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.

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

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.

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 timesteals 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?”)

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.

Overture

‘Hothouse Flowers’ has long been one of my favorite bands. From the eponymous ‘Thing Of Beauty’ to their moving cover of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ I am always captivated by their grasp of the emotional power of music.

Hothouse Flowers has long been one of my favorite bands. From the eponymous ‘Thing Of Beauty to their moving cover of ‘I Can See Clearly Now I am always captivated by their grasp of the emotional power of music. Continue reading “Overture”