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Thursday, Jan 29, 2009

The shadow of Pet Sounds loomed large on the Beach Boys after it was released in 1966. How do you follow-up one of the greatest, if not THE greatest album of all-time? Well, with Smile of course! But when that album failed to materialize, the record-buying public seemed to turn their backs on the Beach Boys in disappointment. Album sales dwindled and despite “topical” songs like “Student Demonstration Time” (and despite their beards) the Boys suddenly seemed out of step with the times. It’s in retrospect that people have begun to discover and appreciate their post-Pet Sounds albums and it’s about time. Although this period was famously a difficult time for Brian Wilson, it didn’t stop him from writing some fantastic songs.


In 1968 most of Brian Wilson’s days were spent locked away in his Bel-Air mansion. Friends, the album the Beach Boys released that year, included the song “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” written by Brian. It’s practically a diary entry, describing in detail a typical day in the life of its author. It is also a mess of contradictions. Starting with the title of the song itself, Brian seems to be trying to convince us (and himself) that he’s keeping busy when in fact he seems to be doing nothing much at all. It really reads like an answer to the question “What do you DO all day, Brian?”


“I had to fix a lot of things this morning / ‘Cause they were so scrambled / But now they’re okay / I tell you I’ve got enough to do”


Brian sounds like an unconvincing child in these first lines. Vaguely describing that he’s fixing things (what things exactly?) because they’re “so scrambled” and then for some reason hurriedly adding he has enough to do. It’s also interesting that the word scrambled is used as it conjures up the state of Brian’s mind at this time, which indeed could have used some fixing.


The next line starts with Brian telling us how busy his afternoon is but immediately he changes the subject to the weather. He seems to be trying to veer off from the question of what occupies his time.


“The afternoon was filled up with phone calls / What a hot sticky day / The air is cooling down.”


 


What follows next is truly one of the most bizarre moments in any Beach Boys song ever. It’s basically Brian giving you directions to his house. He leaves out street names but it’s still a weirdly detailed and candid description. According to the Friends liner notes, ”provided you knew where to start, you would’ve gotten to Brian’s Bel-Air house.”


“Drive for a couple miles / You’ll see a sign and turn left for a couple blocks / Next is mine / You’ll turn left on a little road / It’s a bumpy one / You’ll see a white fence / Move the gate and drive through on the left side / Come right in and you’ll find me in my house somewhere / Keeping busy while I wait.”


Later in the song Brian wants to make a phone call to a friend but can’t find the number, so what does he do?


“I sat and concentrated on the number / And slowly it came to me / So I dialed it.”


That’s right; he sits and concentrates on the phone number until he remembers it. The fact that the above line is an actual lyric in an actual song is exactly why I love Brian Wilson. And it gets better…


“And I let it ring a few times / There was no answer / So I let it ring a little more / Still no answer / So I hung up the telephone / Got some paper and sharpened up a pencil and wrote a letter to my friend.”


Such a great ending to such a bizarre and enjoyable song. On the surface the lyrics seem light and inconsequential and the music fits them perfectly; a bossa nova beat and soft flutes make the song so relaxed it’s almost lulling. But it all seems to hide an extreme loneliness; the unanswered phone call to a friend, going so far as to invite the listener over to his house, directions provided. It’s an amazing glimpse into Brian Wilson’s world in the late ‘60s and proof that the Beach Boys’ great songs didn’t end with Pet Sounds.


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Thursday, Jan 29, 2009

Willie Nelson is teaming up with one of my favorite bands, Asleep at the Wheel, for an album of western swing tunes, Willie and the Wheel, due out next Tuesday on Bismeaux Records. Western swing typically gets tagged as a form of country music, but it really stands on its own, more like a “hillbilly jazz” or “country swing jazz”. Asleep at the Wheel has been at the forefront of keeping this genre—essentially pioneered by the late, great Bob Wills—alive and vital since the 1970s. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Willie Nelson’s deep, eclectic catalogue will find this pairing to be nearly ideal. I’ve always said that Willie Nelson is as fine a jazz singer as he is a country singer, in the way he plays and improvises melody and frequently sings off the beat, bringing unexpected rhythms and textures into his tunes. Here’s the first song off Willie and the Wheel, “Hesitation Blues” and a video with Nelson and Ray Benson discussing the project.


Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel
Hesitation Blues [MP3]
     


Buy at Amazon MP3 Store


TOUR DATES
Feb 11 - TV: Good Morning America
Feb 11 - Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank NJ
Feb 12 - FM Kirby Center, Wilkes Barre PA
Feb 13 - American Music Theatre, Lancaster PA
Feb 14 - Stanley Performing Arts Center, Utica NY
Feb 15 - Palace Theatre, Albany NY
Feb 16 - TV: Late Night w/David Letterman
Feb 17 - Civic Center, Roanoake VA
Feb 18 - Bob Martin Agricultural, Williamston NC
Feb 19 - Holmes Center, Boone NC
Feb 20 - Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham NC
Feb 21 - Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro NC


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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009
CHANDRA was a NYC post-punk, outsider disco group featuring members of the Dance and Material, and fronted by 12-year-old, Chandra Oppenheim.

Chandra Oppenheim’s story is one of the most innocent but interesting stories to come out of post-punk NYC. On the Lower East Side in 1980 it would’ve taken a lot to shock anyone.  After glam moved into punk and punk moved into post-punk/new wave/no wave/noise/outsider disco/mutant disco/art punk/etc/etc, it was a musical free for all.  So it makes sense that, Chandra Oppenheim, a precocious yet unassuming 12-year-old from Brooklyn would enter the scene backed by a post-punk, outsider disco group under the name CHANDRA.


Well, perhaps it doesn’t make complete sense, but it seems like the only time and place where something like this would be able to happen and flourish.


Chandra’s story is not typical in any sense.  Her father was famed American artist, Dennis Oppenheim, who caroused with the artists and musicians of the late ‘70s Lower East Side.  Dennis was friends with Eugenie Diserio and Steven Alexander, who had been playing the NYC post-punk circuit with the Model Citizens. The Model Citizens signed to John Cale’s Spy Label and then broke up to take things in another direction with their new band, The Dance, featuring drummer Fred Maher (who later joined Material) and bassist Louis Watson.  They were interested in starting a band with a kid, and it seems like luck that they were already in contact with the talented Chandra Oppenheim.


 


Chandra Oppenheim had been writing music and performing for some time, often doing songs and performances at her father’s parties. Having met Chandra when she was 11, Diserio and Alexander formed a band and started to rehearse in a studio in Hell’s Kitchen. The result of these rehearsals was their debut EP, Transportation, on the band’s own record label GOGO/ON; a mix of dissonant weird disco, bass-heavy dance grooves and Chandra’s unmistakable chant-singing.


 


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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

The silly red hat: it’s back. At first, when I see Elvis Costello wearing that questionable fashion choice once again atop his head while performing (an abridged) “All This Useless Beauty” at the start of tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), I conclude that he must dust the thing off each time a devotee of opera appears on the show. Tonight’s guest, after all, is American soprano Renée Fleming. Alas, my conclusion is premature: halfway through the episode, Costello introduces, as a surprise guest, Rufus Wainwright, who appears wearing the same outfit from his previous episode. This episode, then, was taped on the same day, perhaps the only day that hat made it out from some whimsical closet and into public.


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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

Brutal. Even for a die hard Midwesterner like myself, January weather in Chicago has been brutal this year. So brutal that I find myself wrestling with the winds and bitters of Chicago sidewalks to make my weekly treks to local record stores. Falling over sheets of ice, dirty salty air, and a need to walk hunched to avoid all but the sidewalk just in front of my next fearless step. Yep. It’s been this bad.


I have found myself dodging some current releases in order to refresh my record collection of some lost, classic American songwriting. Today’s picks were a pair of purely American originals. Tom Waits and The Band tell stories we’ve all heard before, but each give us perspective and point of view demonstrating a rich palette of Americana. I speak to albums from each artist/group: Tom Waits Franks Wild Years (sic) and The Band The Band.


caption

Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years


Tom Waits’ 1987 release is the music he co-wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan. The songs became the basis for the play of the same name; performed in1986 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The album is pure Tom Waits and I’m shocked I have never spent the time listening to the entirety of the album. It is a record that demonstrates Waits’ flexibility as a songwriter. A song like “Hang on St. Christopher” is a staple in the Waits’ catalogue, but experiments on the two versions of “Straight to the Top” demonstrate musical moxie that harkens back to Leonard Cohen and Irving Berlin more than anything contemporary to Waits. Typical of Waits’ albums, he borrows from his previous albums in songs like the previously named “Hang on St. Christopher” and “Telephone Call from Istanbul” that fit in line with some of his previous experiments in 1986’s album Rain Dogs (incidentally, the title of the album is a nod to an early song of the same name on his 1983 release Swordfishtrombones), but gently massaging his listener in different experimental directions in the songs “I’ll Take New York” and “Blow Wind Blow”. Franks Wild Years is a masterful touch from one of America’s greatest songwriters to ever grace us with his presence. Truly, a man who can write a song like “Straight to Vegas” and then three songs later (and on the same side of the record) share a song like “Cold Cold Ground” where Tom laments “Take the weathervane rooster / Throw rocks at his head / Stop talking to the neighbors / Til we all go dead / Beware of my temper / And the dog I’ve found / Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.” shows dexterity that is pure talent, shockingly beautiful in its execution.


 


caption

The Band, The Band


I always have found it interesting that The Band’s second, self-titled album was a more commercially and financially accepted album on its release date than compared to their previous album, 1968’s Music From the Big Pink. The Band is a little more evenly arranged. There is a definite sense that Robbie Robertson (that’s J.R. Robertson to you and me) had a vision to the development of the track’s order and subsequent arrangement. However, I have always been more emotionally drawn to Music From the Big Pink because of exactly why The Band’s second album is so credited; because Big Pink is so uneven and spontaneous. With this being said, The Band is a beautiful collection of songs that paints a visionary tale of Americana. The first track “Across the Great Divide” sets the album in motion. Robertson’s invitation to “Grab your hat, and take that ride” calls out the listener to sit back and ride through the backroads of Americana.  The pace is continued through Reconstruction Dixie in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, continued in the songs “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Look Out Cleveland”. Each demonstrates narratives about the people and events that shaped the complicated history of America. As I listen to the album for the first time in a long while, I am reminded in how well The Band told the Oral History of an America forgotten at the end of the commercially successful “Summer of Love”.


 


So that was my weekly venture to the record stacks of Dave Records on Clark and Wellington in Chicago. Without a doubt, bitterly cold days are not the norm around Chicago, but I’ll remind those who regret setting up their shacks in the Midwest that the cold days do not prevent us from heading out, grabbing some records, and returning home to some nice beers, a bump of the volume, and hockey on the TV to remind us Januarys are a state of mind around these parts.


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