Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Brave & The Bold: 4 Bruce Covers

I love cover songs.

And I used to love "The Boss." One of my all-time favorite concerts was his July 30, 1984 show at the Joe Louis Arena. I thought I had seen my rock'n'roll future that night... But that kind of faded over time.

Apparently I wasn't the only one under the spell of Springsteen in the mid-1980's. A college buddy recently showed me some pictures from a house party we had back in 1986 and I couldn't believe how many kids were wearing denim jackets. Probably a fashion side effect of Bruce fever, even though we were all listening to "Tim" or "The Queen Is Dead" by that time.

Anyway, while I grew out of my Bruce phase a long time ago, he is an undeniably great songwriter (case in point: the flowing, poetic lyrics of Thunder Road). So, in honor of July 30, 1984, here are four random Springsteen Covers.

First, is a song that is everything a cover song should be: A superb new rendition of a great old song that is completely different than the original. Enjoy Tortoise and Bonnie Prince Billy playing: Thunder Road (buy album). I really love this one.

Second comes one of my favorite cover songs of all-time. Check out Frankie Goes to Hollywood's energetic take on one of the Boss' biggest hits: Born To Run (buy album).

Third, is an oldie but a goodie. The Hollies mellow groove really fits this early Springsteen track: 4th Of July Asbury Park (Sandy) (buy album).

Finally, just to keep the Emmylou love flowing, here again is Ms. Harris in all her glory: Racing In The Street (buy album).
What is your favorite Bruce cover? Leave a comment.

(I'll start: One song I would love to post, but don't currently own is The Reivers' version of Atlantic City, another brilliant Springsteen song.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

It Was A $1,000 Wedding ...

Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris Sing $1000 Wedding

One of my biggest musical heroes is Gram Parsons. Like Hank Williams before him, Parsons made a ton of incredible music before dying tragically young. Read AMG bio here. I’m not going to get into his life story or his musical feats here. Someday I’ll do a bigger post about Gram Parsons, the artist. Right now I just want to focus on my all-time favorite Gram Parsons song: $1000 Wedding (buy album).

I’m not exactly sure what the song is about. Seems to be about a groom jilted at the alter followed by a drinking spree, a betrayal, and then some mysterious religious stuff. (See here for some theories). Whatever it’s about, it became an obsession of mine in the early 1990’s. I played it over and over again on the guitar but never to my complete satisfaction. Gram’s version was just too perfect. (Plus, I didn’t have the amazing Emmylou Harris singing over my shoulder.) It’s been fifteen years since I fell in love with this song, but it still moves me. The coolest part is how it builds from verse to verse. Check it out and let me know what you think.

In case you are new to Gram (and your lucky day has finally arrived) here is one more song to enjoy. It’s a version of The New Soft Shoe - Live (buy album) recorded March 13, 1973 at WLIR in New York, six months before his death. There is some interesting banter afterwards, particularly the bus story. Take special note of Emmylou’s “yeah” at the 7:44 mark. (You’ll know why when you hear the story).

One of the better cover versions of $1000 wedding comes from a Detroit-born songwriter known as Paul K. Check out: Thousand Dollar Wedding - Paul K. AMG reports about Paul K: “Unlike the overwhelming majority of songwriters, who get next to the darker side of life but never quite break the door down, Paul Kopasz has lived as part of the fringe element, and his career has evoked comparisons to Townes Van Zandt, Lou Reed and Merle Haggard, three artists known for drawing from their own shady experiences for song material.” Read the rest of his bio here.

The Paul K track comes from the album, “The Big Nowhere,” which I believe is out of print. Here’s another pretty good one from that album: Nashville, Tennessee.

Gram Parsons At Joshua Tree

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"The Polish Elvis" - Krzysztof Krawczyk

This post depends a lot on context. Imagine yourself in a cozy polish cafe, drinking Okocim beer, and feasting on pierogi, golumpki, and dill pickle soup (my favorite). Ah...

That'll be me tonight. By longstanding tradition, a small group of my friends and family spend every Thanksgiving Eve at the Polish Village Cafe in Hamtramck, Michigan.

Tellingly, and perhaps more so than intended, Hamtramck, Michigan bills itself as "A Touch of World in America." I can vouch for that. A few years back, after consuming about 3-4 Okocims at the PVC on Thanksgiving Eve, I notice some touches of both "World" and "America" coming from the bar's stereo system. To my amazement (and amusement), the oompa-loompa-polka music had been replaced by a strange collection of Elvis Presley songs being performed in Polish. Our waitress identified the singer as Krzysztof Krawczyk, famously known in Poland as "The Polish Elvis."

At the time, and under the circumstances, nothing could have sounded better. It just fit the mood. About a week later I was able to track down Krawczyk's album "Gdy Nam Spiewal Elvis Presley" at a local Polish variety store. In honor of Thanksgiving Eve, I now present--for your listening enjoyment--five spectacular hits from the man they call "The Polish Elvis":

Teddy Mis - Teddy Bear.

Niepowtarzalna Dziewczyna - All Shook Up.

Ty Nie Placzesz - Crying In The Chapel.

Szybki Pocalunek - Kiss Me Quick.

Pozwol Mi Mocno Objac Cie - Can't Help Falling In Love.

(You can use your Canadian dollars to buy a few of Krawczyk's albums here).

Krawczyk, ever the showman...

And now here are five great tracks from the real thing. Listen to them to remind yourself, once again, just why the real Elvis was so special, and why he was copied in Poland and probably everywhere else too...."A Touch of Memphis in World."

Trying To Get To You (buy album).

Lawdy Miss Clawdy (buy album).

Love Me (buy album).

Kentucky Rain (buy album).

Clean Up Your Own Backyard (buy album).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Writer's Block, Part 1 - Harlan Howard

Harlan (on the left) taking it all in.

Who's the greatest country songwriter of all time?

That's an easy one. The answer is Hank Williams. (What did you expect me to say?) Other greats include Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Fred Rose, and—of course—the legendary Harlan Howard of Detroit, Michigan. (If I'm forgetting anybody, please remind me in the comments).

Howard epitomized the classic country songwriter. His personal style went a long way towards defining the genre. Interestingly, he suffered a severe case of writer's block in the 1970's. But by then his legacy was intact. Read the AMG bio here.

Check out some of my favorite Harlan Howard compositions:

Gram Parsons - Streets of Baltimore (buy album).

Ray Price - Heartaches By the Number (buy album).

Charlie Walker - Pick Me Up On Your Way Down (buy album).

Patsy Cline - I Fall To Pieces (buy album).

k.d. lang - I'm Down To My Last Cigarette (buy album).

Ray Charles - Busted (buy album).

Do you have any favorite Harlan Howard songs that I left out?

(A word of warning if you are thinking about buying one of Harlan Howard's own recordings: He was known for his great songwriting, not his vocal delivery.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

There's a freakout brewin' at my house...in the basement.

One of the most important qualities of a great rock band is a sense of humor. A good bass sound goes a long way too. I guess that's why LCD Soundsytem is one of my favorite modern acts. The lyrics are smart and often quite funny. And the bass sound is great, especially on this morning's first featured track. (I know it's a cliche, but listen to this one loud with headphones on. It'll make you happy.) Anyway, enjoy this 21st century ode to the epic house party: Daft Punk Is Playing At My House. (buy album).

The next one, from this year's great album, "Sound of Silver," is an amusing song about how some Europeans view Americans (i.e., "wouldn't touch us with a ten-foot pole"). A lot of people misunderstand this song. The singer, James Murphy, is not admitting, on behalf of North Americans, to being "scum." He's being ironic. And that's why this song is so funny. My favorite part is the North American "cheerleader" in the background. Good stuff: North American Scum (buy album).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Orpheum Bell's Cool "Country & Eastern" Sound

Thanks to my hip friend Greta, I recently saw the band Orpheum Bell play a few sets at Detroit's famous Cadieux Cafe (which is, incidentally, one of my favorite local purveyors of Belgian beer).

Orpheum Bell call their sound "Country and Eastern," as in Eastern Europe. Aside from being clever, the C & E slogan accurately describes their mish-mash of musical styles (one part twang, one part gypsy, one party sultry, and one part gruff). Orpheum Bell's impressive list of instruments played well includes accordion, banjo, guitar, fiddle, clarinet, autoharp, double bass, mandolin, peddle steel, musical saw, and the rare Tiebel Violine, which looks like a fiddle strapped to an old aluminum phonograph horn (see above).

Tom Waits is an obvious musical influence, but Merrill Hodnefield's easy-going vocals produce a much more relaxed feel. Imagine Margo Timmins leading the Flatlanders in a Tom Waits cover and you'll get the idea. Highlighting Orpheum Bell's set was a rendition of Hank Snow's "90 Miles An Hour Down A Dead End Street." It left me wanting more eastern-tinged honky-tonk. (But I did refrain from yelling for "Swingin' Doors!")

Hodnefield playing the musical saw:

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening of Belgian beer and good music. I especially like the title track off their new CD, which features Hodnefield's dulcet tones played against the raspier voice of lyricist Aaron Klein.

Pretty As You:
Pretty As You

Feel Like A Million

(buy album).

For more info, check out Orpheum Bell's MySpace page and their website.

Now listen to some of Orpheum Bell's varied influences (all of which are well worth hearing):

Twangy: The Flatlanders - Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown (buy album).

Gypsy: Django Reinhardt - The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise (out of print).

Sultry: Julie London - 'Round Midnight (buy album).

Gruff: Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombone (buy album).

Monday, November 12, 2007

"I'm A Muswell Hillbilly Boy, But My Heart Lies In Old West Virginia."

That line from the title track of today's feature nicely sums up the unique place that The Kinks come from in their criminally underrated 1971 album "Muswell Hillbillies." While the rest of The Kinks' catalog is also underrated, most musical hipsters (you know who you are) own Face to Face (1966), Something Else (1967), Village Green Preservation Society (1968), and Arthur (1969). Their next album, Lola vs. The Powerman (1970), had a legitimate hit song and a fair number of fans. But for many of us, that's where The Kinks "end." That's a big mistake. "Muswell Hillbillies" is a great album deserving of a place in the upper echelon of The Kinks' canon.

Basically, it's a British guy singing American "hillbilly"-inspired music. Hence the name. ("Muswell Hill" is the suburb of North London that produced the Davies brothers. You all know what a hillbilly is.) Like the rest of The Kinks' work from this fertile period, the songs are lyrically and musically interesting. Its place in musical history also intersects with the alt-country movement. While the Byrd's "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" can claim the title as the first alt-country record, "Muswell Hillbillies" is another important early influence on the genre. Read the AMG review here.

Two representative tracks are the title song, Muswell Hillbilly, and one of my favorites, Holloway Jail (buy album).

Yo La Tengo did a nice cover of another song from the Muswell Hillbillies album on their excellent covers record, Fakebook: Oklahoma, U.S.A. (buy album). That song mentions Shirley Jones (from the muscial movie) and contains one of the great Ray Davies' lyrics: "All life we work but work is bore, If life's for livin' what's livin' for?"

Good question...

Anyway, enjoy Muswell Hillbillies, and stay tuned for my next feature on Ann Arbor's only "Country and Eastern" band, Orpheum Bell.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Another Favorite of 2007 - Peel

One of my happiest musical finds of this year has been the Austin, Texas indie-rock band Peel and their self-titled album. It's hooky pop/rock with a bit of a reckless edge. I hear some Pavement and Pixies influences in there. Anyway, it's good stuff well worth a listen.

They don't hold anything back on these two tracks:

Sliding Doors

There isn't a whole lot to read about Peel on the Internet, which surprises me considering how good this record is. Check out their MySpace page here. And go buy the album "Peel" if you like these tracks. The whole thing is solid.

And speaking of Pixies, please enjoy this delicious track from way back in 1987: I've Been Tired (buy album).

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Repeat After Me Kids

My kids are three and five years old and I've taught them a lesson that I think will serve them well for the rest of their lives. It goes like this:

I ask: What's the best kind of music?
Then I ask: What's the best kind of country music?
They yell: TEXAS country music!

And we live in Michigan.... So it's kind of hard to figure out how this happened, but who's complaining? Here are three proofs that I'm sending the kiddos in the right direction.

Exhibit 1 - A cautionary tale of Willie Nelson's adventures on the road with drummer Paul English in the early 1970's: Me And Paul (buy).

Exhibit 2 - The title track from Waylon's Jennings' 1973 masterpiece Honky Tonk Heroes, featuring the songs of Billy Joe Shaver: Honky Tonk Heroes (buy). (Check back for more about this album in a future post.)

Exhibit 3 - The biggest hit from The King Of Western Swing: San Antonio Rose (mp3) (buy). (Note: If you are going to own only one Western Swing album--???--the logical choice would be "The Tiffany Transcriptions, Vol. 2," on which this track appears. )

What about alt-country (whatever that is)?

I realize that the site has been REALLY old fashioned lately. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but just in case you want to hear something recorded during your lifetime, check out Psalm 102(buy), Texas alt-country from the band San Saba County off their 2006 release "It's Not The Fall That Hurts."

And, finally, here's some really great "old" Texas alt-country from The Old 97's 1997 album "Wreck Your Life," which is my favorite of their records: Victoria (buy).

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Very Strange Enchanted Boy

One night about sixty years ago, a young man rode his bicycle up to the back door of a theater in Los Angeles hoping to meet popular vocalist Nat King Cole. The man was turned away, but left behind an unaddressed envelope for Cole containing the following song:

There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye, but very wise was he.

And then one day, a magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things, fools and kings, this he said to me: The greatest thing you'll ever learn, Is just to love and be loved in return.

Cole saw the beauty in the song and began playing it live. Through word of mouth, the song "Nature Boy" quickly became popular with his live audiences. Cole realized that he had to record the mysterious man's song, but he had no way of identifying its unkown author. After an extensive search, he discovered Eden Ahbez, living as a homeless "yogi" under one of the “L's” in the "HOLLYWOOD" sign. Thus began the hippie movement.

After making his mark with Nature Boy in 1948, Ahbez went on to compose material for artists like Frankie Laine and Sam Cooke. In the 1960's, he hung out with Brian Wilson and Donovon (with whom he reportedly had a "near-telepathic" conversation). Ahbez even made his own album called Eden's Island. In 1995, Eden Ahbez was killed in a car accident at the age of 87. (Read more about Ahbez here and here).

Here are the original and two excellent cover versions of "Nature Boy":

Nat King Cole (buy).
Big Star (buy).
John Coltrane (buy).

Here's another favorite Nat song: Sweet Lorraine - After Midnight Sessions (buy).

And, finally, here's one that may have been inspired by the "nearly telepathic" conversation between Donovon and Eden Ahbez: Atlantis (buy).

Happy Birthday Holly!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

"An Obscure Punk-Rock Band"

I'm a big fan of the Detroit Tigers. One of my favorite Tiger players from the past was an obscure utility infielder named Jim Walewander. Although he appeared in only 162 major league games over his four year major-league career (i.e., one season for Cal Ripken, Jr.), he had a fairly eventful rookie year in 1987.

The back of his 1988 baseball card tells part of the story:

"It was Jim's offbeat approach to life that endeared him to his teammates. He became an instant legend in Detroit for his devotion to an obscure punk-rock band called The Dead Milkmen and for his unusual wardrobe. 'I've got my whole thrift shop outfit on,' he said one day. 'Three-quarters of my clothing are obsolete and one-quarter is in working order.'

'If you sit next to him on the bench long enough,' said veteran Darrell Evans, 'he'll come up with something you wouldn't think about.'

'Let's just say he's different,' added Manager Sparky Anderson."

There's a bit more to the Dead Milkmen story.

Chin Music reports: "On the Detroit stop of the Milkmen's tour that year, Jim came out to see their show in Detroit and then invited the band to Tiger stadium for an early game the next day against the Angels. Walewander's unlikely association with the Milkmen became cemented when he hit his first major league homer against the Angels that day, fueling speculation that it may have been the Milkmen's presence at the park that had inspired him to hit the two-run, upper deck blast."

In fact, that home run with the Milkmen in attendance was the game-winning RBI and Walewander's only major-league homerun, ever. He should have had the Milkmen back for another game...

About his notorious relationship with the band (and the charm of the Dead Milkmen), Walewander told Chin Music:

"One of the things that made me sort of famous or heightened the notoriety at the time was just my naivete. The press would ask me what I did last night, and I would just tell them, 'I went to see this band.' Nowadays, the players just give these pat answers. I was just totally honest because I was stupid. I was trying to be myself. I wasn't trying to be something macho. People didn't get to know me. I was just labeled as this strange weirdo. Nobody really looked at the Milkmen to see that there was some wit and intelligence behind what they were doing. They sang songs about Charles Nelson Reilly. I think a lot of people were into alternative music back then. I just had a big mouth. I remember seeing R.E.M. in '82 or '83 and the guys on the team would say, 'You're weird,' because they were listening to K.C. and the Sunshine Band. It wasn't that I was listening to the Dead Milkmen so much at the time, it was the fact that people loved their name. People would say, 'You're the guy who likes the Dead something something.' It just got to the point where I was associated with them."

Walewander even speculated that his musical interests might have cut his playing days short:

"Well, it sure didn't help to prolong my career. Especially when the Bud Seligs of the world are running the show. Being labeled as a weirdo by management is not very good. It was a double-edged sword. I had a Milkmen album sleeve hanging in my locker that Rodney had signed 'Satan lives' or something like that. You wouldn't believe the lectures I got for that from my peers."

For their part, the Dead Milkmen thoroughly enjoyed meeting Jim and the Tigers' famous Manager Sparky Anderson. Read here.

Although his lifetime batting average was only .215, Walewander played a key role in the Tigers' storybook come-from-behind first-place finish in 1987. He scored the winning run in three of the four games that the Tigers won against the rival Toronto Blue Jays to clinch the division in the final week.

Question: Who is more "obscure" today, Jim Walewander or the Dead Milkmen?

While you ponder that, enjoy these three tracks from the Dead Milkmen (and a bonus Detroit Tigers jingle):

Bitchin’ Camaro (buy album).

Air Crash Museum (buy album).

Life Is Shit (buy album).

Go Get ‘Em Tigers.