Song of the Week – Bastille Day, Rush

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Today’s SotW was drafted last night after I learned that Neil Peart, of Rush, died earlier this week, on January 7th.  Now I have to confess, Rush is NOT one of my favorite bands.  But I respect what they contributed to the history of progressive rock music and I especially respect Peart’s mastery of the drums and his knack for writing intellectual lyrics.

Today’s SotW is “Bastille Day,” Peart’s tribute to the event that kicked off the French Revolution.

Rush – Bastille Day

Some of the song’s lyrics are as relevant today as they were when Peart wrote them in 1975.

There’s no bread, let them eat cake
There’s no end to what they’ll take
Flaunt the fruits of noble birth
Wash the salt into the earth

Lessons taught but never learned.
All around us anger burns.
Guide the future by the past.
Long ago the mold was cast.

Peart was known for using an elaborate drum kit.  And he used it to its fullest extent.

He died of glioblastoma (brain cancer) at the age of 67, in California.

So, here’s to Neil Peart – drummer, lyricist, novelist and father.  May he rest in peace.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Only the Strong Survive, Jerry Butler

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‘60s soul man, Jerry Butler, earned the nickname “Ice Man” for his cool, baritone vocals.  He began his recording career with Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions in 1958, but quickly quit that group for a solo career.

By 1968, Butler found himself on Mercury records, working with writers/producers Gamble and Huff, later of Philadelphia International fame.  They helped Butler reach his apex with The Iceman Cometh album.  It contained two of Butler’s best known recordings – “Hey, Western Union Man,” and today’s SotW, “Only the Strong Survive.”

“Only the Strong Survive” reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Black Singles chart in early 1969.  It is another in the long line of songs whose message resonated as a ‘60s civil rights anthem.

The spoken word intro (similar to Clarence Carter’s “Patches”) offers mama’s words of wisdom:

I remember my first love affair
Somehow or another the whole darn thing went wrong
My mama had some great advice
So I thought I’d put it into words of this song
I can still hear her sayin’

But the payoff is in the chorus, where mama’s message goes beyond how to deal with a break up.  It is a more universal life’s lesson.

Only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
You’ve got to be a man, you’ve got to take a stand
So I’m telling you right now only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
Hey, you’ve got to be strong, you’d better hold on

Elvis Presley released his popular version of the song on his 1969 long player, From Elvis In Memphis.  That’s the one that also included the hit “In the Ghetto.”

The Iceman is the perfect companion for a dark winter’s day.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – New Year’s Eve, Van Doren

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One of the “best albums you’ve never heard” is Are You Serious? (1977), by Van Duren.  Especially if you are a power pop fan (as I am).  There isn’t a self-respecting list of the greatest power pop albums of all time that doesn’t include Are You Serious?.  But that should be no surprise given that Doren came from the same Memphis scene that birthed Big Star.

The smart, pop of the tracks on Are You Serious? will remind you of Duren’s contemporary, Emitt Rhodes.  And like Rhodes, Duren played most of the instruments on the album — in fact pretty much everything except drums.

So the date on the calendar compels me to choose “New Year’s Eve” as today’s SotW. But YouTube only has a link to the whole album, so here it is!

It’s a love song that recounts a relationship that starts at a teenage New Year’s Eve party.

The rest of the album is equally as infectious and should be auditioned by all SotW readers.

Duren followed up his debut with another fine record – Idiot Optimism.  But due to some shady business involving his recording studio owner and producer, Scientology, and bad luck, Idiot Optimism languished in the vaults until it was finally released in 1999, 20 years after it was finished!

A documentary was released this year called Waiting: The Van Duren Story.  It was made by two Australians — Wade Jackson and Greg Carey – who discovered Are You Serious? and wanted to learn the story about the album’s obscurity and Duren’s abandoned career.  They tracked down Duren and convinced him to cooperate with their project.

I haven’t seen it yet.  It’s not currently screening anywhere, isn’t streaming on Netflix and isn’t for sale on DVD.  But I will watch it as soon as it is available.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Something to Believe, Weyes Blood

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Titanic Rising, the 2009 album by Weyes Blood (Natalie Laura Mering) is receiving huge plaudits in the year-end polls for Best Albums of 2019.  Paste recently placed it at #1!  I like the album, but I don’t love it.  Some of the atmospheric noodling on it just bore me.  But the album does contain one of my favorite songs of the year – “Something to Believe.”

“Something to Believe” starts of sounding like The Carpenters, but hipper.  But the simple piano based ballad develops into so much more.  There’s a haunting slide guitar that perfectly hits the mark.  And the production expands into a fully orchestrated arrangement with Mering’s vocals soaring above it all – Court and Spark era Joni Mitchell like.  This is no doubt partly in credit to Foxygen’s Jonathon Rado, who co-produced the album.

Lyrically, Mering calls for the need for connection to other people.

Give me something I can see
Something bigger and louder than the voices in me
Something to believe

On a side note, the name Weyes Blood was inspired by the Flannery O’Connor novel Wise Blood, so I assume that’s how the band name is supposed to be pronounced.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Harmony Hall, Vampire Weekend

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Well, we’ve reached December and the year-end is right around the corner.  For me, that means it is time to start thinking about my favorite songs and albums of the year.

An easy call for me is to include Vampire Weekend’s 2019 release, Father of the Bride.  I’m sure I’m not alone.  After waiting 6 years for this long-player, their fans were starving for some new music from the group.  I remember going onto Spotify that May day it was released and seeing that several of the friends I follow were all listening to it simultaneously.

I wanted to make a cut from Father of the Bride a SotW earlier in the year, but I couldn’t decide which song to pick.  Would it be “This Life,” or maybe “Sunflower?”  I’m going to go with the first single they dropped from the album – “Harmony Hall.”

This track is 5 minutes of crisp, clean music that exudes a Grateful Dead, jam band vibe – especially with the guitar figure that starts around 3:45.  They even make judicious use of the vibraslap.

The lyrics are vague and could be interpreted in many ways.  To me, the lyrics evoke societal frustrations, but vocalist Ezra Koenig delivers them with an optimistic tone.

Anger wants a voice / Voices wanna sing

Singers harmonize / Till they can’t hear anything

I thought that I was free / From all that questionin’

But every time a problem ends / Another one begins

I don’t want to live like this / But I don’t want to die

On a side note, last year Koenig had a kid with Rashida Jones (daughter of Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones) of The Office and Parks and Recreation.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Shine On, Humble Pie

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In October, Peter Frampton officially retired, wrapping up his “Finale: The Farewell Tour” in nearby Concord, CA.  Sadly, the underrated guitarist was motivated to undertake a final tour because he has been battling a degenerative muscle disease – inclusion-body myositis – that would eventually rob him of his ability to perform.

Most famous for his mega-sales, live double album, Frampton Comes Alive! (1976), Frampton deserves recognition for so much more.

Frampton started to play in bands when he was only 12 years old.  By the time he was 16, he was recording with The Herd.

When Steve Marriott, of The Small Faces, formed Humble Pie in 1969, Frampton was recruited to be in that band’s original line-up.  Frampton joined Humble Pie, in part to escape the teen idol image he was tagged with as the frontman for The Herd.  He stayed with the band until 1971 when the development of his softer, pop songwriting didn’t fit in with Marriott’s more hard-rocking vision.

Today’s SotW, “Shine On,” is a good example of that quandary.

“Shine On” is the lead track from Humble Pie’s fourth album, Rock On (1971).  The heavy guitar combined with a keen pop sensibility of “Shine On” point toward the songs that would make Frampton an international superstar later in the decade with hits like “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way.”  He delivers a terrific, soulful vocal too.

It was fitting that Frampton chose to close out his career in northern California.  His high watermark, Frampton Comes Alive!, was recorded primarily at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Sayonara, Akiko Yano

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Back in the mid-‘70s, a 21-year-old, Japanese jazz pianist, Akiko Yano, was in the midst of recording her first solo album with the Japanese group Caramel Mama, when someone suggested she work with some western rock musicians.

She liked the idea… if she could work with an American rock group that she really adored – Lowell George’s Little Feat.  Little Feat agreed to the gig and met her at Hollywood Sound Studio in Los Angeles for the recording session.

The resulting album, Japanese Girl (1976), has Little Feat on side 1 and her Japanese accompanists on side 2.  My pick for the SotW is “Sayonara.”

“Sayonara” immediately grabs you with its sexy, funky groove.  MOJO’s Jim Irvin writes:

The album opens, paradoxically, with Sayonara, introduced by what sounds like the unmistakable New Orleans lope of Bill Payne’s piano.  Except that it’s Akiko who plays all the keyboards on the record.  Halfway through, the song dissolves into a scat vocal segment, jazzy piano leads into a dreamlike jam and climaxes with the band going full tilt as Akiko hits long, siren-like notes on the synthesizer.  You’re immediately aware this record isn’t going down any expected path…”

At the time, Yano didn’t speak English (and Little Feat didn’t speak Japanese), but they clearly had no problem communicating musically.

If you’re a Little Feat fan (and who isn’t!) you will love this hidden gem that has been recently released outside of Japan for the first time.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Not, Big Thief

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I read some very favorable reviews of the fourth album (and second released in 2019) – Two Hands – by the Brooklyn based band, Big Thief, so I decided to give it a listen.  Singer Adrianne Lenker’s breathy vocals are very pretty, but after several cuts, nothing was really grabbing me.

Then the seventh song, “Not,” came on and I was hooked.  And it is worthy to be featured as the SotW.

Instead of the “indie-Americana” (I just made that up) that describes most of Big Thief’s material, this track veers off into a cacophony of grungy guitar distortion – and I mean that in the best way.  Neil Young would approve!

The “negativity” of the lyrics is complemented and reinforced by the noisy accompaniment.

It’s not the room
Not beginning
Not the crowd
Not winning
Not the planet
That’s spinning
Not a ruse
Not heat
Not the fire lapping up the creek
Not food
That you eat

Keep an eye on Big Thief.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Running Scared, Roy Orbison; Beck’s Bolero, Jeff Beck; White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane; The Bomber: Closet Queen / Bolero / Cast Your Fate to the Wind, James Gang

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In 1927, Joseph Ravel was commissioned to compose his final and most famous piece – Boléro.  Though most people know Bolero as a musical composition, the commission was originally to provide a score for Ida Rubinstein’s ballet company.  But Boléro has become most famous as the score to a different dance.  (More on that later.)

Is the SotW venturing into classical music?  Hell no!  There are quite a few notable rock songs that reference Boléro, and that’s today’s topic.

Roy Orbison (aka “Lefty Wilbury”) is often credited as the first rock musician to use the Boléro theme in a rock song – “Running Scared” (1961).

“… Scared” opens with a simple guitar strumming, then builds with each verse, much like Ravel’s piece.  All of the instruments are layered on, piece by piece, building to an immense climax.  It is also notable that the song has no chorus.

In 1966 Jeff Beck, soon after leaving the Yardbirds, decided to record his first single and called on his old friend Jimmy Page to help out.  They proceeded to lay down “Beck’s Boléro,” which would become the b-side to the “Hi Ho Silver Lining” single.

They called on John Paul Jones to play bass and Keith Moon for drums.  Page agreed to play 12-string electric rhythm so Beck could take on lead guitar responsibilities.

The Jefferson Airplane hired Grace Slick to replace Signe Anderson as their lead singer in 1966. Slick brought a couple of her own songs to the group, including the Boléro based classic, “White Rabbit.”

“White Rabbit” reached #8 on the Billboard pop chart in 1967.  The military march that ties back to Ravel’s Bolero is immediately recognizable.  The song is currently featured in an ad for a cruise line!  Ugh!!!

Joe Walsh, of the James Gang (and later Eagles), was also influenced by Boléro.  The Gang’s second album, Rides Again (1970), included a suite — “The Bomber: Closet Queen”/ “Bolero”/ “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

The rights holders to Ravel’s Boléro objected to the James Gang’s use of the composition in their recording and forced the band to delete that section from future pressings of the album, instantly creating a collector’s item.

Ravel’s Bolero received a boost in popularity in 1979 when it was featured in the movie 10.  In the movie, Bo Derek’s character (physically a perfect “10”) tells Dudley Moore’s character “Boléro was the most descriptive sex music ever written” and asks “Did you ever do it to Ravel’s Boléro?”  Millions of copies of Boléro were sold following the commercial success of 10.

In 2012, London based music psychologist Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen analyzed the results of a Spotify survey of songs in “music to make love to” playlists.  The winner?  Marvin Gaye for “Sexual Healing” and “Let’s Get It On.”  But Ravel’s Boléro was next in line.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Crossfire, Stevie Ray Vaughan

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Back in the early ‘80s, I tuned in to Austin City Limits one night to see an episode featuring a guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan.  At the time I hadn’t heard of the guy.  But I was really impressed with his guitar playing even though I wasn’t familiar with most of his repertoire because, as I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t yet know who he was.  But when he played the familiar cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” I was blown away.  I knew immediately this guy could play guitar.

From that point I began to follow Vaughan and became a big fan.  Too bad his life was cut short in a helicopter crash in 1990, at the age of 35.  The real shame of it is that after many years of drug and alcohol abuse, Vaughan was finally getting straight.  In fact, his last studio album with his band Double Trouble, In Step (1989), was a reference to the sobriety he reached through a 12 Step program.

So, today’s SotW is my favorite track from In Step, “Crossfire.”

“Crossfire” opens with a funky baseline and solid beat that leaves room for an organ riff and a few nicely placed guitar stabs.  Vaughan gives an impassioned vocal performance and whips off some tasteful guitar solos.  In the last 30 seconds, Vaughan plays a very cool, staccato run of notes that lifts the song to another level just before it ends.

The “Crossfire” writing credit was given to the full band – Vaughan, Tommy Shannon (bass), Chris Layton (drums) and Reese Wynans (keyboards).  The cut also has a horn section made up of Joe Sublett on sax and Darrell Leonard on trumpet.

Enjoy… until next week.