Sunny Days Have Burnt A Path

I prefer lyrics that make me think. The banal repetitive lyrics of the average pop song are okay if they’re carried by a spectacular voice or accompanied by really good music. But intelligent or thought-provoking lyrics can get by with a lot less window dressing.

From my earliest childhood, this attitude has been influenced by the songs of Paul Simon. My perspective of the entire marketing field has always been colored by Simon’s “Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” just as the first mental pictures I formed of New York were pleasant, happy images, wrapped around the 59th Street Bridge. Paul has always been introspective, and his lyrics are full of self-analysis, and, on occasion, the anguish and doubt which sometimes result. “Ten Years”, written for the anniversary of a television show (10 points if you can guess it) has meaning and value far beyond its origins. The singer looks back, noting the rapid passage of time, feeling a dearth of accomplishment; then, looks forward, wondering if the future holds more of the same.

CarnivalSimon is a wordsmith. From the opening lines

 You are moving on a crowded street through various shades of people

through

 the sky turns dark as stone

to the final line

 sunny days have burnt a path across another season

he chooses slightly unusual descriptions for the mundane, the expected, and thereby makes them something entirely new and different. Simon’s voice is as simple as always; the musical accompaniment sounds much like an outtake from “Graceland”; but the lyrics make the song stand out among his works.

The song first appeared, in shortened form, on the Oprah Winfrey show. The full version is only available on Carnival“, an album to benefit the Rainforest Foundation, and featuring Sting, <James Taylor, The Chieftans, and others.

In spite of the bleak lyrics, the song feels hopeful. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but when he sings

 If you look into your future life ten years from this question, do you imagine a familiar light burning in the distance?

I do indeed imagine a familiar light, but it’s a light I’d like to see.

New Feature: Snappy Snippets

Reload/refresh this page. That’s F5 in IE or Opera, CTRL-R in Netscape or Mozilla. Go ahead; we’ll wait.

Notice the musical quote under the logo? We’ve added a geeky database of musical quotes and a function to randomly drop a quote into that spot every time a page is loaded.

And for the truly adventurous, the snippet is a link to further info.

Iron Man

This morning I heard Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for the first time in almost thirty years. I was surprised that it appealed to me just as much as when I was twelve. I was also surprised at how exactly lead guitarist Tony Iommi sounded like Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page during the same era. I never read an Iron Man comic, although I was vaguely familiar with the character. An Iron Man movie was planned a couple years ago, and according to some sources is due for release in about 2004.

Wonder if Black Sabbath will reunite to do the soundtrack? I’d prefer Peter Gabriel, myself.

Finding Iz

There was a lot to like about the movie “Finding ForresterFinding Forrester.” First, I could watch Sean Connery nap on the couch and find it fascinating. Second, it’s amazing to see newcomer Rob Brown hold his own while he shares the screen with Connery, and occasionally dominates it. The story, although slightly predictable, is done so well that I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve seen it.

As a music freak, though, the thing that made the most lasting impression on me happened as the ending credits started to whizz past, as credits are wont to do these days. Out of nowhere, there was this amazing, high, clear voice, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” accompanied by a ukelele! I caught the name ‘Israel something-impossibly-long-and-Hawaiian’ and scurried for the internet, where I discovered Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Hawaii’s Bruddah Iz.

Born the same year as me, 1959, Israel came from a very musical background. Forming a musical group, Makaha Sons Of Ni’ihau, with his brother Skippy at a young age, Israel started recording under his own name in 1990. Although Skippy had died of a heart attack in 1982, the group continued to record and remained popular in Hawaii. Israel eventually recorded duets with recordings of Skippy, a la Natalie/Nat King Cole. Israel’s health was always a concern as well; his weight occasionally topped 750 pounds.

In 1995, Iz released “Israel Kamakawiwo'ole 'Facing Future'Facing Future” which contains the track “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World.” Neither song is a special favorite of mine; the former has sort of been done to death, the latter has always seemed just a bit trite. Not unlistenable tunes, just not favorites. But hearing Israel’s complete rearrangement, his crystal voice, and the obvious joy he took in his music, makes them both sparkle. He takes marvelous liberties with the lyrics to ‘Rainbow’ but it doesn’t seem to matter; the reason to listen is that voice.

The entire album is enjoyable. Mostly Hawaiian tunes (which makes appreciation of the lyrics a bit difficult for some of us) but besides the tune already mentioned, there’s a fun, humourous cover of “Take Me Home Country Road” with Hawaiian locations substituted for the originals, and a Hawaiian country chorus doing the backing vocals.

The opening track, “Hawai`i ’78 Introduction” is beautiful. It includes voice-overs of Israel talking about his father’s death of a heart attack. Since Israel’s death from the same cause in 1997 it is especially eerie to hear him refer to his father’s words about staying close to the people he loved; advice which Israel says on the album would have saved his father’s life had he followed it himself.

Despite the fact that we have a catalog of more than two dozen albums featuring Bruddah Iz, it’s sad to think he’ll no longer be singing the history of the homeland he obviously loved.

Pure Fluff

Pure It doesn’t all have to be serious.

A few years ago, San Diego’s ill-fated independent station KUPR had a weekly program showcasing new music. Independent artists and others from the music industry were invited to hawk their wares to a panel of interested parties. The panel varied slightly from week to week, but included local musicians and others from the local music scene, and members of the station’s staff.

During one show, one of the tunes was an obviously trivial, but fun, calypso number. Mojo Nixon, a regular panelist, made the disparaging comment that it sounded like something ‘parrot-heads would think was cool.’ The rest of the panel agreed that it wasn’t ‘important’ enough to get airplay.

I’d developed a semi-friendly relationship with Clark Novak, who piloted KUPR in the midday. So, I fired off an indignant e-mail to Clark about why music doesn’t have to be serious or heavy; I included references to the Beatles, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and I think even Mozart.

The next day, Clark called me and said that he’d forwarded my message to the station’s programming manager, who had asked him to invite me onto the show as their first listener panelist. This was on Friday; I couldn’t make it that next Wednesday, so we scheduled my visit for the next week. I fretted and stressed for a whole week, worrying that after years of being considered ‘the music guy’ by the folks who knew me, I was going to embarrass myself on the radio.

No such luck. Friday morning, after three years of truly imaginative independent programming, including my first exposure to the likes of Jude Cole, Sonvolt, and others, KUPR turned country. No commercials, no breaks of any kind; just canned commercialized country-pop 24 hours a day. Eventually, they became a huge radio conglomerate’s answer to cotton candy; I couldn’t even tell you what station is at 95.7 in San Diego these days.

Needless to say, since there was no show, I didn’t embarrass myself. I still think it’s an extreme measure, killing an entire radio station just to keep me off the airwaves.

And, as Bill Cosby is wont to say, I told you that story so I could tell you another one; this time, about the Lightning Seeds‘ lush and fluffy tune ‘Pure.’

Just as Five For Fighting, World Party, and so many other groups are really the brain-children of a single artist, ‘Lightning Seeds’ is really primarily Liverpudlian singer/songwriter Ian Broudie. Broudie seems to cycle between serving as producer for acts like Echo & the Bunnymen (Bedbugs and Ballyhoo!) and this is just here so I could have a picture of Alison Moyet on my websiteAlison Moyet (Nobody’s Diary), and varous solo or duo projects.

The opening moments of the song establish a less-than-serious feeling with a single keyboard note which can only be described as a pleasant honk. After a few seconds, the usual bass, drums, and guitar join the pleasant honking in a bouncy melange that makes it hard for me to sit still. It’s primarily a vocal tune; even the guitar solo in the middle is extremely understated, more of an ‘introduction part II’ for the second half of the song. At less than four minutes long, the abundance of lyrics makes it seem longer.

Full of celestial and hypaethral imagery (lines like

 raindrops splash rainbows as daydreams slide to colour from shadow, picture the moonglow shooting stars around your heart as leaves pour down; splash autumn on gardens as colder nights harden, their moonlit delights look at me with starry eyes, push me up to starry skies; there's stardust in my head

fill the tune) it seems to be a lover’s plea for happiness. The verses seem so joyous and vibrant, every one ending with the line ‘and I love you’, but the chorus reveals awareness of a lover’s sadness:

 Now you're crying in your sleep I wish you'd never learnt to weep Don't sell the dreams you should be keeping pure and simple everytime

In spite of the implications of sadness and pain, there’s a beautiful message of unconditional love:

 I've found a place I'll never leave; shut my mouth and just believe love is the truth, I realize not a stream of pretty lies to use us up and waste our time

It might not be easy, but ‘Like You DoPure‘ is hopeful, almost from the beginning, reminding us that ‘perhaps someone you know could sparkle and shine.’

Isn’t love worth it?

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

A long, long time ago, there was a singer named Harry. He was never very popular; even though he recorded over two dozen albums, almost entirely his own compositions, and although his few hits are ubiquitous in modern music, his name still draws blank stares.

SchmilssonIn an interview in the late sixties, John Lennon and Paul McCartney named Harry Nilsson as their favorite American singer. With a nearly four-octave range, an obvious passion for music (his own or someone else’s) and a natural wit, Harry was a marvelous performer. Even those who don’t know his name recognize songs like “Everybody’s Talkin’“, “Without You“, “The PointMe and My Arrow” from his wonderful children’s story “The Point”, and “Coconut.”

What Harry is not famous for is my favorite album, bar none. Never one to pander to anyone else’s taste, in 1973 Harry teamed up with the great Gordon Jenkins, composer and arranger for Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and others. Harry chose Jenkins to arrange and conduct an album of standards (and not-so-standards) and in the process, made them his own.

Harry often joked with his last name in his album titles: “Schmilsson”, “Son of Schmilsson”, and finally, “SchmilssonA Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, today’s feature.

I’ve owned this album since shortly after it was released, and I’m quite certain a week has not gone by when I haven’t listened to it. After more than a thousand auditions, certain passages still make me catch my breath; certain segues still make me stop what I’m doing to absorb the subtlety; certain lyrical phrasings still make me marvel at Harry’s intuitive grasp of how language and music can be one. We occasionally give it as a special gift. It’s just part of our lives and I can’t imagine anything less.

Jenkins shows why he was sought after from the thirties to the sixties with his arrangements. No tune stands on its own; instead, the orchestration of each piece flows into the next. The album opens with the first three lines of the closing tune, then sweeps into an orchestral section before settling into the first tune.

As Time Goes ByThese orchestral connections make frequent reference to “Over the Rainbow” which doesn’t appear on the album. I wondered about that for years, until I recently discovered the 1996 album “As Time Goes By: The Complete Schmilsson in the Night.” I completely missed 1988’s “A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night”, but I’m glad to see the lost tunes from those sessions come to light. I’ll definitely have something to say about the other tunes once I’ve had a chance to fully absorb them.

  • Lazy Moon – After the nod to “As Time Goes By” and a sweeping orchestral bit, Harry sings accompanied only by the slow strumming of a quiet guitar, and a few strings. The only other known recording of this tune was by Oliver Hardy, possibly in the movie “Pardon Us.” Composed in 1901 by the innovative team of Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, Harry turns this vaudeville tune into a gentle but humorous love song. Witty lyrics and a simple melody make it easy to picture Ollie singing it, too.
  • For Me And My Gal – Written for the 1942 movie of the same name, it’s been covered by nearly everyone at one time or another. A memory of simpler times.
  • It Had To Be You – Lyrics composed in 1924 by the great Gus Kahn to an Isham Jones melody, this one receives special treatment by Harry and Gordon – slightly adjusted lyrics for the last two lines:

     But with all your faults, it's you I adore, When you stand up, your hands touch the floor, It had to be me, unlucky me, it had to be me!

    Okay, it’s not that funny, but coming unannounced this far into an album of serious and romantic tunes, it sure caught me off guard the first time I heard it.

  • Always – The shortest track on the album; composed by the amazing Irving Berlin. A short sweet statement of love.
  • Makin’ Whoopee! – No, this was written for a 1928 musical,so perhaps it’s not exactly what you think. It is a humorous Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson collaboration about the, um, joys of hasty marriage. Gordon Jenkins puts more than the usual effort into the score. Later assassinated by Dr. John and Ricky Lee Jones on the “Sleepless in Seattle” soundtrack. All the more reason to listen to Harry’s version.
  • You Made Me Love You – Jolson, Crosby, Armstrong, Garland, Cole, all had a crack at it. It remains intact. Harry’s is subtler, more sensitive.
  • Lullaby In Ragtime – My favorite. Written by the phenomenal Silvia Fine for her husband Danny Kaye, Harry and Gordon slow it down and really make a lullaby out of it. Fine’s lyrics are always spectacular. Harry does them justice. Again accompanied primarily by guitar, but a quiet acoustic guitar reminiscent of the twenties, not the sixties.
  • I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – Once again, recorded by everybody and his brother (and a few cousins) – Como, Crosby, Charles, Kaye, Martin; Harry makes it bittersweet. The emotional power of his voice is most evident here.
  • What’ll I Do? – Another tune by Irving Berlin, one of only two composers featured twice. Written in 1924, a smoky melody noir which Harry makes no attempt to cheer up. Subtle and beautiful.
  • Nevertheless – The songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby was the subject of the 1950 movie “Three Little Words”, named for one of their most popular tunes. Starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, the film has the distinction of being choreographed by Astaire and Hermes Pan, with musical direction by Andre Previn. “Nevertheless” is typical Tin Pan Alley schmaltz, but as usual, in Harry’s hands (or throat) it transcends its origins and becomes a lovely tune.
  • This Is All I Ask – Written by Harry’s arranger and conductor on the album, Gordon Jenkins, this is one of the most complex tunes present. Only ten years old at the time Harry recorded it, it sounds much, much older. John Gary did it nicely when it was newer, but as usual, Harry finds a few notes that no one else seemed to notice. Slow and subtle, it is the perfect lead into the final piece.
  • As Time Goes By – What CasablancaBogart really said was “Play it Sam, If she can take it, so can I.” So Sam plays it – “As Time Goes By.” Written by the otherwise anonymous Herman Hupfield, it is the lyrical epitome of the timelessness of true love. It’s just a bit odd that it plays such a pivotal role in a movie whose theme is that some things are more important than love. Harry and Gordon arrange it perfectly; the phrasing, the dynamics, the well-placed silences; it really is one of the finest recordings I’ve ever heard.

Harry died in at the age of 53 in 1994. In my opinion, that was a hundred years too soon.

Synergy: Web Design and Music

Shirley Kaiser has compiled the beginnings of a compendium of independent musicians and other things related. What’s interesting to me is the section on musicians in the web design and development community. Shirley and I have discussed the apparent synergy between the two fields (as you may know, Shirley is a talented composer and performer herself.)

If you know a web designer who’s also a musician, especially if you are a web designer who’s a musician, pop over to Shirley’s and submit your recommendations and suggestions. This is how Shirley’s amazing Website Tips got started. If this project does half as well, it will be a great resource for all of us who love music.

Album Oriented Rock – Full Circle?

Back in 1968, the year before I moved to San Diego, a guy named Mike Harrison transformed a local radio station, and through it, radio as we know it today, with a concept he called ‘album oriented rock.’ Mike’s idea was to play all the good tracks from albums, not just the singles promoted by the record companies. If you’re under the age of 30, you don’t even know what I’m talking about, do you?

Long, long ago, radio stations played singles. They played what the record companies wanted to sell. And, for the most part, people listened like good little sheep. But by the end of the sixties, music had changed forever, and radio hadn’t followed suit. That is, until KPRI.

When my family arrived in San Diego in 1969, I was eight years old, and wasn’t even sure what rock music was. (My bio attempts to explain this idiosyncracy.) Almost immediately, my older brother Brett discovered KPRI, which was then considered ‘underground’ radio. Playing music unheard of even by many of those more familiar with rock than I, KPRI’s mission was to play what was good, not just what was already popular. I’d be lying to say I remembered any particular song from those days, but I do remember laying awake at night for as long as I could, afraid to fall asleep for fear I’d miss something amazing.

KPRI had competition. KGB, still a San Diego staple, was a much more interesting station back then. Unfortunately, they’re still playing the same 40 songs they played in the early 70s, but I seem to remember a few less weary tracks interspersed among the current playlist during my summers on the beach.

KPRI and I left San Diego the same year, 1983. At that time, I had started listening to a new station at the opposite end of the dial from the mighty 106.5 FM. But just before I moved to Texas, my new favorite station startled me by changing formats. Suddenly, I was hearing cacaphonous howling by things called ‘The Psychedelic Furs‘ and ‘The Cure‘ and who knows what else. Having listened to nothing but KPRI and KGB for almost 15 years, this new stuff the kids were listening to didn’t make sense to me at all.

That’s all changed, of course. In Texas, of all places, I was forcibly acquainted with The B-52s, Adam Ant, The Thompson Twins, OMD, and a host of singers, songwriters, and performers who might never have gotten airplay on the old KPRI (including The Furs and The Cure.)

And that’s another change. The old KPRI is dead and gone, but the call letters were recently resurrected. The last independent local station in San Diego, formerly Sets 102, has taken the call letters KPRI. They’ve long been one of the two stations in San Diego to play anything truly interesting. 91X, calling themselves ‘the cutting edge of rock’ is almost always the first to play whatever’s new, and I listen often, especially if my daughter Cheyenne is with me. But the personalities tend to cater to a younger crowd than I understand, and the music tends toward a harsher and more discordant section of the spectrum.

KPRI, on the other hand, plays a little of everything. Not a truly free-form station, all their offerings fall into the rock genre; they’re just not always easily pigeon-holed at a more granular level. It’s not surprising to hear Jonny Lang and Johnny A. followed by Deep Purple and Delirium. The jocks; um, personalities, are knowledgable for the most part, and obviously have a passion for the music they play.

It’s not underground by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the only really intellectually driven radio station in San Diego these days.

Let’s hope someone decides to give them some competition. San Diego could use a little interesting radio.