Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ian Dury & The Blockheads

Here’s a blast from the past (last 70’s). This song popped into my head the other night, and I discovered that my wife had not heard it before. Or perhaps I was doing an exceptionally bad job of singing “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Whatever. It motivated me to search for videos of Mr. Dury. Warning: Double sax solo at 1:48!

This is great party music with smart lyrics. I once owned the band's second album “Do it Yourself,” the sleeve of which was based on samples from a wallpaper catalog, with over a dozen variations of the cover issued. (Designed by an artist named Barney Bubbles).

Here’s another big Ian Dury hit with a classic theme: “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.” (Fun chorus starting at 2:30).

And here's "What a Waste" from 1978. Warning: Synthesizer solo at 1:30.

In case you couldn't catch the lyrics:

I could be the driver of an articulated lorry
I could be a poet, I wouldn't need to worry
I could be a teacher in a classroom full of scholars
I could be the sergeant in a squadron full of wallahs
What a waste
What a waste
What a waste
What a waste

Because I chose to play the fool in a six-piece band,
First-night nerves every one-night stand.
I should be glad to be so inclined.
What a waste! What a waste!
But I don't mind.

I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses
I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises
I could be a writer with a growing reputation
I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station
What a waste


I could be the catalyst that sparks the revolution
I could be an inmate in a long-term institution
I could dream to wide extremes, I could do or die
I could yawn and be withdrawn and watch the world go by
What a waste

Ian Dury died of liver cancer in March 2000. What a waste.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Connie Converse

A few days ago, my wife e-mailed me a link to NPR’s “Song of the Day,” with a story about a woman named Connie Converse who wrote, sang and recorded poignant little folk songs in New York in the mid-1950s. Converse was a relative unknown who never put out a commercial recording. She left New York for Ann Arbor, where she worked at the University of Michigan for a dozen years. Then in 1974, she packed her belongings in her VW bug and drove away, never to be seen again.

This video features Ms. Converse singing her song, “One by One.”

The video was accompanied by evocative photos from the Luminous Playhouse Theater Company, the creation of artist Anne Garland. Here’s how Ms. Garland describes the Luminous Playhouse:

The stage for The Luminous Playhouse Theater Company is a five-story 1960s abstract modern dollhouse that fills several shelves in my work space. In its dreamy, glowing rooms I set up changing scenes with an eclectic assortment of figures and props that I’ve collected for this project. Everything’s intentionally mismatched in style and scale—some things are new, some I made myself, many are vintage with their own mysterious histories that add to their storytelling potential.

I’ve been experimenting in the Luminous Playhouse with color and staging and lighting, blur and depth of field, realism and artifice to create what I think of as visual narrative or theater—an evocative cinematic interior-scape. I love how the camera reveals a vivid and potently human world in these artificial constructed scenes. To me the characters’ expressionlessness and their static, stiff poses only enhance the drama. Their impassivity invites an utterly personal interpretation, allowing—even requiring—us to bring our own emotional narrative meanings to the tableaus.
You can listen to more songs on a MySpace page someone has set up for Ms. Converse. The songs there include one with this great rhyme:

Up that tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing
Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling.

When I listen to Connie Converse, I hear something out of the folk era of the 50s and 60s, but I also hear contemporary female singer-songwriters. Without knowing anything about her, would I know she recorded 55 years ago, or would it be just as easy to believe that she recorded yesterday? If you told me she was working as a barista at Stumptown and performing at Mississippi Studio in the evening (probably with the Portland Cello Project accompanying), I might believe you.

Here's Portland's Laura Gibson:

Another Portlander, Laura Veirs:

And Joanna Newsome, who hails from Nevada City, California (where my parents now live):

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jimi and Shotgun

I was looking for videos for the classic R&B tune, "Shotgun" when I ran across this early televised clip of Jimi Hendrix playing behind the duo, Buddy and Stacey. Jimi is over on stage right, next to the drums -- not the first guitar player you'll see. He isn't given much to do beyond the fundamental riff that defines "Shotgun," but if you listen very, very closely at the 1:30 mark, you'll hear him throw in a few extra notes that are all Jimi-- as if he couldn't be constrained any longer by the repetition. Also, check out the over the neck sweeping action he throws in at 1:48 as a little flash.

Buddy and Stacy were apparently a hot song and dance act that performed with notables such as Little Richard, Jr. Walker, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, and Gladys Knight. I also read that they performed with The Sir Douglas Quintet, of which I wrote months ago. They certainly had the dance moves. And how about those high-waisted pants?

That performance may have been the only gig Jimi played with Buddy and Stacy. After that, and before he became a superstar and guitar god, he played guitar for the Isley Brothers ca. 1964. The next clip is an instrumental version of an Isley Brothers tune, "Move Over and Let Me Dance." Though there's no accompanying video, I'm including it here because there is no mistaking the Hendrix sound and riffs. (It may be of limited interest by readers who are not guitar players).

I started this post thinking about "Shotgun," not Jimi, so let's get back to it. I first heard "Shotgun" on a 1968 album by a Northern California band called Clover. I still have a Clover LP and will digitize its tracks some day because it's not available anywhere. Today we might categorize Clover as "alt-country" -- they were using pedal steel guitar and playing a mix of country and R&B before Gram Parsons arrived on the scene. In a later incarnation, their front man was Huey Lewis, before he broke into the big time. After that, several members of the band moved to England where they became Elvis Costello's band on "My Aim is True." Believe it or not.

"Shotgun" makes for a great rhythm guitar lesson, with a couple of interlocking parts that makes it fun to play for two guitarists. I'll close with the best known version of the song performed by Jr. Walker and the Allstars. The quality is crappy, but it has go go dancers. Listen for the little rhythm guitar figure at about .33, after the line "Put on your red dress."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

More Nick Lowe

After listening to him on my headphones last night, I decided to add a follow-up to my Nick Lowe post from last November . I appreciate the clarity of Lowe's lyrics and the stories they tell. He avoids cryptic verse that requires a decoder ring or an English lit degree, yet he's writing poetry. I think it's fair to characterize his songwriting "old school," in the mold of a master like Hoagy Carmichael. Occasionally Lowe verges too closely toward clever or cute, such as this line from his song "All Men Lie":
Do you remember Rick Astley?
Had a big fat hit, it was just ghastly

But then there is this beauty of a tune, "Lately I've Let Things Slide," which is full of both humor and pathos. The video quality is poor, but listen to the words and the phrasing:

Lowe recorded this next tune in the mid-1980s. "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)" is nothing more than a fun rocker.

I suspect that "I Knew the Bride" was influenced by Chuck Berry's wedding song "C'est La Vie" (aka "You Never Can Tell). Here's a version of that Cajun-flavored tune sung by a young Emmylou Harris. That’s the master of the Telecaster, Albert Lee, picking the guitar (on her left), and Rodney Crowell singing harmony (on her right).

Sunday, April 5, 2009


On heavy listening rotation this week has been Lambchop, the Nashville TN band fronted by singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner. When Lambchop started out, it (I should probably say "he" since Lambchop = Wagner) was labeled “alt-country” -- probably thanks to the hometown more than anything. Others have called it “country soul” and one critic labeled the band as a “freak-chamber-country collective” (which seems off-the-mark so sorry I mentioned it). Some of Lambchop's later material even veers into what might be called "neo-lounge."

As a band, Lambchop has had a rotating lineup of musicians through the years, growing to as large as 20 members to create a “big band” sound behind what are otherwise quiet and subtle songs. When I first heard Wagner's deep, rumbly mumbly voice, it seemed oddly familiar. Then it came to me: Cat Stevens (Yusef Islam) from “Tea for the Tillerman” days (a favorite album when I was a teen). Someone called Wagner “one of the greatest of the bad singers,an unassuming master of phrasing," and said, "though you might barely discern a line in the vocal rumble, the way he occludes and reveals can be felt.” Oddball, quirky voices seem to be popular in indie music these days, though more often pitched up close to or in falsetto range.

I admit that I’ve not yet listened closely enough to crack the code to decipher most of Wagner’s lyrics. Wagner has said, "I use language in a reckless, abstracted splatter of phrase and meaning that somehow comes together through association with the music.” Fair enough -- it's National Poetry Month after all.

Lambchop has developed a sizeable, semi-cultlike following, so there are many lousy YouTube videos shot by camera phone out there. I did find a decent version of “Up with People” from the band’s “Nixon” album. I particularly like the rhythm guitar part that chops away like a metronome, reminding me of Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs (I'll have to get to them one of these days). The horn breaks are pretty sweet too.

Here’s Wagner performing a solo version of his song, “Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed” decked out in his signature seed cap and thick-rimmed glasses. (This was clearly filmed in a hotel room somewhere, and since I finally got around to watching "No Country for Old Men" on DVD last night, I kept expecting Javier Bardem to burst into the room with guns ablaze as I watched it).

Here's Wagner with a cover of Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which demonstrates nicely his interesting phrasing and quirky voice.

If you want more, NPR has posted a 28 minute video of Wagner from its “Tiny Desk Sessions.” OPB Radio also has audio from an in-studio session with Wagner.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Tribute to Boom Boom

I love the rockabilly, so was delighted to discover this neo-rockabilly tune, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom" by Dublin-born singer, Imelda May, backed by a hot band. I particularly like the slappy bass and the use of the traditional bodhran.

That inspired me to search for other tunes with either "Boom," "Boom Boom," or "Boom Boom Boom" in the title. Believe me when I tell you there are plenty -- often in conjunction with the word, "shake." This one is a classic from bluesmaster John Lee Hooker, a master of the driving rhythm and tapping toes.

I didn't want to post a variety of covers of the same "Boom Boom" song, but couldn't resist Springsteen's cover of the Hooker song. (There's also a nice version by the Animals ca. 1965, but I'll save that for a separate Animals/Eric Burdon post in the future). This is The Boss stripped down to his rock 'n roll heart in the mid-90s. The tune is about two minutes too long, but has a fun finish to it and Bruce rocks the telecaster.

Just for fun, let's hear from the fabulous pair of parodists from New Zealand, Flight of the Conchords, with "She's So Hot Boom."

I'll close with a tune from a Thai techno/hip-hop group, Buddha Bless, playing "Bump Boom Boom" from its album, "Gancore Club 2." I won't pretend to be a fan--I just tripped across them in my search for Boom Boom. I asked Google to translate listener comments about the band from a Thai website, then used a selection to compose this poem:

Cymbal sound with a slow tempo
then fire, then a mother dress.
Perfectly capturing the wistful song dog
[ball well] Birth.

Love song to the fight,
only you dance to music from the sea cock.
Rave music for the quick draw
to the top of the card.

Fire environments because they love
music, not the Sikh face.
Wistful lyric dog fight.

These factors are very beautiful music...
music for women who like this trip close.
To love music because it is good and
portals like flowers bloom.