Song of the Week – Autumn Song, Van Morrison

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Back in the early ‘70s I would scour the “cut out” bins for discounted records wherever they were sold.  If you knew what you were doing you could pick up some real bargains – often albums by great artists that were overstocked because they didn’t meet sales expectations, for whatever reason.

I distinctly remember scoring The Great Lost Kinks Album and Van Morrison’s Hard Nose the Highway, both released in 1973.  They are both excellent albums that are considered minor efforts in each artists’ catalog.

Earlier this year, MOJO magazine published an article entitled “20 Unloved Albums… and Why We Love Them.”  Hard Nose… was one of them.  The article points out that upon release the record suffered mostly negative reviews.  The most scathing may have been from Charlie Gillett.  MOJO reports Gillett criticizing Morrison for “’flabby’ lyrics, ‘boring vocal[s]’ and ‘lack of … melodic focus.’”  According to Wikipedia, Robert Christgau rated the album a B-, and Rolling Stone reviewer Dave Marsh called it “a failed sidestep, a compromise between the visionary demands of Morrison’s work and his desire for a broad-based audience” and gave it only one star.

But MOJO also pointed out that Lester Bangs wrote that it had an “entire side of songs about falling leaves.”  I’m not sure if that was meant as a compliment, but it is certainly accurate.  And that leads me to today’s SotW – “Autumn Song.”

“Autumn Song” is my favorite cut from HNtH.  The song is a 10+ minute exercise in autumnal mindfulness.  Close your eyes, clear you mind, and roll with his honied, ecstatic excursion through the simple joys of life.

Little stroll past the house on the hill
Some more coal on the fire will do well
And in a week or two it’ll be Halloween
Set the page and the stage for the scene

Little game the children will play
And as we watch them while time away
Look at me and take my breath away

You can almost see and hear the leaves falling.

Leaves of brown they fall to the ground
And it’s here, over there leaves around
Shut the door, dim the lights and relax
What is more, your desire or the facts

Pitter patter the rain falling down
Little glamor sun coming round
Take a walk when autumn comes to town

Jef Labes’ piano trills and John Platania’s guitar fills perfectly compliment the melody and sentiment of the song.  And, as usual, Van’s singing is superb.  About halfway through Van starts to riff on the lyrics in a sort of stream of consciousness that evolves into a melodic “da da, da da da, dah da-da” then back into the riffing through to the end.

The imagery is so vibrant that you might assume the song was written and recorded in New England.  But the album was recorded at a studio he had built near a home he once owned in Fairfax, California.

Hard Nose the Highway?  Unloved no more.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Black Cloud, Trapeze

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Trapeze was a ‘70s British blues rock band that was led by Glenn Hughes (lead vocals, guitar), Mel Galley (guitar, primary songwriter), and Dave Holland (drums).  Aside from the success these musicians had together in Trapeze, each burnished their artistic pedigree with other prominent heavy metal bands – Hughes with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, Galley with Whitesnake, and Holland with Judas Priest.

To my ear Trapeze sounds more like Free, cousin Bad Company, or maybe Humble Pie, than any of those harder rock bands that the members graduated to.  Take, for instance, today’s SotW – “Black Cloud” — from the second Trapeze album, Medusa (1970).

The song blasts off with a heavy, electric guitar riff, then transitions into the acoustic guitar driven verse.  By the time the chorus comes around the fuzz is back with a cowbell emphasizing every beat.

Hughes delivers an especially soulful performance on “Black Cloud.”  Galley delivers a funky blues rock boogie to drive it.  Drummer Holland holds it all together.  The Trapeze power trio — a very popular format in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s — proves that it could be very powerful and effective.  Though they’re no equivalent to the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream, they can run with Mountain or Grand Funk.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Tell Me All the Things You Do, Fleetwood Mac

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I recently learned that Danny Kirwan, one time guitarist and songwriter for an early version of Fleetwood Mac, died last June.  I was very surprised that I missed the announcement of that news until now.

Fleetwood Mac has been around since 1967 but many fans are only familiar with the band as it has been constituted since Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in 1975 and released a string of major hit singles and albums including Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk.

But the history of the band is way more complicated than that, having gone through at least 3 or 4 other major phases before the Buckingham/Nicks formation.  You can read a summary on Wikipedia, but he best way to get a comprehensive, thumbnail appreciation of the various personnel combinations of the band is through a copy of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees.

But back to Kirwan…  He joined the band after they released their second album, as their 18 year old, third guitarist.  (Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were the other two.)  Kirwan had built a reputation as a guitarist for his ability to play a pure vibrato.

The first single Mac released with Kirwan on it was their signature “Albatross” (UK #1).  Band leader, and guitar hero Green said of Kirwan’s contribution to the recording, “If it wasn’t for Danny, I would never had had a number one hit record.” 

By 1970, Green had left the band, so Kirwan and Spencer soldiered on.  The first release without him was the band’s fourth — Kiln House – that contains today’s SotW, ““Tell Me All the Things You Do.”

“Tell Me…”, a jaunty rocker, showcases Kirwan’s guitar playing and also features him on lead vocal.

Unfortunately, Kirwan’s later life became another sad story of a famous rock star that ended in years of destitution.  In 1993, The Independent reported that he was found sleeping on a park bench and sometimes living in St Mungo’s – a homeless shelter in West London.  He later found his was to a South London care home where he died in his sleep, aged 68, of pneumonia.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Halfwit in Me, Ryley Walker

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Ryley Walker is a Chicago based guitarist and songwriter that is known for his interest in an eclectic mix of musical styles – including folk, rock and jazz.  He developed a finger picking style of playing guitar along the lines of predecessors such as John Fahey and John Martyn.

Today’s SotW is “The Halfwit in Me” from Walker’s third LP Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.

“Halfwit…” is 6 minutes of breezy, guitar-based music that reflects all the influences referenced above.  It harkens back to some of Tim Buckley’s jazzier recordings.  But it doesn’t stay in one place for the entire 6 minutes.  It meanders into some very unexpected places.  The surprises are what infuses it with charm and prevents it from becoming a bore.

Lyrically, the song is full of clever wordplay:

Go on ahead
Build another home
For lean mean eaters
Everything but the bone
Call yourself lucky, we never use the phone

Walker was quoted in MOJO saying “Halfwit…” is “still the coolest song I’ve ever written.”  I agree.  But that doesn’t mean you should stop here.  Go ahead and stream more of his music to delve deeper into the catalog of an important new artist.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I’m Not in Love, 10cc & She’s Gone, Hall & Oates

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When I was in college there was a running battle between my roommates and me regarding our tastes, or lack thereof, in music.  They called me a wimp for liking the art-pop of 10cc and I criticized their lack of musical sophistication because one of their favorite bands was Black Sabbath.  Today I better understand there’s room for both — no shaming necessary

One of today’s SotW is “I’m Not in Love,” by 10cc.  While this isn’t a typical SotW selection – it was 10cc’s most popular hit – I’ve selected it because it is part of a segue I played a couple of times when I had a radio show at WZBC.

“I’m Not in Love” in anchored by the “heartbeat” that starts the song.  But it is most notable for the multitracked vocals that give it its unique character.  Wikipedia has a vivid description of the process:

Stewart spent three weeks recording Gouldman, Godley and Creme singing “ahhh” 16 times for each note of the chromatic scale, building up a “choir” of 48 voices for each note of the scale. The main problem facing the band was how to keep the vocal notes going for an infinite length of time, but Creme suggested that they could get around this issue by using tape loops. Stewart created loops of about 12 feet in length by feeding the loop at one end though the tape heads of the stereo recorder in the studio, and at the other end through a capstan roller fixed to the top of a microphone stand, and tensioned the tape. By creating long loops the ‘blip’ caused by the splice in each tape loop could be drowned out by the rest of the backing track, providing that the blips in each loop did not coincide with each other. Having created twelve tape loops for each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, Stewart played each loop through a separate channel of the mixing desk. This effectively turned the mixing desk into a musical instrument complete with all the notes of the chromatic scale, which the four members together then “played”, fading up three or four channels at a time to create “chords” for the song’s melody. Stewart had put gaffer’s tape across the bottom of each channel so that it was impossible to completely fade down the tracks for each note, resulting in the constant background hiss of vocals heard throughout the song.

Lyrically, the singer says “I’m not in love” but goes on to make it clear that he couldn’t live without his lover:

I’m not in love, no no, it’s because

I like to see you
But then again
That doesn’t mean you mean that much to me
So if I call you
Don’t make a fuss
Don’t tell your friends about the two of us

Now imagine as the song is ending, and the voices and “heartbeat” swell to a climax, it fades into “She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates.

“She’s Gone” also begins with an instrumental introduction that has a pulsating heartbeat and “oohs” sung in harmony.

“She’s Gone” is one of the best examples of blue eyed soul ever recorded.  It is right up there with the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” and anything by the Rascals.

Much credit should be given to Arif Mardin for his stellar production work and the string and horn arrangements he devised to complement the song.  Joe Farrell’s tenor sax solo is a thing of beauty.

Musically, “I’m Not in Love” and “She’s Gone” mix as perfectly as gin and tonic.  But thematically they are also similar.  “She’s Gone” is also a heartbreak song.  The singer is trying to figure out how he’s going to be able to carry on now that it’s clear his woman has left him for good.

Everybody’s high on consolation
Everybody’s trying to tell me what is right for me, yeah
My daddy tried to bore me with a sermon
But it’s plain to see that they can’t comfort me

Sorry, Charlie, for the imposition
I think I got it (got it), I got the strength to carry on, oh yeah
I need a drink and a quick decision
Now it’s up to me, ooh, what will be

If you can find a way to play these two songs together, with a fade out between (I think you can do that on iTunes), you’ll never hear them the same way again!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Melody, Serge Gainsbourg

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Serge Gainsbourg was a French Renaissance man.  He made his mark in music (singer, composer, pianist, guitarist) and film (screenwriter, director, actor) but he was also a writer, poet and artist.

In the music world, his most renowned work was the 1971 concept album, Histoire de Melody Nelson.  In seven tracks over about 28 minutes, the album tells the story of a middle-aged man that crashes his car into a 15 year old girl, Melody Nelson, on her bicycle. The accident leads to seduction and an affair.  Eventually Melody meets her demise in a plane crash.

Today’s SotW is the album’s opener, “Melody.”

This is an astounding piece of music.  It combines a rock guitar with a funky bass and an orchestral string arrangement.  Gainsbourg’s vocal is more spoken than sung, like many of Leonard Cohen’s recordings.  The track as a whole is simply mesmerizing.

The link below to a blog post by YellowOnline provides more detail about the album and handy translations of the French lyrics into English.

YellowOnline – Histoire de Melody Nelson

Histoire de Melody Nelson has influenced many other musicians, including Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), Portishead and Stereolab.  Beck found inspiration from Histoire… for his own “Paper Tiger” on his breakup album, Sea ChangeHistoire… was also cited by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys as an inspiration for their recent album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – My Pledge of Love, The Joe Jeffrey Group

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Today’s SotW is squarely in the category of “restored” songs.

I recently picked up a very large box of 45’s of rock and soul music from the ‘60s, gifted to me by my second cousin Donna.  I had as blast looking through them, organizing them, and playing a few as I went along.

I picked up a 7 incher on the Wand label called “My Pledge of Love” by The Joe Jeffrey Group.  What is this, I thought to myself.  I dropped the needle and recognized it immediately.  I have to admit, I don’t think I ever knew who the artist was, but the song I couldn’t forget!

So I did some research for you and here’s what I found:

The Joe Jeffrey (born Joseph Stafford Jr.) Group was an R&B outfit based in Cleveland, Ohio and took “My Pledge of Love” to #14 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.

The song is driven by a relentless rhythm guitar and, of course, Jeffrey’s powerful vocal performance.

Partway through (at about 1:35) Jeffrey starts to riff on the Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving,” a song that had hit the charts 5 years earlier, in 1964.  But making a musical reference to a Motown hit could never hurt.

Despite that reference, this song strikes me as more of a rock song than soul number.  The buying public in 1969 must have felt the same way.  “My Pledge of Love” failed place on the Billboard soul chart!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Understand Your Man, Johnny Cash

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I’m posting today from Newburgh, New York – my hometown – which makes today’s SotW especially appropriate.

When I was a kid, growing up in Newburgh, my dad owned and operated a roller skating rink called the Avalon.  Occasionally the building would be used to promote special events like professional wrestling (I remember Bruno Sammartino, Haystacks Calhoun and Gorilla Monsoon) and concerts.

The most famous person to perform at the Avalon was Johnny Cash.  In my adult life I was able to find references to his gig there on November 13, 1964, but I’ve never been able to find any memorabilia from the event.  I’ve scoured the internet for a poster, a bill or a newspaper ad for the show and always came up empty.  But I recently found these:

It turns out Cash did two shows that night – 7:00 and 9:30. In November ’64, he would have been at the tail end of promoting his I Walk the Line album (released in May 1964) and starting to promote Bitter Tears (October 1964).

One of the songs he must have played would have been “Understand Your Man” which held the #1 spot on the Billboard Country Charts for six weeks in the spring of ‘64.

As you listen to “Understand…” you will undoubtedly hear the resemblance to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”  This should be no surprise.  Cash and Dylan were connected from the earliest days.  They both listened to and respected each other’s music.  They first met at the Gaslight in 1963 and again at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.

Cash openly admitted morphing “Don’t’ Think Twice…” into “Understand…”  He kept most of the melody, and lyrically turned another one of Dylan’s many put down songs into a Cash styled “my way or the highway” rant.

But the story goes even further.  Dylan’s song is itself a variation of a folk song by Paul Clayton called “Who´s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I´m Gone” from 1960.  If you have any doubt about it listen to the lyrics to Clayton’s recording that contains the lines “T’ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin” and “So I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road/You’re the one that made me travel on.”

And you can take that a step further – Clayton’s recording was an adaptation of a public domain folk song called “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens When I’m Gone,”

You can check them out on to decide for yourself if the lineage holds up.

Apparently there is a recording of a medley Cash and Dylan did of their two songs.  I have a bootleg of their session together but it doesn’t include the medley.  Darn!

“Understand Your Man” was the last song Cash ever performed in public, at the Carter Family Fold, Hiltons, VA on July 5, 2003.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Blackbird, Piggies, Rocky Raccoon, The Beatles

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As I write this I’m aware the 50 years ago today, the Beatles were in Abbey Road Studios recording The Beatles, better known as the White Album.  Recording of The Beatles would eventually be completed on October 14th and it would be released on November 22, 1968, just in time to be placed under the Christmas tree for millions of adoring fans.

I love the White Album and will probably post about it again before the end of the year.  But I’ll start with today’s observation that it is the Beatles’ animals album.  Well what the hell does that mean?

There are four songs on the album that specifically mention an animal in the title:

Blackbird

Piggies

Rocky Raccoon

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey

Martha My Dear was written about Paul’s sheep dog, but does not explicitly mention it in the lyrics.  However, there are several other songs that do mention animals in the lyrics.  “He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun…”  “She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane…”  And several more.  Go find them.

Today’s SotW are the three that were presented all in a row on Side 2.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Onion, Shannon and the Clams

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Shannon and the Clams is a band based out of Oakland, CA that played the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco last night.  Next, they’re off to Europe.

The band is shaped around songwriters Shannon Shaw (bass/vocals) and Cody Blanchard (guitar/vocals), and supported by Nate Mahan (drums) and Will Sprott (keyboards), 

Their latest album, Onion, was released last February.  I’ve been listening to it a lot.  If you think you would enjoy a modern take on ‘60s girl group music, you need to check them out.

Onion was partially inspired by the December 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in their hometown that took the lives of 36 people.  This touched the group deeply because the Ghost Ship was a haven for local artists and musicians – and was a place that Shannon and the Clams had performed.

It was hard to decide which cut to feature as today’s SotW, but I settled on the title track.

“Onion” contains all of the elements that make me a fan of Shannon and the Clams’ music.  It’s part Del Shannon, part garage rock (fuzzed guitar), part soul, with a power pop twist.  It straddles the space between the campiness of The Cramps and the oldies covers recorded by Blondie (“Denis Denis” and “I’m Gonna Love You Too”).

The lyrics to “Onion” are simple, but interesting – dealing with the “layers” of personality of those afflicted with mental illness.

Well I’m working on it
Holy shit I avoid so many problems
Holy shit this isn’t it
No one told me I was just an onion
I’m just a kid oh so I thought
Please doc, make it stop
Let me go home
I’ll keep working on it
But I’ll be gone before I peel this old onion

But the music keeps the tragic lyrics from becoming depressing.  You may still want to dance to it.

Onion was produced by the omnipresent Dan Auerbach (Black Keys), at his Nashville headquarters.

Enjoy… until next week.