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Monday, Apr 26, 2010
Recording artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” - Dionne Warwick
Music by Burt Bacharach, Lyrics by Hal David
From Dionne Warwick in Valley of the Dolls (Scepter, 1968)


“I was born and raised in San Jose.”
Dionne Warwick, via Hal David


As a kid, I knew that Dionne Warwick wasn’t telling the truth when she sang the lyric excerpted above, though I loved how she sang it. First of all, when I first heard the song, I had been in San Jose my whole young life, and I’d never seen her around. Not at Frontier Village, not at Eastridge Mall, not anywhere. Additionally, to my young mind, there was no way anyone could invest any sincerity in the lyrics to this song (especially anyone who was actually born and raised in San Jose). As a matter of fact, the idyllic ‘small-town San Jose’ the lyric described sounded so little like the San Jose I encountered every day as a kid, I had to ask my mother if the song was indeed about “our” San Jose. “Yes,” she answered. “Because to people from a city like LA, San Jose might seem like a small town.”


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Monday, Apr 19, 2010
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Strawberry Letter 23” - The Brothers Johnson
Written by Shuggie Otis
From Right on Time (A&M, 1977)


A little sonic marvel, “Strawberry Letter 23” is one of Quincy Jones’ finest moments as a producer. It begins with an instantly identifiable, semi-ominous keyboard figure. Soon after, a tight funk groove kicks in, riding on Brother Louis’ slippery bass, Harvey Mason’s always-funky drums, Brother George’s slinky rhythm guitar, Ralph MacDonald’s sleek percussion, and a mini-choir of smoothed out background vocals. Jones at the board really outdoes himself here, achieving a stately funk-elegance in the production which makes the whole thing a powerful, hypnotic listen from start to finish. The setting for Lee Ritenour’s guitar solo is particularly memorable.


“Strawberry Letter 23” was written by Shuggie Otis, son of the great bandleader Johnny Otis and a fine, maverick R&B artist in his own right. The lyrics are a trip; to this day, I’m not exactly sure what they’re all about. Dig the first couple of stanzas:


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Monday, Apr 12, 2010
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Consequently”—Kid Creole and the Coconuts
Written by August Darnell
From You Shoulda Told Me You Were… (Sony, 1991)


Although R&B/world music visionary Kid Creole (née August Darnell) is superficially known for his colorful suits,  a culturally vibrant stage-dandy persona, and funny-story lyrics, I’ve actually always felt that he is one of the most subversive voices in pop music, ever. His lyrical content has its share of frivolity, but his best stuff is highly nuanced, meticulously crafted, and thoroughly encoded with sophisticated explorations of both historical and contemporary issues, as well as scathing societal critiques. He’s like a street-wise Cole Porter, this guy—the wit, the clever turn, the smirk…. but with the biting edge of a man whose observant eyes have seen some trouble, big and small.


“Consequently” does a number on your brain in a few ways. First, the musical stew Darnell cooked up for this track is quintessential Kid Creole—all mixed up, and all the better for it. The initial vocal hook has roots in his beloved NYC doo-wop, but it then morphs into a keyboard figure with a vaguely Asian feel. The relentless (electronic) drums and live percussion ground the song in Africa and Latin America, as well. This sets the stage for the story he wants to tell, which he does through his homegirl, Cory Daye. She starts by singing:


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Monday, Apr 5, 2010
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

Over the years, East LA stalwarts Los Lobos have consistently proven themselves to be visionary recording artists, approaching each album with a distinct sonic palette, a daring attitude, a batch of kickass songs, and lots of pure rock n roll abandon. “La Guacamaya” is from their most controversial record, La Pistola y El Corazón, which is a cover album of sorts: the entire record, save for two originals, features the group’s interpretations of songs from various Mexican music traditions.


“La Guacamaya” is from the Son Jarocho tradition, which originated in Veracruz, Mexico. “La Bamba” is probably the most famous Son Jarocho tune. Though I also love the moody Huapango style, Son Jarocho is probably my favorite style of Mexican music because of both the form (characterized by call-and-response vocals, rhythmic playing, and improvisation) and the instrumentation (I love La Arpa Jarocha, the harp associated with this style). “La Guacamaya” (ostensibly about the multicolored toucan/macaw bird) is rendered here with the precise syncopation and gusto of musicians who thoroughly know and love this music. The lead vocal is by Cesar Rosas, whose way with a Spanish lyric expresses both the intent of the tradition and his own rock/R&B background. Dig the lyric:


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Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010

I have to confess, I’m not too familiar with the musical oeuvre of the recently-passed Alex Chilton. Most of what I know about the late Big Star frontman stems from laurels handed out by disciples such as the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.  Don’t worry, fellow music aficionados; I do plan to thoroughly acquaint myself with the Chilton back catalogue over the next week. Certainly my primary reason for doing so is to explore the music of one of the most-lauded cult figures of rock ‘n roll, but another reason is because some frequently grumpy yet supremely talented guy named Paul Westerberg wrote a song about his hero that makes a very convincing case for Chilton’s artistic importance by virtue of being so effectively heartfelt in its admiration.


Yes, the Replacements’ 1987 single “Alex Chilton” is mired in a reverb-heavy production that dates the recording heavily and robs song of some of its punch. Its sound is a telling grab for commercial radio airplay by one of the founders of alternative rock, an ambition that would later sink the group for good. Nonetheless, the song overcomes its faults to become of the Mats’ greatest anthems. That’s because it’s instilled with an exuberance and conviction that overwhelms the band’s penchant for self-sabotage. In “Alex Chilton” we don’t get Westerberg the brat or Westerberg the misanthrope (although both personas resulted in stellar moments elsewhere in the Replacements discography). Here we get Westerberg the hopeless romantic, a man who wore his heart on his sleeve arguably better than any other songwriter of his generation. When Westerberg belts out the lines “I never travel far / Without a little Big Star” right before the guitar solo is unleashed, he’s as passionate about his love for Chilton’s music as he is in any of his ballads.


The Replacements practically charge through “Alex Chilton” in an effort to reach the promised land of the song’s infectious chorus. And what a chorus!  Setting it up with a surging prechorus where Westerberg contemplates a world in which the underappreciated Chilton’s music was heard by far more souls than had ever actually picked up a Box Tops or Big Star record (“Children ‘round the world sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round”), the band that made such a potent declaration of discontent with “Unsatisfied” sounds like it wouldn’t want to be anywhere else when it hits those chorus hooks.  The words are straightforward (“I’m in love / What’s that song? / I’m in love / With that song”), yet when filtered through Westerberg’s ragged-yet-aching pipes they are both an epiphany and a loving statement of devotion.


Really, the appeal of “Alex Chilton” is a testament to both the Replacements and to the song’s namesake. Paul Westerberg’s talents as a singer/songwriter in his mid-‘80s prime were such that he could encapsulate his feelings regarding one of his favorite musicians in just a few choice lines. But he wouldn’t have anyone to focus his pop song hero worship if not for the late Mr. Chilton, a man who judging solely by this song most certainly earned his legend. And if Westerberg can’t go anywhere without some Chilton tunes playing on his stereo, I sure as hell need to start catching up on the man’s legacy.


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