Friday, December 2, 2016

"You'll be older too..."


[h/t: u/johnrichmondman for the outstanding job on a great idea]

Favorite Song Friday: Faithfully

I've often thought of Journey as the anti-Beatles. Not that they were against everything or anything the Fabs stood for or represented—just the opposite, in fact; even without knowing much about what the band members believe in their heart of hearts, I'm quite confident all of them grew up loving the lads. No, I think of them as the anti-Beatles because each and every member of the most popular lineup of the band (although, really, it goes for the musicians who were members before they got really popular, as well as the ones who came after their heyday) is an absolute monster on his instrument. I mean, seriously, you just don't get better, really, on a technical level, than Steve Perry, Neal Schon or Steve Smith. And yet, unlike the Beatles, none of whom were technically all that accomplished—save, perhaps Paul McCartney, on bass—Journey managed to produce nothing transcendent, and little that's really, objectively, of lasting value.

Harsh, I know. So let me temper it with this caveat: a handful of their songs remain wildly popular, and I fully admit to liking several, including "Separate Ways," despite (perhaps) its staggeringly terrible in a slow-motion-train-wreck-can't-look-away manner.

And then there's "Faithfully." Another entry in the "oh, life is so hard on the road when you're a fabulously wealthy and popular musician" category, I absolutely adore this song unreservedly and without the slightest hint of irony—no mean feat, when you consider the mustache in its accompanying video.


Now, usually on our Favorite Song Fridays, we over some sort of analysis, whether it's a close reading of the lyrics, or perhaps our ham-handed stab at delving into the chord progression in some sad pseudo-music theory attempt. Not here. I got nothin', other than to mention Smith's typically spectacular drumming, and the fact that the lyrics are straightforward, which helps them scalpel their way directly into your heart, or at least, into my heart.

One funny note, though: apparently, Prince called up "Faithfully" composer Jonathan Cain, immediately after The Purple One had recorded "Purple Rain," to see if that masterpiece was too close to the Journey song. Cain assured the lil fella that other than sharing some chords, it was not, in fact, too close. For some reason, that makes me love the song even more, as well as Prince, and who knew that was even possible?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Don't Do It

Look at these jamokes. If you were drinking in your local dive, or maybe a guest at the wedding of a distant acquaintance, and these guys got up to play, what would you think? I mean, really. Just look at them.

Levon looks like the really good mechanic you're pleased to have finally found, even though you can't help but feel—accurately—that he's always looking down at you because you don't know as much about cars as he does. Rick looks like the guy who works the counter at the autoparts store. Richard looks like the guy who stocks the shelves at the autoparts store: there's something about his smile that freaks out the customers too much, even the most manly ones, so they don't let him work the register. Robbie looks like the guy who mixes paint at the hardware store and tries to chat up the housewives, most of whom see right through him, and don't so much enjoy the attention as feel a bit creeped out and like they need a shower. And then there's Garth—in the end, there's always Garth. He's the guy who works in the stacks at the local university library, the one you hope the librarian won't have to go to for help when you ask your question, even though they always do, 'cuz he always knows, and there's no reason you hope they won't, as he's never said or done anything weird to you or anyone you know: in fact, he never does anything weird, other than never doing anything but studying old, arcane tomes and feeding his fish. It's just that he always stares at your shoes as he mumbles the answer to even the most esoteric of queries.

And then they start playing.


Would you get it right away? Would Levon's jittery yet slinky beat immediately clue you in that you're in the presence of a master, of a man who got as much funk, as much soul in his DNA as guanine? I'm not sure you would. What about when Rick starts in with that bassline? I like to think so, but I'm still not sure; the goofy way he bops might distract you. Sure, you'd think, okay, this might not be totally embarrassing, but I don't think you'd quite realize yet what you're in for.

It's Richard's piano that prepares you. His chording is simple, sweet, tasteful...but quiet as it is, it's got that tang of the roadhouse about it—but a roadhouse down New Orleans way—that subtly shifts your thoughts and expectations and even though you haven't fully grokked it yet, you're already starting to think, well...huh. This might just

And then Robbie starts playing. And the slightly sad lounge lizard reveals himself to be the greatest guitarist you've ever actually seen in person, with just a few chords. They're not difficult chords; this isn't Jim Hall playing some bizarre inversed voicing. They're just your standard rock and roll chords...but they're rock and roll chords played with that distorted Strat tone that bypasses your aural canal and goes directly into your very being and makes it clear that the guy making those sounds knows rock and roll and he knows the guitar and suddenly the smugness seems entirely justified.

And then they start singing. And it hits you, first, that this sweaty funk workout is somehow Marvin Gaye's boppy classic. And, secondly, you realize, accurately, that if this isn't the best group vocals you've ever heard, well, you never heard better. Never. Not by the Beach Boys, not by the Beatles, not even by the Everlys. Never.

Robbie's guitar solo only confirms what you could tell by his opening chords, which is that this superior bastard is indeed superior—he's got the technical ability, but he's more than just flash: he's got the spirit. And behind him, supporting them all, is that intense research librarian who, it turns out, plays the church organ like Bach, if Bach had been raised as a tobacco farmer in Kentucky.

Turns out, and who knew? that looks can be deceptive. And that the rock, the funk, the soul, can take root in the most unlikely of places, whether a guy who looks like a smarmy bastard or a creepy stockboy. And that the proof is always in the sound. And god-a-mighty, what a sound.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Come Together

Dear World's Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band™: it's sweet that you went to the trouble of showing your respect and admiration for your betters by covering them, and that you went out of your way to be as not good as possible doing it. Very, very convincingly done.


Friday, November 18, 2016

In Your Eyes

Here's my argument:

Peter Gabriel was with Genesis for roughly nine years. In that time he wrote or co-wrote a few dozen songs, many of which range from okay to very, very good. In the forty plus years since then he has written several dozen more, which range from good to transcendent.

Sting was with the Police for roughly six years (with another three tacked on where they weren't really a band in any meaningful sense but hadn't officially broken up either). In that time, he wrote several dozen songs, which range from okay to phenomenal. In the thirty-three or so years since then, he's written many dozen more songs, which range from good to very good.

What I'm saying is that Gabriel needed to break free from Genesis in order to become the artist he is, and we're all the better off for it. Sting, on the other hand, broke free from both the constraints of the Police and the full flowering of his abilities. Because he's been without the Police for nearly six times as long as he was with them, and in that time he hasn't created a single song as good as his half-dozen best Police songs, nevermind one which approaches this:


And while comparing another song to "In Your Eyes" would normally be unfair, in this case, it really isn't, since if Sting never wrote a song better than this slice of brilliance, he's certainly written several—"Message in a Bottle," "Every Breath You Take," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and so on—that are very comfortable peers, at the very least. For a few years there, he seemed to turn them out on a yearly basis. And then....not.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

RIP Leonard Cohen

I swear to all that is holy that I am so damn tired of writing RIP posts for my favorite artists this year.

Damn.

Leonard Cohen is dead. I don't have much to say other than he was a musical hero of mine. He wrote with his heart not just on his sleeve but laid out bare on the table in front of him.

He sang with a raw, plaintive sensuality that no one else ever has. He either did rock-n-roll like poetry or he did poetry like rock-n-roll. Or both. He bled hot and red blood into in his music while he waltzed to it. He was loneliness and sex and grief and humor and soul and pain and honesty and fear and religion and strength and pathos. He was all that and more. He was sui generis in music history and we will never see another like him.

He wrote story-songs and hymns that belong under glass or hanging on the wall in some museum, not just on vinyl and compact discs and digital files. He wrote "Suzanne" and "Chelsea Hotel" and "Tower of Song" and "Bird on a Wire" and "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "Came So Far For Beauty" and yes, my favorite song ever, "Hallelujah." And more than that.

So long, good sir. You will always hold the mirror.






"It looks like freedom but it feels like death;
It's something in between I guess,
It's closing time."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day - How does it feel?

It's Election Day. I love Election Day as much as any day on the calendar. And as loyal readers here at Reason to Believe know, Election Day for me is all about Bob Dylan. 

On Election Days that I looked forward to and even on those I kinda dreaded, I still loved going to the polls, expressing my opinion on my terms as only I can. My people don't always win, but I always feel like I've done something big when I vote. Going all the way back 30 years when I voted for the first time.

For many many reasons I am thrilled for Election Day 2016 to be here and for the campaign soon to be over; most of those reasons having to do with a certain sentient rotting pumpkin running for President for one of the major parties. And in 12 hours it will in fact be over. And I think our great nation will be a little greater as a result.

This day as I head into work I'll be be blaring Mr. Zimmerman on the way once more, And I'll go right to the source, as they say. No fooling around, no wasting time. I'll go right to one of his greatest albums ever and start with the very first track on that record, objectively and pretty much inarguably the greatest song he ever wrote.


Because it really does speak to just so much of what we've been watching for the past year and more. The insufferable feeling invincible. The underprivileged being duped and lied to. And the tenets of decency and integrity being torn to pieces before our eyes.

Here's hoping it all ends tonight. I'll take comfort in words Bob wrote rather presciently 51 years ago, words that really could have been written for today:

Ain't it hard when you discover that,
He really wasn't wear it's at,
After he took from you everything he could steal.

Right on. Go vote and take back every ounce that's been robbed from us this year.

And as the credits roll on this election season, let's take one more look at one of the truly great defiant moments in rock-n-roll history. At the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, when Bob Dylan brushed off the detractors and jeers with a smile and a sneer, turned to his band and just as they began a blistering "Like a Rolling Stone," told them, "Play it fucking loud!"

And they did.

's

Go play today, voters. And when you play, play it fucking loud.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Gwen

So, as usual, my first thought upon hearing how beautifully the great Philly Joe Jones plays piano on this song he composed himself, is "well, that's not fair." I mean, how uncool is it that possibly the greatest hard-bop drummer ever is also a killer pianist? But, of course, that's probably not entirely a coincidence: he was arguably the greatest hard-bop drummer ever because he was a killer musician. I mean, duh, but it still felt worth pointing out. Or, really, an excuse to post this.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

My Cherie Amour

It's the last week and I desperately needed something and when in need, Stevie is pretty much always the answer. I was actually intending to play one of his other early gems, but this one caught my eye, thanks in no small part to the typo in the title, and yeah, it did the trick.


And today I learned that Motown didn't release this song for a year after he recorded it, and only put it out when they did because apparently the Wonderful one was having voice troubles, so they dug through the box of unreleased stuff and found this and my GOD can you imagine this being a safety school? Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

For No One

So today I turn 48. One year younger than James Garfield when he died. Meaning next year I will look pretty much like this.

Hey, it's an improvement.

But I'm not posting this today to fish for shameless birthday wishes. Although thank you! Thank you for remembering! Really, that is just so nice!

No. Today is my birthday. And like I do with many, many different occasions and times of year, I tend to associate my birthday with specific music.

Election Day makes me think of, and listen to, Bob Dylan. I've written about this before, a few times.

When the summer turns to fall and the school year begins, even though I haven't been a student of any kind since 1990, I think of The Replacements. And during those "back to college" times that follow, meaning the fall, I tend to think about R.E.M. Likely because I became such a fanatic of both bands in college.

In the summer it's Bruce Springsteen for all occasions, as it should be,  And on vacation it's often healthy doses of escapist music like the Allman Brothers, Van Morrison, Miles Davis. In the deep throws of winter it's the darker stuff that tends to seep in, such as Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen. And there is never, ever any time of year when it's a good idea to listen to these guys.

But my birthday? It's always about the Beatles.

A couple of years ago I set out to listen to their entire catalog start to finish in chronological order over the course of my birthday weekend. And I liked it so much I do it each year, a little Beatles marathon (10-12 hours of Beatles music, that is to say) starting with "I Saw Her Standing There" and ending with "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)." So that's where I am now. Thinking about and listening to the Beatles. Because it's my birthday and probably because the Beatles have always been my "birthday band,," dating back to when I was 12 and first started receiving Beatles records for my birthday.

And today I want to write about my absolute favorite Beatles song of all time. Not their greatest song, mind you, but my favorite. "For No One."  Located right smack in the center of Revolver, only the greatest album ever released by the greatest band ever to walk the earth.

(Although to clarifythis is one of their greatest songs, and in fact when Scott and I were putting together our Top 50 Beatles list a few years ago, we both agreed "For No One" should place way up there on any list).



Simply put, they never recorded a more beautiful song, never wrote a more poignant song, never sang a song more perfectly. Did some Beatles songs equal it in those capacities? Of course. But it is this 48-year-old man's opinion they never did it better.

It's everything about the song. The words are some of the most plaintive and mature Paul McCartney ever wrote. He wasn't known for writing about sadness necessarily, at least not as much as John was, but look at these verses and tell me they couldn't be mistaken for the finest tear-duct onslaughts of Roy Orbison, or the saddest of Leonard Cohen's tales.

The day breaks
Your mind aches
You find that all the words of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you

She wakes up
She makes up
She takes her time and doesn't feel she has to hurry
She no longer needs you

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

You want her
You need her
And yet you don't believe her when she says
Her love is dead
You think she needs you

You stay home
She goes out
She says that long ago she knew someone
But now he's gone
She doesn't need you

The day breaks
Your minds aches
There will be times when all the things she said
Will fill your head
You won't forget her

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

Those are as gorgeous and they are heartbreaking. Through all of the myriad accolades Macca has deservedly received over the years, I'm still not sure he ever gets his due credit as a first-rate songwriter. But his ability to convey pure loss and sadness without ever slipping into sap or self-pity is staggering. The unconventional phrasing, the intermittent rhyme scheme, the way Paul seems to shape each syllable around his peerless, perfect voice. It's all there. It's genuine anguish Paul writes and sings about, but he does it with such sweetness and intricacy that it's impossible not to feel every word and every note. And see the beauty behind it,

The music is as breathtaking as Paul's words and voice are, even though John Lennon and George Harrison are nowhere to be found. No guitar either. Just Paul on bass, piano and clavichord, and of course Ringo Starr keeping flawless pace with a timekeeping roll that sounds like a slow march. But then there is one more added trump card; Alan Civil with a french horn solo in the middle (and accompaniment at the final verse) that takes the song to somewhere very different and very high and very special, soaring above all and...and I can't believe I am writing thhis...almost upstaging the work of the Beatles themselves with his masterful little run up and down the scale. Paul sounds like defeat and regret when he sings. But Civil's playing makes the hurt feel even sharper, the pain even deeper. And in a sad love song, that's pretty amazing.

Last and by no means least, in a tribute to the power of brevity, "For No One" clocks in at 1:59. That's all they needed to create this piece of timeless musical art. Don't get me wrong—"Free Bird" and "Hey Jude" and "Stairway to Heaven" and "Visions of Johanna" and others all have their well-earned longplay place in the realms of musical royalty. But sometimes, you don't need more than two minutes to get it done.

That's "For No One." And that's my little explanation as to why neither the Beatles, nor anyone else, ever did it better.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

record scratch

So this obviously resonated with me, to a large extent:


Except that it doesn't quite hit its mark, which is surprisingly for the great xkcd, since so many kids today spend a lot of time and money searching out vinyl. Anyone over the age of, oh, let's say, 35 probably remembers the days when vinyl was either the dominant medium or at least an important one. And anyone under the age of 30 probably at least knows a vinyl collector.  

And then I read the alt-text.
The 78-rpm era was closer to the Civil War than to today
dear god


Thursday, October 13, 2016

I Can't Stop Thinking About You

So this right here is an absolutely amazing pop song.

Upon first hearing it, my initial impulse was say I didn't think Sting could write like this anymore, but more accurately, I should have said I didn't think he had any interest in doing so. But upon reflection, it's not like I've heard any of his deep cuts in 20 years, so for all I know he's being putting a half dozen such tracks on each album. (Although I doubt it.)

But the really amazing thing, beyond how great a tune it is, is that up until the chorus at least, it sounds like Bruce Springsteen: the guitar-driven backing track, the melody, the lyrics, hell, even the way the video is shot. There seems to be a weird key change (maybe?) in the chorus that makes it not quite Bruce, but otherwise, it feels like ol' Gordon is channeling his blue collar pal at his very catchiest. And that chorus is absolutely prime 1984 pop, and I have no higher praise for a single than that.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What It Means

The vice presidential debate just finished and now the talking heads are talking their heads off. But for some reason this song is going through my head, just like it has for much of the week.


He was running down the street when they shot him in his tracks
About the only thing agreed upon is he ain't coming back
There won't be any trial so the air it won't be cleared
There's just two sides calling names out of anger out of fear
If you say it wasn't racial when they shot him in his tracks
Well, I guess that means that you ain't black
It means that you ain't black
I mean, Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat
But you don't see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street

In some town in Missouri but it could be anywhere
It could be right here on Ruth Street, in fact, it's happened here
And it happened where you're sitting, wherever that might be
And it happened last weekend and it will happen again next week
And when they turned him over they were surprised there was no gun
I mean, he must have done something or else why would he have run
And they'll spin it for the anchors on the television screen
So we can shrug and let it happen without asking what it means

What it means
What it means

Then I guess there was protesting and some looting in some stores
And someone was reminded that they ain't called colored folks no more
I mean, we try to be politically correct when we call names
But what's the point of post-racial when old prejudice remains
And that guy who killed that kid down in Florida standing ground
Is free to beat up on his girlfriend and wave his brand new gun around
While some kid is dead and buried and laying in the ground
With a pocket full of skittles

What it means
What it means

Astrophysics at our fingertips and we're standing at the summit
And some man with a joystick lands a rocket on a comet
We're living in an age where limitations are forgotten
The outer edges move and dazzle us but the core is something rotten
And we're standing on the precipice of prejudice and fear
We trust science just as long as it tells us what we want to hear
We want our truths all fair and balanced as long as our notions lie within it
There's no sunlight in our ass' and our heads are stuck up in it
And our heroes may be rapists who watch us while we dream
But don't look to me for answers 'cuz I don't know what it means

What it means
What it means

Friday, September 30, 2016

Bus Stop - Storytelling 101

One really cool thing about writing a music blog (although I have been unbelievably lax in doing so lately) is finding little gems in a song or an album here or there that you never noticed before. Maybe it's a song you used to hear over and over again but haven't for a long while. Maybe it's a band with whom you are quite familiar but a song that you are not. Or maybe it's a newer song on which you just feel the need to give your own take, even though others have already chimed in on it. But no matter; when it comes to music, the connection is so personal and so intimate  that you get to offer what you want, when you want. Whether it's a comment on, say, "Cake By the Ocean" or on "Johnny B. Goode." There's always room for another take.

This one definitely falls into the category of "old song/new take."

I'll admit I haven't spent a ton of time in my music-loving life thinking about the Hollies. I know and understand their historic significanceone of the key bands to follow the Beatles in the British invasion, a number of catchy and, well, Beatlish hits, hallmarked by stellar harmonies and jangling guitars, and a number of oddball and innovative choices that punctuated some of their biggest songs (most notably the steel drum solo in the middle of "Carrie Ann.") Also and not to be discounted? Unlike so many bands of the Invasion (the Fab Four obviously not included), they had a legit second chapter that stretched into the 70s. No doubt impressive.

I also knew our boy Little Steven gave one kickass induction speech for the band when they made it into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, whether I agreed with their inclusion or not. (I don't think I do. Although who knows? I don't know. Let's move on).

But one thing I never associated the Hollies with was songwriting, or more to the point, storytelling. I mean, their songs were bristling and fun pop, definitely candy aisle stuff all the way. Graham Nash and Allan Clarke soared with their harmonies and upper-register glow, and it was delightful, but I didn't exactly think lyrics or story when hearing their stuff.

But then I listened to "Bus Stop" the other day and it all changed. Not only it is a purely flawless rock-n-roll song, but it is, no lie, one of the finest examples of musical storytelling I have ever heard.

First, listen:



What you hear is a just delectable pop confection sung and performed by a talented band that absolutely nailed what they were trying to do. From the super groovy little arpeggio that opens it, askew though it is, to the varying time signatures to Tony Hicks'  Byrdsy solo to the customary pristine harmonies, the bones are all there for a refined little piece of pop royalty.

But then come the lyrics. And I swear to all that is holy I cannot imagine anyone, at any time, writing a more original, clever yet simple song as concisely as "Bus Stop" was written.

Check the lyrics. This is literally where the song is when it reaches the one-minute mark:

Bus stop, wet day,
She's there, I say, "Please share my umbrella."
Bus stop, bus goes,
She stays, love grows, under my umbrella.

All that summer we enjoyed it,
Wind and rain and shine.
That umbrella, we employed it,
By August she was mine.

Every morning I would see her waiting at the stop,
Sometimes she'd shopped and she would show me what she bought.
Other people stared as if we were both quite insane,
Someday my name and hers are going to be the same.

The story being told is as ancient as time itself. "How I met my true love." But this is the perfect way to tell it. And I never noticed it until recently.

Look at the words again and think of the premisethis is a song about "our story, how we met." Every single word, every one of them, moves the story along. Not a shred of introspection or commentary or any kind of filler; it all goes to explaining—in the most precise detailhow this happened. And again, it does it in just 60 seconds, and at a pace so wonderfully brisk and sunny that you barely notice you have just been told a crystal clear and gloriously unique story from start to finish.

That's half the genius. The other half is how those words are strung together. The buoyant, practically cheeky changes in meter. The off-kilter choice to end some of the key lines absent of rhyme (plenty of things rhyme with "umbrella," but thank Yahweh they didn't try). And the intricacy of it all, the stunning use of interior rhyme that would have made Cole Porter or e.e. cummings (or even Dr. Seuss) proud. "Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows." Eight words and you know all you need to know.

Graham Gouldman wrote these words for the Hollies, and while not a household songwriting name by any means, mayhap he should be. This wasn't the only great thing he ever wrotehe would also pen another wondrous Hollies song, "Look Through Any Window," as well as some of the best things the Yardbirds ever did ("Heart Full of Soul," "For Your Love," "Evil Hearted You") and later front the pretty damn innovative 10cc in the 70s, giving us, among others, "I'm Not in Love" and "The Things We Do For Love." That's one hell of a career.

And if it didn't start with "Bus Stop," it certainly reached heights there that any songwriter at any time or place in history would have been proud to hit. Because truth be told, most don't.

"Bus Stop" is sui generis as a pop-rock number; it sounds familiar and of a time but there really is nothing quite like it, and that's thanks to the songwriting and storytelling. Oh, and I haven't mentioned it but the song goes on for another minute and a half and while it doesn't quite keep the same lyrical pace it had in those magical first 60 seconds, it still works and never loses an ounce of its charm.

That's the way the whole thing started,
Silly but it's true.
Thinking of a sweet romance,
Beginning in a queue.

Came the sun and ice was melting,
No more sheltering now.
Nice to think that that umbrella,
Led me to a vow.

Another little corner of rock-n-roll, so familiar but still in many ways so removed. But this is why we listen, if I may be so bold and speak briefly for the entire rock-n-roll listening population. For moments like "Bus Stop," when we can sit back and smile at the fact that songs may again be this good someday, but they really can't be better.