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Old 12-21-2011, 12:04 PM   #641 (permalink)
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Jordan: the comeback --- Prefab Sprout --- 1990 (Kitchenware)


Do not ask me why I bought this album. I was never a fan of Prefab Sprout. Like most people I heard and liked singles like “Cars and girls”, “The king of rock and roll” and “When love breaks down”, but I would never have considered buying one of their albums. A handful of singles do not merit the shelling-out of hard earned cash on an album. So I don't know what it was that pointed me in Prefab's direction --- possibly a review, or maybe I heard some tracks on the radio, I really can't remember --- but in the end I was really glad I did. This is an absolute diamond.

Of course, I have never since bought any of their albums (and truth to tell, they didn't exactly rush to follow the success of this one up) but this is still one I can listen to all the way through, with no bad tracks at all. Not one. At all. No. Not one.

For a single album it was huge at the time, containing a massive nineteen tracks in all, and it gets going with the pop/rock of “Looking for Atlantis”, a staccato of drums announcing the arrival of the album, with some really upbeat backing vocals and jangly guitar, sparkling keyboards before Paddy McAloon begins singing. The song is very commercial, very chartworthy with some rather obscure lyrics, as is often the case throughout this album. It's frequently hard to figure out what McAloon is singing about, but the album is so good that you really can just enjoy it on that level, and not be too worried about the deeper meanings in the lyrics, though they're surely there.

It's a great start, with backup vocals from Wendy Smith and madcap harmonica from Judd Lander adding to the sense of fun about the song as Paddy sings ”Should be lovin' someone/ And you know who it must be/ Cos you'll never find Atlantis/ Till you make that someone me.” Er, yeah. Things slow down then for the first of several ballads, the sparkly keyboards again evident as “Wild horses” starts, Paddy's voice laidback and soft, but hitting some high notes in there too. There's a spoken section voiced by Jenny Agutter, of all people --- not sure if it's sampled from one of her movies or if she actually took part in the song, but she is thanked on the album liner notes. At any rate, it's very effective, spoken as it is over trickling cascading keys. It's a sudden change so early in the album, from the rollicking, galloping pop of the opener to this slow, soulful ballad, but then it all changes again for “Machine gun Ibiza”, with a sort of half-blues melody, mostly keyboard led with some nice touches on guitar. It's a slow song, but not a ballad.

And things stay slow but get really special then for “We let the stars go”, a beautiful ballad of lazy summer nights, McAloon recalling it seems a love affair from his youth. Lovely backing vocals again from --- almost a duet with --- Smith, whose voice complements his so well. Layers of keyboards and what could be classical guitar give the song a lush, graceful sound and Paddy sings from the heart. Everything ramps up then for “Carnival 2000”, a fiesta of brass and guitar, starting off low-key on electric guitar as Paddy sings ”Tonight let's raise a glass my friend/ To those who couldn't make it/ A century has shut its eyes/ And who are we to wake it?" A vision of ten years in the future at the time of writing, and a look forward to the turn of the millennium. Very samba-styled, with trumpets, horns and whistles and bongo-style drums with celebratory bells ringing in the background.

It's seldom, if ever, that I would attempt to comment on every track on so large an album, but really, the quality of songs here is so incredible that really, I can't leave out even one. The production, by Thomas Dolby, is pristine without becoming stale or clinical, allowing the genuine warmth --- or the prevailing emotion at any rate --- to shine through in each song, without being produced to the nth degree. The title track envisages Elvis still living somewhere, ready to make his comeback, with a soul/jazz feel to it, more trumpets and some great keys. The King sniffs ”And all of those books they wrote about me/ Man, there wasn't much love in 'em, boys!/ If I'd have taken all that medication/ Man, I'd have rattled like one of/ My little girl's toys!”

With nineteen tracks on the album it's not that surprising that there are no long songs. Only five of them go over the four minute mark, and many are much shorter than that. But each one is a carefully-crafted gem. There really is no filler on this opus, and there's nothing you want to skip over, or think any less brilliant than the tracks that came before. If there's a standout though, it may have to be the double “Jesse James symphony” and “Jesse James bolero”, the first of which is played on tinkly keyboard with a very simple melody as Paddy tells the story of (possibly the, but certainly a) Jesse James, and how he was cursed from birth. ”Jesse James was never/ Part of life's great symphony/ All he heard were / Penny whistles out of key.”

It then slips into the tango-like second part, the bolero, much more dramatic and powerful as Paddy relates how Jesse met his end. ”All his plans/ Crafted and clever/ Fated unborn/ Unfinished forever.” “Jesse James bolero” is a much more solid song, with full instrumentation and backing vocals from Wendy, which have been missing for a little while now. Nice banjo in the middle, great little touch. The two songs are great, but really it's hard to play them apart, as they really do run together, and they're a great example of something that becomes more than the sum of its parts. A minor masterpiece.

After that, “Moon dog” is a little ordinary, but still a great little song, with a lovely whistling keyboard intro, kind of reminscent of Deacon Blue's “The very thing” . Pulsating little piano runs as Paddy bemoans the destruction of natural resources as he sings ”We chopped a billion trees/ To print up eulogies.” Not entirely sure, but I think he's annoyed that the USA were the ones to make it to the moon, after all the hurt they caused on the Earth. Like I say, hard to get into his head vis a vis the meaning of his lyrics, but you can definitely enjoy the songs. “All the world loves lovers” is a simple mid-paced half-ballad, with sweeping keyboards and a boppy beat as Paddy tells his lover ”You and I won't lose our heads/ Like other lovers do/ Thinking this will last forever/ When it's just a year or two.” Pragmatic, but hardly likely. One of the shortest songs on the album then, at just over a minute and a half, “All boys believe anything” showcases, finally, the lead vocals of Wendy Smith against Tom Waits-style accordion and piano, with lovely strings arrangement, and the only lyric in the whole song is the title. Lovely lonely harmonica to end.

Things pick right up again then with the electric “Ice maiden”, buzzy feedback guitar riding on keyboard lines as the song bops along and Paddy declares ”So what if tomorrow you're frozen?/ Death is a small price for Heaven!” What sounds like saxophone makes a welcome contribution here, the guitar getting a little funkier as the song goes on, then “Paris Smith” segues directly in on the back of wavy keyboards as McAloon again demonstrates his mastery of the written word: "Any music worth its salt/ Is good for dancing/ But I try to be the / Fred Astaire of words.” And indeed you are, my friend!

Tongue firmly in cheek then, he launches the band into “The Wedding March”, where he admits ”One dance whose steps/ I never could learn/ It's called the wedding march.” It's played like an updated twenties dance tune, and you could just see him in top hat and tails, dancing under the spotlight as he sings this on some vaudeville stage. It's great fun, with a very catchy melody, what sounds like mandolin and a put-on twenties voice at one point, mirambas and vibes adding to the feel of a song from yesteryear.

The absolute standout then --- and it's hard to say this, since as I've already mentioned once or twice, every song here is a potential standout --- has to be “One of the broken”. How can you ignore a song which begins "Hi! This is God here!” One of the most beautiful and simple ballads I've heard in a very long time, it's carried mostly on piano lines and light guitar, as Paddy, as God, advises "Sing me no deep hymn of devotion/ Sing me no slow sweet melody/ Sing it to one, one of the broken/ And brother, you're singin' to me.” Stunning, just stunning. And too short. But then again, just the right length really.

After that, “Michael” comes as something of a shock, its dark, dirty guitar and its almost growled vocal sounding more like something you'd expect to hear from Matt Johnson than Paddy McAloon, but it's a powerful song, as Paddy, having taken the role of God, now takes the opposite character as he sings as Satan, looking for forgiveness, asking the archangel to ”Help me write a letter/ To “you-know-who”/ I will sign it “Lucifer regrets”.” The sharp, echoey keyboard helps reinforce the Devil's frustration and panic as he says ”Can't forget his final words were/ Ain't no comeback gonna come your way/ He never could resist a sinner/ Or ignore a distress call/ Got such a fall!”

And THEN... a simple, gorgeous acoustic ballad, “Mercy” is the shortest track on the album, at a mere one minute twenty-three seconds, and is, well, just amazing. Completing, if you like, the “Satan looking for forgiveness” trilogy, it's a velvet punch to the heart. Just Paddy and the guitar, nothing else, and it's flawless. Organ keys introduce “Scarlet nights”, which for the first time gets to the kind of tempo we saw in “Looking for Atlantis”, great guitar and powerful drumming as the guys really go for it as the album heads towards its close. Those mellifluous backing vocals are back as Wendy takes her place behind the microphone again, and if this were the closer, it would have been perfect. As it is, there's one more track to go before we bid farewell to Jordan.

A sweet soul ballad, with sumptuous organ and heartwrenching singing from Paddy, accompanied by Wendy, “Doo wop in Harlem” seems to be a song in memory of someone gone on ahead, as the lyric mentions ”If there ain't a heaven/ That holds you tonight/ They never sang doo-wop in Harlem.” It's a low-key, sobering end to an album that has more rises and falls than a ride on Alton Towers, but these are only in terms of tone or rhythm or tempo, never quality, which is maintained at an almost unbelievably high level all through this remarkable album.

It may very well be the case that this is the best album Prefab Sprout ever recorded, or I might just be missing out on others of the same quality, though the latter seems hard to believe. It was nine years before Prefab released their next album, so although this was hugely successful for them, they missed the chance to capitalise on that reception and success, though I doubt Paddy McAloon was, or is, ever that bothered about pleasing the masses and having hit singles.

They're still recording, with another four albums completed and a fifth slated for release in 2011 (better get a move on guys!), but I truly believe this album must stand head and shoulders above not only their other work, but the work of many another pop or rock artist. It's an album that deservedly I believe has a very high place in my collection, and I play it often. I never skip any tracks, and I'm always freshly impressed by how incredible the whole thing is, every time I play it.

It's been said to be a concept album, but I don't really see it. There are recurring themes that keep cropping up: comebacks are mentioned in both the title track and “Michael”, and kind of hinted at in both “Moon dog” and “Jesse James symphony/bolero”, and the theme of religion (with McAloon's somewhat unique slant on it) also runs through much of the album, as do the usual ones of love and loss, childhood and memory. But I don't see any real cohesive story tying the whole thing together.

That does not in any way take from the overall brilliance of “Jordan: the comeback”. It's a stunning achievement, and a record to be treasured, listened to over and over again, and really everytime you listen to it you're likely to discover further layers that you didn't at first realise were there. If Prefab Sprout had stopped recording after this, it would have been a fitting and proper tribute to them, the very zenith of their musical and creative output. And if there ever was a comeback album, in many ways this should have been it.

TRACKLISTING

1. Looking for Atlantis
2. Wild horses
3. Machine gun Ibiza
4. We let the stars go
5. Carnival 2000
6. Jordan: the comeback
7. Jesse James symphony
8. Jesse James bolero
9. Moon dog
10. All the world loves lovers
11. All boys believe anything
12. The ice maiden
13. Paris Smith
14. The wedding march
15. One of the broken
16. Michael
17. Mercy
18. Scarlet nights
19. Doo-wop in Harlem
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Old 12-21-2011, 12:11 PM   #642 (permalink)
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Thanx for that man: nice to know someone is reading!

As it happens, the worm doesn't really tend to listen to albums much, just the radio in the house whose garden he lives in. Kind of hard for an invertebrate to go into Dixons and buy a stereo! So he hasn't listened to any XTC albums, and I must admit, neither have I.

I'm only familiar with their singles like that one, "Senses working overtime" and one other I think which I can't remember. Did read something years ago about how the lead singer was sleeping rough after the fame thing crashed in on him; hope that's not still the case.

As for your YouTube, damn thing won't work! Pressed both play buttons, nothing happens. Nice looking bird though!

Happy Christmas! (Why is there not a Santa or Xmas icon? Hmm? HMMM??)

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Unchained Ballad View Post
You know, I love that song, I really do, but that album annoys me to no end. "Helicopter" makes me want to punch my computer screen and go on a murderous rage. Perhaps I should give them yet another chance one day, but Jesus Christ...

By the way, have you heard the Nouvelle Vague cover? It's quite good as well:

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Old 12-22-2011, 05:24 AM   #643 (permalink)
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Old 12-22-2011, 05:26 AM   #644 (permalink)
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One of the worm's all-time favourites, this. It's the Motors, with “Forget about you”.
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Old 12-22-2011, 11:11 AM   #645 (permalink)
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Make way! Make way for the master! Peter Gabriel has forgotten more about music, theatre, technology and merging the three than most other bands will ever know. If there's an innovation in music, chances are he's behind it, at the forefront (if that's not a contradiction!), spearheading the next muso/technical revolution. Unlike some artistes of his generation, Gabriel sees emergent technologies not as taking over his music, but as a tool he can use to further improve that music. No real surprise then that he should once again try to step out of the box and engage in a new venture.

Of course, setting an artist's music to an orchestra is nothing new. It's been done many times, whether it's the Symphonic Pink Floyd or the music of the Beatles for orchestra, or even the Genesis Suite from last year by Tolga Kashif, but in each case that has been a conductor, composer or indeed orchestra interpreting the music of the artiste, but with no input from said artiste. “New Blood”, Peter Gabriel's latest album, is the first instance I have heard of where the artiste himself plays with the orchestra his own re-arrangement of his songs.

New blood --- Peter Gabriel --- 2011 (Real World)


You might expect Gabriel, in this sort of setting, to pick the obvious tracks to get the orchestral treatment. What a show “Sledgehammer” or “Big time” would make, or maybe “Games without frontiers” or “Biko”. But that's not the path he takes. Instead, he goes for some hits, but mainly tracks that may not be that well known outside his fanbase, but that translate the best (to his mind) for orchestral arrangement. “Freedom from the tyranny of guitar and drum” is how he announces the project, and indeed, you won't find either here. It's all completely on strings, woodwind, brass and piano that these songs are carried.

So how does it work out? Well, the atmospheric opening to the album, which also opens the album it comes from, 1982's album, one of four all self-titled (though this one does apparently carry a sub-title of “Security”) should I think impress more. It's introducing the whole thing, and though “The rhythm of the heat” is a slowburner, I just don't think it works that well here, at least not as an opener. The song is pretty much built on a heavy drumbeat, and I personally think it suffers without it, though the violins and cellos do their best to maintain the menace of the original, at which I'm sorry to say I feel they come up short. Gabriel's voice is as desperate and urgent as ever, almost as if he's calling for help, but this song kind of falls a little flat for me, and it's a disappointing beginning.

“Downside up”, from 2000's “Ovo”, features Melanie Gabriel, whom I'm assuming is his daughter, and is better. A slow, sedate song, it's almost perfectly suited for the orchestral treatment, almost a mini-symphony in itself. Bassoon and oboe lead the song in on slow string accompaniment ++ and then Melanie's lovely angelic voice just takes over the song, lifting it to Heaven on silver wings. Her father joins her then, and the orchestra gets a little happier and more a-buzz, the violins setting up a joyous melody not a billion miles removed from Handel's “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. One of my very favourites of Gabriel's is up next, the dreamy “San Jacinto”, and again this is well served by the orchestra, tinkling piano and low trombone carrying the opening of the tune, Gabriel's voice low, almost a mutter, as the violins and cellos come in alongside a vocal chorus.

Gabriel's voice gets stronger then as the song goes on, and as it reaches the crescendo in the song, the string section rises with him, creating a soundscape that is almost perfect, man and musical section in complete harmony. I can't understand why this wasn't the opener: it would have been perfect. Nevertheless, as the happy flutes and violins pepper the song, memories of “The rhythm of the heat” have now faded, and the album is turning out to be what was really expected, and that is a triumph, a seamless melding of Peter Gabriel's flawless and amazing songwriting and musical skills with the sublime power of the orchestra.

The unsettling “Intruder” from his third album is next, and this will be a test. The track, again an opener, relies on building a sense of tension and fear, and the violins and cellos manage to convey this quite well, rather like setting this song to the soundtrack of a movie. Gabriel's voice is less threatening, I feel, on this version, but it's a good treatment of the song. The choral arrangements help, and the strings are very effective, but again this is a track that is built originally on a solid backbeat, and the loss of drums is again I feel to the detriment of the song, making it a lot less effective than it is on the original album. I also miss the shouted “I AM THE INTRUDER!” which is abandoned in favour of a whisper. Effective, yes, but not as much as on the song proper.

I only know the fourth album through what I've heard of it via the “Plays live” album, so “Wallflower”, which is from the “Security” album, I can't really comment on as I haven't heard it before, but it comes across as a nice piano led ballad with some good strings and oboe, possibly French horn in there too. Lovely cello line takes the main melody and complements Gabriel's yearning vocal well, while piano keeps a counterbeat in the background. Very restrained, but not an awful lot for the orchestra to work with. Nice duet with Melanie again though.

The next three tracks are from his 1986 “So” album, the first to actually have a title (despite “Security” being retitled for the US market), kicking off with the boppy “In your eyes”, here given full strings opening with bassoon and horns taking part, slowing down then to allow cello to accompany Gabriel's voice, then speeding up again and getting very busy as the song goes towards the joyous chorus, vocal choir adding its power to the song, the tempo considerably slowed down nevertheless from the original.

I find the exuberant African mood missing from this version though, and that was one of the things that in my opinion made it such a good song, almost gospel in its way. “Mercy Street” was always a restrained song, very sparse, so there's not a whole lot the orchestra can do here, though the cellos and violins carry the track well, but for me it's an odd choice. Better is “Red rain”, and even though this opener from “So” does rely quite heavily on drums and percussion, the orchestra manage to make it work this time, with flurries of violins, bassoons and trombones replacing the rhythm of the original.

“Darkness” is another song I'm unfamiliar with, coming as it does from the album I tried so hard to get into, but failed, that being “Up”. There's a nice sense of menace and power conveyed by the string section, then flute takes centre stage for a few lines, as Gabriel's singing gets less manic, then the strings come back in full force as he goes over-the-top again. This however as I say I can't really comment on, as I really hated “Up”, and this version of “Darkness” doesn't change my opinion of that album, even though I don't actually remember it. Next up is a classic, that surely had to be included in this reimagining of Gabriel's catalogue.

Although I'm disappointed Kate Bush couldn't lend her talents to this version --- I always consider her duet with Gabriel to be the iconic version of this song --- the incarnation we get here of “Don't give up” starts off well, but then Swedish singer Ane Brun chimes in, and she is not a patch on Bush: her contribution to the vocals is shaky, hesitant and has none of the heart or power of Kate Bush's desperate plea to keep going despite everything. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she ruins the whole song. There, I said it. My god, what a terrible voice, in comparison to Kate. What was Peter thinking?? Jesus, this girl sings like she has a cold! I can't believe how much she's ruined one of my favourite classic Gabriel songs!

Still smarting from the betrayal of “Don't give up” being butchered as it has been, the only song from 1992's “Us” almost passes me by, but “Digging in the dirt” gets a pretty dramatic treatment with powerful horns and frenetic violins managing to come close to the somewhat unhinged tone of the original, then the beautiful, fragile, sensual “The nest that sailed the sky”, the only other track taken from “Ovo”, loses none of its soft, gentle beauty, still a classic instrumental and one of the very few Gabriel has ever written.

Following this, and preparatory to closing the album, is a weird little thing called “A quiet moment”, which is essentially almost five minutes of nature and pastoral sounds, like rain, birds, waves and the like, interesting and certainly different, but surely a bit of a cheat when another track could have been included, considering how large Gabriel's repertoire is?

It does end well though, with the all-time favourite “Solsbory Hill” given the orchestral arrangement, though I still prefer the original. It's something of an annoyance to find that, should you decide to shell out for the “extended edition” with extra disc, all you get is instrumental versions of all the songs here, plus one additional track, right at the end, “Blood of Eden”. I would have thought extra tracks, information, out-takes, different versions other than just instrumental (this is an orchestra, after all!) would have been better value. As it is, I'm not going into that disc, even though I have it here: I see no reason to. I don't believe it would add anything to what has already gone.

As it is, I have to admit, somewhat in surprise, that I'm a little disappointed. While many of the tracks work well with an orchestra, many don't, and some are actually worse for the treatment. After having listened to this, I don't so much feel the need to hear more songs given this arrangement as an urgent need to revisit Gabriel's catalogue and hear them again as they should be heard. Sometimes the clever thing is not to do anything, to leave the classics as they are. I really believe that, on balance, that's the lesson that should be learned here. Perhaps, stunning a revelation though it may be, the master actually has something to learn?

I had expected so much more, but sadly, though Peter Gabriel crowed that his songs had been liberated from the “tyranny of guitar and drum”, I personally feel that his music needs that tyranny, and that, taken away, the stalwart servants of every musician are sadly and most effectively missed. Pushing the boundaries is all very well, but in the final analysis, I really don't feel it worked this time. I'm probably in a minority here, but after the disappointment of “Up”, here's another Peter Gabriel effort that has not made the grade for me.

And I so wanted it to...

TRACKLISTING

1. The rhythm of the heat
2. Downside up
3. San Jacinto
4. Intruder
5. Wallflower
6. In your eyes
7. Mercy Street
8. Red rain
9. Darkness
10. Don't give up
11. Digging in the dirt
12. The nest that sailed the sky
13. A quiet moment
14. Solsbory Hill
++ = I'm no student of the orchestra, and I certainly can't distinguish too many instruments one from the other, and information as to what is played on what song is very hard to come by. As a result, I've made my best guess when commenting, but I could be wrong. So if something I describe as a bassoon is an oboe, or a violin is actually a viola, or whatever, don't jump on me. Correct the text if you can, let me know, but bear in mind I'm winging it here as far as orchestral instrumentation goes. And writing “string section” or “woodwind” every time is both repetitive and boring, and shows a lack of interest or originality.
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Old 12-22-2011, 12:02 PM   #646 (permalink)
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Oh yes, in a perfect world all these selections would be Christmas themed, but maybe that's a little hackneyed, and I'm trying my best to stay away from the obvious this festive season. So although there are one or two Christmas songs here, we're starting off with one of my all-time favourite Irish traditional songs.

I'm not generally into Irish trad as a genre, but you can't ignore the power and passion of a song like “Grace”, by Jim McCann, here sung by him and in this video he explains the background to the song.


And after that sobering and sombre song, let's lighten the tone with another original from one of my favourite TV shows, “Mongrels”, and I know this is what we're all thinking about him....


But it wouldn't be Christmas without a Christmas parody, so here's Irish acting legend Frank Kelly (you'll probably know him as Father Jack in the TV series “Father Ted”) with his hilarious version of “The twelve days of Christmas”. See if you can get through it without having to stop to restitch your sides back together!


Not a huge fan of Bette Midler, but I love this version of “The rose” by her. Close to perfect.


We began on a sobering note, and in this season of stuffing ourselves and spending more than we could ever repay, and thinking largely about ourselves, let's take a quiet moment to remember those who died so that we could have this freedom, with another traditional Irish song, the epic and famous “The green fields of France”. And on that note, let me wish you all a very Happy Christmas!
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Old 12-22-2011, 01:02 PM   #647 (permalink)
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You'll often hear a lot of classical music around this time of the year: everyone just seems to suddenly want to get culture. Plus of course there are many masses written by classical composers, and masses are, essentially, an integral part of Christmas. So here's a selection of the best Christmas-themed and appropriate classical pieces I could come up with, leaving aside the obvious plethora of hymns and carols.

Opening with J.S. Bach's (1685-1750) “Nativity”, taken from his two-hour composition, “Christmas Oratorio”. If you like this, seek out the full thing: some kind soul has posted it on YouTube.


Perhaps not an actual Christmas piece, but the “Troika” from “Lieutenant Kije” by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) always gives the impression of sleighs dashing through the snow...


Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is always a favourite at this time, with his “Nutcracker” ballet.

I know, I know! I said classical music, didn't I? Well, consider this a blip not to be repeated in this section again, but I simply can't resist including this version of “Carol of the Bells” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

And to finish on a high note, here's George Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) with the glorious “Messiah”. This is of course the “Hallelujah Chorus”. And with that, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas!
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Old 12-22-2011, 06:10 PM   #648 (permalink)
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In the course of writing the section “More than words”, I've thought frequently about including some of Tom Waits' songs. How could I not? The man is a genius, and almost everything that flows from his pen is pure gold! He has at once some of the most obscure and deep lyrics you could ever come across. Many of his songs seem not to make sense on one level, but if examined deeply and with enough insight they become clear. Sometimes. Others are just A-level weird. But one thing about his songs is that they are always well written: he doesn't commit lyrics to paper that are banal or mundane.

So of course I'd want to showcase some of his writing in that section. The only problem is, which ones? And how would I resist the temptation to feature one of his every time? Surely there could be only one solution: start a separate section to cover his lyrics. And here it is.

In this section I'll be (of course) discussing the genius of Tom Waits, featuring three songs of his and reproducing both the video and the lyrics, talking extensively about the latter, and trying to give you a real appreciation for the ridiculous amount of talent this man has. We're going to start off with something that is in fact live, and was never on any studio album. Taken from the 1975 album “Nighthawks at the diner”, the album itself is something of an oddity, being recorded as it was in a studio, Record Plant in New York, but the studio having been setup like a bar, and the performance taped live. Although listening to it it sounds impromptu and ad-lib, the whole thing was actually rehearsed before the band got on stage, as it were.

On the album, Waits spends plenty of time in between tracks telling little anecdotes, sometimes to do with the songs, sometimes not, but it's all extremely entertaining, and though the music is fantastic, sometimes the introductions --- or intermissions if you like --- are even moreso. None of the tracks on this album ever surfaced on a studio Waits album, since or after, so this is the only place you get to hear such excellent compositions as “Emotional weather report”, “Nobody” and “Warm beer and cold women”.

The one I want to concentrate on, though, to open this section, is a song many women may take offence at, but it's all meant in fun, so don't be too hard on the guy. You'll understand what I mean when you hear the title: “Better off without a wife.”

Better off without a wife, from “Nighthawks at the diner”, 1975 (Asylum)


The song is a piano based blues/jazz melody wherein Waits extols the virtues of being single. You can go where you want, when you want, no-one's on your case. He talks about his friends, who are all married, and how he doesn't want to be like them. Of course, he only looks at one side of the argument, but it's a great funny little song at its heart, and if you leave any simmering outrage at the door, you'll realise he's only singing about what we all think of from time to time, single, married or divorced.

Here's the lyric.

All my friends are married: every Tom and Dick and Harry:
you must be strong if you're to go it alone.
Here's to the bachelors and the bowery bums
And those who feel that they're the ones
Who are better off without a wife.

[CHORUS]
I like to sleep until the crack of noon:
Midnight howlin' at the moon.
Goin' out when I wanna, comin' home when I please.
I don't have to ask permission if I want to go out fishin':
And I never have to ask for the keys.

Never been no Valentino but I had a girl who lived in Reno
Left me for a trumpet player, but it didn't get me down.
He was wanted for assault though he said it weren't his fault.
You know, the cops they rode him right out of town.

[CHORUS]

Selfish about my privacy; as long as I can be with me
We get along so well I can't believe.
I love to chew the fat with folks and listen to all your dirty jokes.
I'm so thankful for these friends I do receive.


The next one I want to share with you is from his album “Rain dogs”, and it's a track entitled “9th and Hennepin”. I guess it's purely coincidental that “Rain dogs” is his ninth album, but the track itself is written about real-life events, as is much of the imagery on the album. It's quite odd in that it has no real verse or chorus structure, and Waits does not sing it. It's more like drawled poetry behind a very discordant piano, wailing clarinet, double-bass and marimba, and you get the feel of looking out of grime-encrusted, yellow windows out onto rain-washed streets at night. The song is spoken in one continuous verse, though he does take breath a few times to allow the piano to carry the tune.

Waits described the inspiration for the song thus: “Most of the imagery is from New York. It's just that I was on 9th and Hennepin years ago in the middle of a pimp war, and 9th and Hennepin always stuck in my mind. "There's trouble at 9th and Hennepin." To this day I'm sure there continues to be trouble at 9th and Hennepin. At this donut shop. They were playing "Our Day Will Come" by Dinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pimps came in in chinchilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladles and they started throwing them out in the streets. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth. And I knew "Our Day Was Here." I remember the names of all the donuts: cherry twist, lime rickey. But mostly I was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with The New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn't have to be a part of.”
(Transcribed verbatim from Wikipedia article)


9th and Hennepin, from “Rain dogs”, 1985 (Island)


It's typical of the sort of social commentary Waits puts into his songs. But he never seems to do this to be seen as controversial, or to be noticed, or praised for his cleverness. The lyrics seem to be written in a genuine, honest attempt to bring someone's plight to the attention of the masses. You can always imagine Waits staggering along a dark street, raincoat pulled tight across his scrawny chest, a half-empty bottle of whiskey clutched in his bony hand, shouting at and haranguing everyone he meets in a slurred, drunken voice. Like some inebriated prophet of the sidewalk, Waits always seems to not only write for the common man, or woman, but to be right down there among them. As I once said about Nick Cave, he's kind of the patron saint of the dispossessed.

Anyway, here's the lyric, poem, prose, call it what you will. What can't be denied though, is that it is genius, on every level.

Well it's 9th and Hennepin, and all the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes.
And the moon's teethmarks are on the sky like a tarp thrown over all this
And the broken umbrellas like dead birds,
And the steam comes out of the grill like the whole goddamned town is ready to blow.
And the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos, and everyone is behaving like dogs.
And the horses are coming down Violin Road, and Dutch is dead on his feet.
And the rooms all smell like diesel and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here.
And I'm lost in the window; I hide on the stairway, I hang in the curtain and I sleep in your hat.

And no one brings anything small into a bar around here:
They all started out with bad directions.
And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear:
“One for every year he's away” she said.
Such a crumbling beauty --- ah there's nothin' wrong with her that a hundred dollars won't fix.
She has that razor sadness that only gets worse with the clang and thunder of the Southern Pacific going by.

And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet till you're full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
And you spill out over the side to anyone who'll listen.
And I've seen it all, I've seen it all through the yellow windows of the evening train.


Waits also has this uncanny ability to tap into the wanderer, the restless dreamer in all of us, and nowhere is this more perfectly demonstrated than in the tragic tale told in “Burma-Shave”. It's a piano-led song, almost a ballad, about a girl who hooks up with a mysterious stranger who rolls into town one day on his way through. Tired of waiting for something to happen, the girl decides to leave with him and seek out the fabled better life waiting just out of reach. But of course, never one to let fantasy outlive reality, Waits has them involved in a pileup and killed.

Yes, it's a morose song, but very realistic, and sadly probably true of many of the “wild ones” who thought they were indestructible. Waits tells the story of how the name of the song came about thus (this is from memory, so I may not get it right: I think it comes from a radio interview): “When I was growin' up and we'd go out driving with my father we'd keep passing these signs, they'd say things like “Food and gas up ahead --- Burma Shave!” And I thought Burma Shave was a place. Never realised it was just a shaving product till I grew up. I was really upset, thinking “Never gonna live there, Tom!”


Burma-Shave, from “Foreign affairs”, 1977 (Asylum)


The song is really almost a one-man-show. Waits plays the piano, sings the vocal and the only other accompaniment is right at the end, with a plaintive sax break. In many ways an introspective song, it's certainly gritty and full of realism, and yet there's no moral here. Waits doesn't make the point that maybe the girl should have stayed at home instead of going off on what she hoped would be an adventure. Similarly, he doesn't say that she was right to do what she did, even though it cost both her and the boy their lives. In the end, there is no right or wrong. People are people, they'll do stupid, impulsive things, but if they didn't, then they wouldn't be people.

Waits takes the role of observer, narrator and does not take sides in the story. His voice is not sad as he describes the car crash and the resultant death (or deaths; we assume the boy dies, but only the girl is mentioned as being “pulled from the wreck”. It's also not confirmed she is dead, though it's assumed to be the case) but almost philosophical, a musical shrug that hey, these things happen, and it's tragic, but that's life.

And here's the lyric:

Liquorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town.
The one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.
He's a juvenile delinquent: never learned how to behave ---
But the cops would never think to look in Burma-Shave.

The road was like a ribbon and the moon was like a bone:
He didn't seem to be like any guy she'd ever known.
Kinda looked like Farley Granger with his hair slicked back;
She says “I'm a sucker for a fella in a cowboy hat. How far are you going?”
He said “Depends on what you mean.” He says “I'm only stopping here to get some gasoline.”
He says “I guess I'm going thataway, just as long as it's paved:
I guess you'd say I'm on my way to Burma-Shave.”

And with her knees up on the glove compartment she took out her barrettes
And her hair spilled out like rootbeer and she popped her gum, and arched her back.
“Hell, Marysville ain't nothing but a wide spot in the road:
Some nights my heart pounds just like thunder: don't know why it don't explode.
Cause everyone in this stinking town has got one foot in the grave
And I'd rather take my chances out in Burma-Shave.

Presley's what I go by: why don't you change the station?
Count the grain elevators in the rearview mirror.”
She said, “Mister, anywhere you point this thing has got to beat the hell out of the sting
Of going to bed with every dream that dies here every mornin'.
So drill me a hole with a barber pole.
I'm jumping my parole just like a fugitive at night.
Why don't you have another swig?
Pass that car if you're so brave?
I wanna get there before the sun comes up in Burma-Shave.”

The spider web crack and the mustang scream:
Smoke from the tyres and the twisted machine.
Just a nickel's worth of dreams; every wishbone that they saved
Lie swindled from them on the way to Burma-Shave.

The sun hit the derrick and cast a bat wing shadow up against the car door on the shotgun side.
And when they pulled her from the wreck you know she still had on her shades.
They say that dreams are growing wild just this side of Burma-Shave.


If the songs above prove anything, it's that, excellent as Tom Waits' music is, it's his lyrics that truly characterise his songs, give them heart and life. The man is a poet, and puts that poetry to music. But it's not airy-fairy poetry: it's the poetry of the streets, the words of the ordinary man, the view from the gutter. He has a way of framing the most mundane settings and objects in a way few others can, allowing us to see through the eyes of the characters in his songs, feel what they feel, dream what they dream and understand in the way only they can.

He allows us to put on their shoes, and we walk the grimy streets he has painted for them, live their lives and experience what they go through. It can be a scary process, but it's always worthwhile.


It's a rare talent, and almost a lost art, but as long as Waits is around, it won't be lost just yet.
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Last edited by Trollheart; 01-21-2012 at 09:26 AM.
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Old 12-23-2011, 05:50 AM   #649 (permalink)
Nobody likes my music
 
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Old 12-23-2011, 05:56 AM   #650 (permalink)
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Hey, who says the worm has no culture in him? Try this one for a classy mix of rock, pop and classical! This is --- let's see if the worm can get this right --- Rondo Veneziano --- with “La serenissima”.
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