in America. Even if you’re perceived as a lightweight or a joke, there’s something to be said for durability. And some of those acts that have lasted for decades - I’m looking at you, Bee Gees! - somehow manage to win a grudging mass respect for their ability to keep at it, through good years and bad, through changing industry tastes and musical fads, and so on and so forth. And we’ll start to forgive these singers and musicians their sometimes questionable fashion choices and recognize that they are, after all, survivors, and we recognize that maybe they have some pretty amazing talent, after all. And then, after decades of not being cool, it is suddenly hip to embrace and celebrate these survivors. Such is the case of Tom Jones. 

And with his advancing years, the stately graying of his goatee, and the calming down of those swiveling hips, Jones has been fortunate enough to hold on to his commanding voice, and to refocus attention on his ability to belt out a tune. As he nears age 70, the guy may finally be getting his due in more “serious circles,” and late-career efforts like Praise & Blame were clearly made with an eye toward that more serious legacy. Following the template laid down by Dylan with his Time Out Of Mind disc in ‘97 (i.e., start getting more purposeful and reflective on a bare-bones song cycle), Jones and producer Ethan Johns have crafted a sober, satisfying album full of low-key folk songs and slow building burners. There is a nod to Jones’s hard driving, raging r&b roots, though, with “Help The Poor,” a bare-bones rocker with a stinging guitar line and a moody organ anchoring the song. It’s a classic sounding slice of soulful rock, and it’s very easy to picture a young Tom Jones belting something just like it out at the clubs as an up-and-coming Welshman making the scene in the mid-60s. At any rate, it goes to show that there is more to Tom Jones than just the lightweight image we’ve had for so many years.