Central Reservation

I can’t really explain why I’m so captivated by Beth Orton’s “Central Reservation.” I don’t understand the lyrics, and one of the many remixes I thoroughly enjoy is a style of music I normally don’t even listen to.

As the title track to her latest album, it was originally recorded as a slow, almost sleepy ballad. The first version I heard was remixed by Ben Watt of “Everything But The Girl” and has quite a bit more bounce and beat. Hearing the original after that took the right mood, but each, in its own place, is perfect.

The one I just don’t understand liking is the “Spiritual Life Ibadan Mix” which starts with a single pounding drum which doesn’t let up for eight minutes. After the rest of the instruments jump in, what sounds like the ‘Ben Watt’ mix vocals join in the fray. In the middle of this hammering dance tune we’re treated to a blistering acoustic guitar solo which is starting to sound natural to me. Also available on the same import CD are the “Then Again” version and the “William Orbit” remix. If you’ve heard either one and can offer insight, let us know.

Burning Airlines Block Black Light Syndrome

Yup; it almost spells ‘babbles’ and that’s how we’ll pronounce it, okay?

Quick jaunt through three songs you may not have heard, but should:

  • “Deluxe War Baby” from the 2001 “Burning Airlines” album “Identikit” – formed four years before their name would become permanently politically incorrect, the band’s “Deluxe War Baby” is a fine example of what loud rock can achieve when it’s arranged well. Dynamics (as in using both loud AND soft) play a huge part, with the opening plunky sounding guitar and Dylanesque vocals eventually puncuated by crunchy drums, bass, and more guitars, just before the time signature switches to 3/4 time (yes, that’s a waltz.) This ain’t no waltz, though. When lead vocalist J. Robbins wails “Never have I felt so well policed; why should I be anything but pleased?” the discordant rumble of multi-layered guitars makes the sarcasm bite harder. Even if edgy rock isn’t your cup of whiskey, “Deluxe War Baby” is worth a listen. “We’re all headed west, whatever we think we believe . . .”
  • “Rhinoceros” from the 1996 “Block” album “Lead Me Not Into Penn Station” – I like Jamie Block’s sense of humor. Lyrically and musically, it’s a fun song. “My lawyer said, ‘Hey Jamie, think poppy; think catchy'; okay . . .” A simple bass line alternating with sandpaper rhythym electric guitar and a not-too-difficult chorus (“Rhinoceros” [x4]) make this one of those catchy tunes you’ll find it difficult to put out of your head. Interesting jungle-fever-bird/chattering monkey guitar licks near the end. Also available on the “Blast from the Past” soundtrack, where it has some impressive company which we’ll discuss later.
  • “Spiral” from the 2000 “Black Light Syndrome” album “Situation Dangerous” – Hmmmmm . . . where does one begin? Tony Levin (bassist for Peter Gabriel, Yes, King Crimson, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Lucy Simon, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, James Taylor, Livingston Taylor, Ringo Starr, Pink Floyd, Nanci Griffith, Judy Collins, and a bazillion others) joins Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons, Frank Zappa) and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol, grammy for “Top Gun”) to form a power trio not unlike a new millenium “Cream” with a twist. “Spiral” is not their usual black thunder, though. Beginning slowly, almost pensively, Stevens’ classical guitar becomes more and more complex and fiery, joined by ever intensifying percussion of every kind. Behind it all, swirling, dancing, now echoing, now countering, is Levin’s bass, never in the same place twice. A journey of epic proportion which never fails to bring a smile to my face; whether you love classical guitar, progressive rock, or something in between, I defy you not to be captivated.

In Memoriam: The Red Back Book

Sixteen years ago today my father was killed when a truck hit his bicycle while he was riding to work. He gave me my love of music and my love of computers, but he never saw a PC and never knew the internet. This special entry is about an album that drew us closer and helped smooth things over when they weren’t otherwise smooth. Thanks, Dad.

Ragtime isn't jazz, but it's close enough for meIn 1973 American music was re-introduced to Scott Joplin, one of its most important sons. From Hollywood, the classic film “The Sting” featured half a dozen of Joplin’s rags, as performed and arranged by Marvin Hamlisch (who made a hysterical appearance on the ‘Tonight’ show, almost entirely because he was being attacked by a previous guest – a giant owl, which had escaped from its trainer.) Hamlisch won three Oscars in 1974; two for “The Way We Were” (Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Title Song.) The third was for the score of “The Sting.” He is often credited with ‘single-handedly reviving interest in ragtime music’ but at our house, that honor goes to Gunther Schuller.

Born in 1925, by the age of 25 Schuller had already performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and the Metropolitan Opera. In May of 1972, nearly 30 years ago (and before the release of “The Sting”) Schuller and his talented young New England Conservatory musicians performed four Scott Joplin rags from the legendary collection officially known as “Fifteen Standard High Class Rags” but more frequently referred to by its New Orleans nickname, “The Red Back Book.”

An advertisement for some of Joplin’s rags published in 1904 read, in part: “If you were at the St. Louis Fair and heard the Kilties, or the Washington Marine Band play these classic rags, then we will not need to strain the tired language in a vain effort to describe them . . . If you are alive to impulse you felt the ground wave under your feet, and you dropped into sublime reverie . . .” If you know that feeling, you know what it’s like to hear Scott Joplin’s rags for the first time.

Schuller and the New England Conservatory recorded eight rags on their 1973 album “Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book.” All eight are performed by the 11-man ensemble in the original arrangements, but two are given special treatment. Both “The Entertainer” and “Sun Flower Slow Drag” are also performed as piano solos by Myron Romanul in what have become two of my favorite tracks of all time. Sadly, the CD version contains all eight orchestral versions, but not the piano solos.

The original song list of the vinyl copy of “The Red Back Book” is as follows:

  • The Cascades
  • Sun Flower Slow Drag
  • The Chrysanthemum
  • The Entertainer (solo piano version)
  • The Rag Time Dance
  • Sugar Cane (not a Red Back Book tune, but apparently Schuller likes it)
  • The Easy Winners
  • The Entertainer
  • Sun Flower Slow Drag (solo piano version)
  • Maple Leaf Rag

The Red Back Book and Scott Joplin became part of our lives. When we made our yearly trip to Disneyland, we always scheduled an hour or so to stand near the piano player on Main Street. Every year, my sister would request “Solace”, her favorite Joplin tune (featured in “The Sting” soundtrack) and after a couple years, when we’d walk up, he would smile and nod, and slowly, almost absent-mindedly, without waiting for the request, wander into “Solace” for my sister, my father, and I. It was the reason we went.

I’ve never been to Disneyland with my sister since my father’s death. My brother and I stopped playing guitars together as well. But ragtime is alive and well, and so am I. I just dug out Dad’s original vinyl copy of “The Red Back Book.” I think it’s time for a little solace.

Edit: Shirley Kaiser just told me she inherited a passel of turn-of-the-century ragtime sheet music from her grandmother, and wondered if there would be interest in a concert. I say, let’s record a whole album! Any time you’re ready, Shirley. (And thanks for the artwork.)


See the Sun Spreading Wings of Gold . . .

Gratifying to see Howard Shore’s magnificent “Lord of the Rings” score properly honored.


“Got no reason,

but that I must.

Maybe I feel

like I’ve been gathering dust . . .”

I wish I had discovered David Gray before “Babylon” but I’m glad I discovered him at all. “Gathering Dust” from his glorious 1993 debut album “Century Ends” has been running through my mind almost enlessly of late. (It shares said album with the emotional “Shine” and the philosophical “Birds Without Wings” which I believe was also David’s first single.)

Beginning with solo rhythym acoustic guitar, as many of Gray’s songs do, it gradually builds, adding keyboards, acoustic lead guitar, bass, and more. The electric piano subtly seconds David’s guitar from nearly the beginning. The second acoustic guitar counterpoints the rhythym beautifully, adding punctuation or emphasis where needed. Keyboards and rhythym guitar respond in kind, building to a full, rounded sound. By the time we get to the deliriously poetic

“See the sun spreading wings of gold

as the dawn unfurled,

Hear the song the moon sings

to the darkened world”

it has built to sizeable proportions, at which point, everyone drops out except the opening guitar and keyboards, fading to a soft, sad finish.

For more David Gray, try the official website, or their list of other links. I’ve spent quite a bit of time at ‘Drunken Gibberish‘ even though they spell their own name wrong. And of course, buy all David’s albums.

Loading Dock Dark Alley Swing

I promised to tell you more about Wally’s Swing World. Instead of procrastinating and forgetting, let’s just get it over with, shall we?

Some years ago, I made a business trip to San Jose, California (near San Francisco.) It was an all-day training class for some really bad software I was forced to use. They had one terminal (no, not computer; a Wyse 30 dumb terminal) for two students, and I shared one with a smart and friendly guy named Kerry who lived just north of San Diego.

Whenever I travel to a new city, my mission is to find a local brewpub to check out. Kerry’s mission, assigned by his employer, was to go eat at a particular restaurant he had enjoyed on his last visit to San Jose. The restaurant was Gordon Biersch, and the matchbook Kerry had made it clear that our missions were bound by a single destiny.

We took BART all the way across San Jose. I don’t recommend it. When we arrived, it looked like the wrong address; while the Gordon Biersch site shows a friendly, well lit entrance what we saw looked like a gate into the alley. However, the well-dressed hostess assured us we were in the right place.

They wanted to seat us by the brick wall you can see in the photos, but to Kerry’s everlasting credit he asked if we could sit at one of the tables near the loading dock to the left. We sat; we ate; we drank. About 7:00, they stopped seating folks on the loading dock and cleared all the tables away. When they started setting up band equipment, we rummaged through the flyers and calendars on the table and discovered that we were about to see someone called “Wally’s Swing World.” At the time, I was disappointed because the act one week previous had been the Dave Matthews Band, and not some unknown. I didn’t stay disappointed for long.

I honestly don’t remember much of the playlist for the evening, but I do remember that it was one of the better live shows I’ve ever seen. Wally and the boys come out playing fast and furious, and after their THIRD hour-long set, they didn’t appear to have slowed any. Swing, rockabilly, standards from the 30s; all were performed with style and grace (or, where appropriate, with wit and a wink.) Wally is a master of really bad humor (“See my new suit? Handmade by those two famous sisters, Polly and Esther!” ) He’s also a master of his Gretsch Country Club guitar. The band’s albums don’t show it much, but their live repertoire includes quite a bit of snappy, polished, sometimes fiery guitar work.

All the band members are excellent at what they do, but as a wannabee drummer I have to mention the masterful Dodger Posey. From gentle background rhythyms to blinding runs and fills, Dodger made every lick count, and made it all sound like jazz ought to sound.

After the third set, Wally announced that they’d be back for one more after a short break. We decided to do the professional thing and get back to the hotel and get enough sleep to benefit from the next day’s class. Wally's Swing World: Full Swing AheadI won’t make that mistake next time.

Wally’s Swing World has a nicely done website where you can read about the band, order their latest two albums, and sign up for a monthly newsletter and calendar. (Note to spam haters – I frequently use test addresses when I first sign up for newsletters. The address I used for Wally’s list was never used by any other organization, I’m pleased to say.) You can even hire the boys for private events. While the price is a bit out of my range for a private party, if our company gets around to hosting an event with live music, I’ll strongly recommend Wally and company. And of course, next time you’re in the San Francisco bay area, look ‘em up and give ‘em a listen. Whether you like swing or not, I’m certain you’ll love the show.

If You Ever Plan to Motor West

This song’s been as many places as the hiway itself. Originally penned by jazz pianist Bobby Troup, it’s been covered by nearly everyone. Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Mott the Hoople, and the Rolling Stones have all had a crack at it, and it remains intact.

Troup had quite a career as a jazz pianist and composer, but somehow, as someone who spent the early 70s glued to a television, I can only think of him as Dr. Joe Early from the series ‘Emergency.’ Both of his albums listed at Amazon.com (he recorded six) contain his version of the song. The two versions I’m listening to right now couldn’t be more different from each other, but I love ‘em both.

The more traditional version of the two is by a Santa Cruz band called “Wally’s Swing World.” I discovered Wally Trindade and company on a business trip to San Jose, and I was stunned by the intensity of this little swing band performing literally on a loading dock in an alley. (A full review of the group’s efforts is planned; ask me about it, in case I forget.) Their second album, “Full Swing Ahead” (1996) opens with a very bouncy, very traditional reading of “Route 66.” Wally has a great voice, and the band has performed together long enough that everything has the crisp precision of a Glenn Miller recording. Further down the playlist, Wally’s cheery passage through “I Get A Kick Out of You” made it impossible for me to listen to Sinatra’s version again; it’s Wally’s tune now. Although it was a star of the band’s live act, Wally’s guitar (a ’58 Gretsch Country Club . . . be still my beating heart) doesn’t really show up until their fiery blitz of “American Bandstand.” It’s worth the wait. Trindade could make it on his guitar-playing alone.

The album closes with “Mack the Knife” which is remarkably underplayed, considering the clowning Wally does during the live show. Musical integrity seems to have compelled the band to turn in a very straightforward version, and they do it well. A third album, “More Than A Swing Thing” is currently available; I’d recommend getting one quickly; their first album, “Welcome to Wally’s Swing World” (1994) is out of print and can’t be had for love or money (although, if anyone’s got one, I’m willing to negotiate.) And of course, while you’re there, get “Full Swing Ahead” too.

In a very different place, Depeche Mode cranks out an atypical rock anthem; it’s not your father’s “Route 66″ and it’s not your daughter’s Depeche Mode. This interpretation comes out of the chute with a repetetive, pounding guitar riff that makes it clear that we’re heading into unmapped territory. Vocals, sung to an almost traditonal background, alternate with the crunching guitar to make a song that drives harder than any other version I’ve heard. When I’m on the road, this is one tune that’s always along.

Walkingbirds

Martin 12-string headstock

I love hearing new music. I love hearing a new song and falling in love with it. And I especially love hearing about a new group and discovering that I’m going to love everything they ever do.

Walkingbirds are that group today, thanks to a tip from Meryl. 64 kbps MP3s of eight of their songs are available free at their site; that totals about 34 minutes of music, which is almost as much as a Chris Isaak album.

Composed almost entirely of Scott Andrew LePera, the “group” oft includes some Laurie Hallal guitars and vocals, and occasionally sports an additional Derek Poindexter on bass. Somehow, it all manages to sound like acoustic Dishwalla or Better Than Ezra, tinged with Sonvolt. Some first impressions (okay, third impressions) about each of the songs:

  • “Cast the Net Wide” Sounding ever so Celtic, a gentle folky number turns partly rock via one of the few occurances of electric guitar. A tender request for love. I think I’ll take this one home with me . . .
  • “Wasted” Trying desperately to sound sad and dejected, it still sounds hopeful and happy to me. Spare and folky; nice percussive punctuation.
  • “One Sure Thing” Reminds me so much of Dishwalla’s acoustic version of “Counting Blue Cars” but with lyrics I can actually enjoy (and understand. Sorry.) Poppy and brisk. Probably excellent with a nice zinfandel or Scotch ale.
  • “Stay the Same” Briefly sounding more like very (very) early Kenny Loggins, a warm and pensive piece.
  • “Back Around” Definitely worthy of airtime, nice percussion and more ambitious vocals make this stand out, even in this distinguished company.
  • “Hello You” A sunny Sunday afternoon, languid, paced but not actually slow. Interesting electric guitar work. More nice harmonies.
  • “Brickyard Bend” Another one for the airwaves, this reminds me of the small town in Texas where I used to live. You could see the line of teenagers just waiting to get out of town. Again, what should feel dismal ends up feeling bright and sunny. Maybe that’s what I like about it. Nice strong rhythym, layers and layers of vocals, and snappy percussion.
  • “Gravel Road Requiem” This should be the last song on the album. Good driving song (as in, song to listen to while driving, not song that drives – that would be John Fogerty’s “Walking In A Hurricane.”) Makes me want to get around to the road trip I didn’t take last year. Well-done harmonies, pleasing interplay of acoustic and electric guitars, and some real live drumming. One of the more complex tunes, and one of my favorites.

While I’m already a fan and appreciate the free MP3s, I hope Scott gets around to producing a real full-length CD. The Walkingbirds website is a fun and informative read, and I suspect the album’s liner notes would soon be as tattered as those from my copy of Loreen McKennit’s “Book of Secrets.” (Note to music moguls: liner notes sell albums. Intelligent informative liner notes sell bands.)

Stardust

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
steals across the meadows of my heart . . .

Although I’m much given to hyperbole, it’s safe to say that Nat King Cole’s recording of this is my very favorite song of all time. Wistful lyrics, beautifully understated orchestration, and deliberate, almost casual vocal phrasing combine to embody the sadness of a lost love. (Not the delirious “I can win her back” kind, but the heavyhearted “What do I do now?”)

Written in 1927 and 1929, it was recorded many times before Nat took his turn in 1957. Originally an instrumental by the great Hoagy Carmichael, two years later Mitchell Parish (“Sophisticated Lady”, “Stars Fell On Alabama”) added the brooding lyrics. Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra all had turns at it, but according to Parish’s obituary in The New York Times, April 2, 1993, Cole’s version was his favorite. (Not even remotely related – Avery Parrish recorded the classic blues instrumental “After Hours” with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1940.)

The orchestration by Gordon Jenkins is critical to this version’s appeal. A brilliant arranger, Jenkins was largely responsible for Harry Nilsson’s very special “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, featuring a dozen standards wrapped in the velvet of Harry’s voice and Gordon’s orchestration.

The first time I heard “Stars Fell On Alabama” was on Jimmy Buffet’s 1981 Album “Coconut Telegraph.” Jimmy seems to get the mood right. The album also features the flip-side of the wistfulness embodied in “Stardust” in the song “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.” The story of a man who’s had enough, he takes off on vacation alone when his girlfriend can’t make the time to join him and ends up making the vacation permanent. By the end, you’re pretty sure there’s nothing wistful happening here.

Another of my personal favorites, the album also contains the song “Little Miss Magic” written for Savannah Jane Buffet just two years before the birth of my own daughter. For a crusty old pirate, Jimmy does all right as a tender, loving father.