2011: My Year In Music (Part Two: The Deluxe Edition, with Bonus Tracks)
If you read my last entry, 2011: My Year In Music, I thank you. You have now earned an upgrade to the Deluxe Edition, with the second disc of Bonus Tracks. These are things that I either couldn’t fit on my last blog, or that slipped my mind as I was wrapping presents and packing for our Hong Kong trip over Christmas. I’ll reiterate a little of the preamble from last time. I said, So many great people did so many great things in music or music related activities. It was really fun out there. As a musician, songwriter, music journalist and author, I always get a stomach ache when folks ask me “What’s the best new music?” or “What’s your top ten for the year?”. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have favourites. I guess I have a hard time quantifying ten things, and also recalling what I listened to only months ago. Also, I tend to think of books and films about music as part of my year IN music, along with concerts and, ahem, my own music making which I am constantly promising to get back to. So here’s what I’m doing. This blog (hopefully the first annual edition) is a collection, in no particular order, of things involving or related to music that touched me, informed me or made me sing, dance or play air (or real) guitar along with them. I call it My Year In Music: Deluxe Bonus Tracks, because, um, that’s what it is.
Fixed Hearts by Bye Bye Blackbirds (Rainbow Quartz)
A beautifully recorded album of really catchy guitar rock songs by Bradley Skaught and his merry band of Oakland groovers. We played with these guys last year, on a bill with the legendary Tommy Keene, and now they’re part of our little patched together “scene” here in the Bay Area. The nicely recorded Fixed Hearts impresses with Skaught’s Tom Petty-ish via Dylanesque vocals sit handsomely over the BBB’s commanding jangle rock. It’s nice to have a band from the Bay that sounds so, like a band from the Bay! Honored to have these guys in our little community. I was looking for an album sample but only found this live YouTube of the band doing “Elizabeth Street” and “Open A Light” at The Makeout Room:
Mixed Greens by Allen Clapp And His Orchestra (Mystery Lawn Music)
Allen Clapp is the maven of what I’ve been calling “the Mystery Lawn Scene”. I got to know him because I’ve loved his band The Orange Peels since around 1997 when I first heard “Something Strange Happens” from their album Square. Full disclosure, John Moremen and I have bee working with Allen (on and off) on The Paul & John debut album Inner Sunset, which is slowly gaining a kind of “Smile” like enigma due to its absence from completion (to us anyway, ha!). His Mystery Lawn Studio, in sunny Sunnyvale, California, is Clapp’s laboratory, where he measures the sonic mixtures and has songs boiling away in beakers everywhere. This year, Allen graced us with the long awaited (see? everybody waits years!) followup to Allen Clapp And His Orchestra’s One Hundrend Percent Chance Of Rain. This one, Mixed Greens, is a little more of the 21st century, still retaining his love of 60s and 70s chamber pop and California rock, but with more presence of synthesizers and programs (and stuff). I know he was reading my Todd Rundgren book around the time he made this so I’ll just assume that he was inspired by the Wizard’s studio experimentation to some degree. Here’s a track, “Downfall No. 3”:
The Corner Laughers, “Transamerica Pyramid” (single) (Bandcamp download)
Literate, hook-friendly and ukulele wielding, I root for The Corner Laughers because they have a flair for melody and a bookish sense of humor. I also love concept songs about places and, like They Might Be Giants before them, Corner Laughers have a couple of these arrows in their quiver. This one, “Transamerica Pyramid” would have been merely catchy and clever, combining tourist landmarks in San Francisco, but the emotional hook, what brought it into a human context, is the last line of the chorus, “But the Transamerica Pyramid is where I first met you.” Sing along folks.
Recorded at their peak, Rockpile’s Live At Montreux 1980 is probably the only definitive (official) live release (I’ll take note of any others, below in my comments section) from this pub rock supergroup lead by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. Drummer Terry Williams is an undisputed master of the back-beat, shuffle and swinging R&B, walloping and galloping and driving the machine. Lowe’s bass is right there with him, elegantly directing that rhythm toward the melodic instruments. Guitarist Billy Bremner is a fire cracker of lightning lead breaks unrivaled by anyone except perhaps his counterpart Edmunds, who not only plays a mean guitar, but sings with an authentic drawl and twang that belies his Welsh ancestry. And the set list for the Montreux show draws on the strengths of all four men.Opening with “Sweet Little Liza” followed quickly (maybe via editing) into “So It Goes”, “I Knew The Bride”, “Queen Of Hearts” and “Switchboard Susan,” you’re left as breathless as Nick and Dave seem by the time they hand off lead vocals to Bremner for “Trouble Boys”, with Williams sounding like a dog let off the leash.
The set reminds you that Rockpile actually had hits, together and apart, and their biggest collective single, “Teacher Teacher” is here too, along Dave’s hit “Girls Talk” (written by Elvis Costello), and “I Hear You Knockin’”. But there are literally NO dull moments here, “Crawling From The Wreckage”, “3 Time Loser” and “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine” also stand out. While the recording is a bit squashed sounding, I suspect it was done for a radio broadcast, and the mix has a few errors (Nick’s voice is awfully quiet on “So It Goes” and elsewhere, lead guitars seem buried and under-mixed), but by the time you’re done with closing song “Let’s Talk About Us”, there is little doubt that this is a strong testament to the sheer performance energy of a seasoned, and well-oiled, rock and roll band. Here,
Which reminds me, several of my favourite musical moments were at Nick Lowe shows. Such as…
Nick Lowe at Great American Music Hall, October 10, 2011.
This was a great show. After a rollicking opening set by rockabilly songwriter J.D. McPherson, Nick Lowe entered to a simple stark stage, with only two tiny amplifiers and a wash of blue “mood” lighting. The Great American Music Hall is one of the finest venues I’ve ever been to as far as intimate music is concerned, and they don’t come much more intimate than the Basher. I’m always amazed that the man who gave us Pure Pop For Now People, the man who slinked around in Rockpile, the producer who gave us those classic early Elvis Costello albums, has matured into the elder statesman of song; you almost want to call him Sir Nick. Smooth, worldly and wise, today’s Nick Lowe doesn’t so much raise the roof as raise his eyebrows, knowingly, like a dirty old man who’s too much of true gentleman to tell you everything, but enough of a poet to tell you how it felt. Viva Sir Nick. Since the YouTube clips of the gig are scarce and crappy, here’s the audio from his most recent recordings, “House For Sale”:
3:47 E.S.T. by Klaatu (Klaatunes), reissued in 2011.
In 2011, Klaatu reissued their 1970s albums, and I for one am happy. The Toronto based band had a dubious brush with global fame back in the day when a rumour began circulating, upon the release of their debut album, 3:47 E.S.T., that Klaatu (who never appeared in photographs) were in fact The Beatles in disguise. This rumour proved to be almost as sticky as the “Paul Is Dead” meme, and soon Klaatu were famous for the wrong reasons, probably. They really only sounded like the Fabs on a couple of tracks, notably “Sub Rosa Subway” and as they demonstrated on subsequent releases (also available), they were probably more of a prog pop band than a faux fab four.
A couple of years ago, you’ll recall I posted an interview with Dee Long from Klaatu. Here’s a bit of that…
PAUL MYERS: Was there any conscious attempt, while you were making 347 EST, to “do a Beatles” or to infuse your songwriting or arranging with pastiche elements from the Fabs?
DEE LONG: There’s no doubt that we were, and are huge Beatles fans. When we started on the first album, there was just John Woloschuck and I. Terry Draper joined after a few songs had been recorded, one of which was “Sub Rosa Subway”. That song in particular was definitely an attempt to sound like the Beatles from the “Penny Lane” era, at least I saw it that way. I mean, John sings with a British accent, although he doesn’t have one normally! All the songs we did that had a Beatles influence were written by John. “Little Neutrino” or “True Life Hero” do not sound much like the Beatles. But in the early days people preferred to ignore that minor detail. I think one other big reason we sometimes sounded a lot like the Fab Four was our approach to recording. George Martin and John Lennon were always experimenting with new ways to record music. They were the first to put the microphone inside the Kick drum, and first to use EQ and compression as effects, or as part of their sound. The engineers at Abbey Lane were appalled when they started turning dials way past were they were meant to be turned. Klaatu also spent a lot of time experimenting with different recording techniques, and layering many overdubs. After all there were three of us, and most of our songs had a lot more than three parts going on. Brass overdubs, and string quartets were not at all unusual on a Klaatu album, as on a Beatles album…”
Here’s Klaatu’s most famous song, which was also covered by The Carpenters, a (sanctioned) EDITED version of “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)”:
The Sound Of His Own Voice by John Wesley Harding (YepRoc)
I have known Wesley Stace (a/k/a John Wesley Harding) on and off for over 15 years. We first met briefly in Toronto, then when I first moved to San Francisco in 1997, I looked him up and he advised me, frankly, that if I wanted a music career I’d best move to L.A. That was my welcome to the Bay Area! Anyway, since then, he’s lived in the Pacific Northwest, Brooklyn and now Philadelphia, where’s he’s an author of notable novels (Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer) and continues to make albums with stellar “heavy friends.” This year, he made an album up in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with some associates from The Decemberists (Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen) plus Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and “his beautiful assistants” Rosanne Cash, John Roderick (The Long Winters), Laura Veirs and more. They toured the album, the tour hit San Francisco late in 2011, and it was a great night of music in which Buck (very in-the-news at the time, having just hung up R.E.M.), played the quiet sideman and McCaughey was given equal time to play some Minus 5 material. Here’s a picture I snapped at the Red Devil Lounge, SF, on November 5, (left to right: Scott McCaughey, John Wesley Harding, Chris Funk, Peter Buck).
Throughout The Sound Of His Own Voice, Wes is tuneful, lyrically clever but more direct than ever and his band provide a seemingly effortless counterpoint to his deft tunesmithery (he’d hate that sentence, and he’d tell me). Here’s a video Wes made, with his pal, comedian Eugene Mirman, featuring one of the better songs from the set, and one of the only songs I know that contains the term “explanitory mime”, “Sing Your Own Song”:
Esdel Records’ Todd Rundgren Bearsville Reissue Series.
In 2011, based on the “clout” of having written my Todd Rundgren book, Edsel Records in the UK, asked me to write all the liner notes for their reissues of all the Todd Rundgren albums on Bearsville (and three that were Warner Bros releases). That was a gratifying cherry on top of what has been two years of great times generated by this project. Val at Edsel is also my kind of guy, a music industry person who (wait for it) ACTUALLY LOVES MUSIC. His enthusiasm for these releases, and for my notes on them, was a highlight of my year. It was just one (more) victory in what was actually a very good year for me.
Finally, a few quick live notes:
The Roots, Outside Lands, Sat. Aug. 13, 2011, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
The Roots were kind enough to put me on the guest list for their Outside Lands set, and special kudos to Questlove, Roots engineer Steven Mandel and former bass player Owen Biddle (this may have been one of his last gigs with The Roots). They were superbly funky, and put on a great, late afternoon set in the big park setting. Later, Owen and I walked over and watched Muse do their big light show thing. Impressive. Cold but impressive.
Robyn Hitchcock (with David Rawlings & Gillian Welch) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011 – Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
This year we lost Warren Hellman, the financier and philanthropist behind Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the annual FREE Festival in Golden Gate Park. Almost the opposite of the high priced Outside Lands (held in the same park) Hardly Strictly is truly a free, nobody pays for the music. And the acts seem to be determined largely on musical merit rather than buzz or chart success. As such, I’ve seen great sets over the years I attended and hopefully the news that Warren left enough “endowment” to ensure at least another decade will ease the reality of his passing. This year, one noteworthy show featured returning performer Robyn Hitchcock, this time accompanied by David Rawlings & Gillian Welch (themselves Hardly Strictly perennials) and it was wonderful. In the crowd, I thought I spotted Joe Boyd, legendary producer of Nick Drake and The Incredible String Band, and author of the fabulous White Bicycles (a must-read memoir). I was right, it WAS him, so I did what you do in these instances, took a picture.
And this one is for real,
The Haunting, Ethereal And Ultimately Brian Eno-like Theme From The Cialis ads. No one seems to understand that I’m serious when I routinely ask, all year, about this music. It’s the slide guitar in reverb thing, behind that psychedelic “transforming scene” ads, a barbecue turns into “an opportunity” etc. It’s starting to get on my nerves that nobody can answer me when I ask online. EVERYBODY either thinks I’m being “funny” or they themselves can’t stop giggling, Yes, it’s a boner pill ad. Done. Now, have you actually listened to it? It’s like it fell from Brian Eno’s Another Green World or something. I can’t even find a YouTube clip of it, if you search, you get, of course PARODIES of Cialis ads. Hardy har har. Anyway, anybody who reads this know the production company or ad agency behind this spot, I’d love to contact the composers – or find out what track they licensed (if feels commissioned though). I’m not kidding here at all, one of my favourite pieces of music all last year.
And finally, RIP Steve Jobs, as this sad photo of Stephen Colbert and his back-turned iPhone demonstrates, we all lost a visionary (complicated man, but a true visionary). And that’s the word.