Monthly Archives: June 2010

Song of the Day – “Walt Whitman’s Niece” – Billy Bragg & Wilco

I love call and response songs.  It’s an old trick to be sure, but in the case of “Walt Whitman’s Niece” it’s sublime.  Kicking off the Mermaid Avenue album, “Walt Whitman’s Niece” has got to be one of the greatest opening numbers ever.  To most, Woody Guthrie is known only for his leftist folk leanings.  But like Bob Dylan, what’s sometimes forgotten is his sense of humor.  And humor is all over “Walt Whitman’s Niece”.  There’s lots of clever sexual puns, and the music sounds like a hootenanny with Billy Bragg leading the party.

The narrator at first is not very forthcoming about the adventure he wants to tell.  (Bragg singing the call part of the song.)Every time he attempts to tell part of the story he confesses that he can’t say anything. (The rest of Wilco singing the response here.)  He won’t reveal which night it happened (was it last night or the night before that?)  which seamen he hung out with, and he leaves out the names of the two girls that may or may not have been upstairs.  Eventually the girl reads him a book of poem and she reads he lays down his head.  Naturally though of course he can’t say which head.

The song breaks a bit for a spoken-word section.  Now the narrator is left to himself – his seamen buddy and the girl had “moved off”.  He’s most likely drunk at this point, and trying to piece together what happened.  Apparently the girl was the niece of Walt Whitman, as best as the seamen could recollect.  According to the sailor she told them she was a niece of Whitman, but not which niece.  Not all he has to do is get out of there but “it takes a night, a girl, and a book of this kind a long long time to get back.”

After the break, and a pretty awesome harmonica solo, it’s back to the call and response.  But its even more absurd this go around.  Bragg pushes his band-mates with each call, and the responses get louder until finally they’re both exhausted and the band just jams away until the fade-out.

“Walt Whitman’s Niece” had been a favorite of mine for awhile.  Not only do I find it endlessly amusing, but it’s the perfect “go-to” song.  I’m always in a happy mood whenever I put it on and it lead perfectly into the majestic (albeit more serious) “California Stars”.

“Walt Whitman’s Niece” from Mermaid Avenue:

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Song of the Day – “Stumble” – R.E.M.

If you listen closely with your headphones at the very beginning of R.E.M.’s “Stumble” (off their debut EP Chronic Town) you can hear Michael Stipe laughing into the microphone.  He then mumbles the word “teeth” and begins clicking his mouth together several times as Peter Buck begins the jangled arpeggio guitar line that begins the song.  Bill Berry bangs his drums a few times in reply, and the song officially begins with a quick bass slap by Mike Mills.

Up until “Leave” off of New Adventures in Hi Fi in 1996, “Stumble” was R.E.M.’s longest song at just 6 minutes.   Like most of the songs of Chronic Town, “Stumble” is a mixture between R.E.M.’s love of post-punk, chiming guitars, and art-rock. Buck’s guitar line is hypnotic but it’s really the rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry that drives the song, like much of R.E.M.’s early work.  Berry holds the beat tightly as Stipe repeats the lines “we’ll stumble through the yard, we’ll stumble through the a-p-t” but explodes during the pre-chorus and chorus, which is a rarity for R.E.M.’s usually constrained songwriting.  Even as Stipe loudly wails “ball and chain” on the chorus, it’s still indecipherable.  For a long time, I was convinced he was singing “by chance”.

There’s a small fast-break down between the second and third verse, but it’s after the 3 chorus that things really weird.  “Stumble”  lo-fi production is broken by a bunch of tape loops sounding like wind and Berry’s wild drumming.  Over this wall of sound, Stipe recites a barely audible poem where the only phrase to be heard is “it’s round about midnight”.  Buck repeats the guitar line heard at the beginning of the beginning of the song, and it’s one more run through of the verse.

“Stumble” isn’t usually mentioned in the list of great R.E.M. songs from the beginning of their career.  It’s too weird to have made an impact like other songs of the period such as “Radio Free Europe”, “Gardening at Night” or “So. Central Rain”.   But it’s has a distinct sound containing many of R.E.M.’s early trademarks.

“Stumble” is one of the first songs I listened to over and over as a teenager with my headphones on.  At a family trip to the beach one year,  I borrowed my older brother’s walkman and copy of Chronic Town and listened to the tape constantly.  “Stumble” might have been long and repetitive, but it pulls you along and Berry’s drumming creates just enough tension to keep things interesting.  It became an obsession to kept to figure out what the hell Michael Stipe was saying as he recited the poem.  I never did figure it out, and at this point the fact that I can’t understand it only adds to the beauty of the song.

Check out “Stumble” from Chronic Town:

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Song of the Day: My Sweet Lord – George Harrison

George Harrison wrote in the linear notes for the remastered version of All Things Must Pass that Phil Spector’s production on the album might have been over-done. Harrison released an updated version for the remaster, as if to prove Spector’s production was out of favor.  The new version of “My Sweet Lord” sounds thin, and lacks the warmth of the original.

For me, the warmth and comfort in the sound is one of the most appealing things about “My Sweet Lord”.  It underlines Harrison’s message of wanting to be with the lord.  Even while he was in the Beatles, Harrison was known for his interest in Eastern philosophy eventually becoming a devotee of the Gaudiya Vaisnavite faith.

“My Sweet Lord” begins with a simple acoustic riff for the first 15 seconds, Harrison then comes in with a lead which could only be played by him. The vocal Harrison delivers lies somewhere between sad and happy.  He wants to be with the lord, but “it takes so long”.   There aren’t any verses or choruses in the song rather, just a repetition of things that Harrison would do for the lord.  The background vocals of “Hallelujah” are delivered just before the drums kick in that move the song forward.  Suddenly the song sounds joyous rather than sad just as Harrison breaks into a short guitar solo reminiscent of his lead in the very beginning of the song.

After the solo, the background vocals change from the familiar “Hallelujah” to a Hindu-chant continuing throughout the rest of the song.   It’s as if Harrison was waiting to hook listeners in,  suggesting that humanity takes different paths to knowing “the lord”, but the truth is universal.  (Is this the first pop song to reference both Hallelujah and Vishnu?)

Unfortunately for Harrison, while “My Sweet Lord” was a hit also became associated with controversy.  This wasn’t because of the religious overtones, but rather copyright infringement.  The melody of The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” sounds quite similar to the main melody of “My Sweet Lord”, and Harrison was later sued as a result.

But “My Sweet Lord’ remains one of Harrison’s masterpieces (as is much of All Things Must Pass).

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A Change Is Gonna Come…

I’ve decided that Leading Us Absurd needs an over-haul.  When I started this blog, I just wanted to write about music.  I figured the blogosphere would force me to write every single.  To a certain extent this is true, I’ve pretty much kept to since about February.  It was easier at the beginning because the blog was new and I was excited that people would actually read my writing and thoughts.

Don’t fear, this is not a post stating that I will be shutting down the blog, or taking a break.  Rather, I feel I need a declaration of intent.  Too often I find I ramble and write about things that I like (which is great) but sometimes I find it difficult to find a topic daily without relying on certain artists (ie – Bob Dylan.)  I don’t listen to many “new” artists so the idea writing about a breaking group wouldn’t really work.  I haven’t hung around the Baltimore music scene (is there one?)  to really get a feel, and post about it.

So what am I going to do you ask?  I’ve decided writing about a specific song daily will give me a sense of focus.  They can either be songs I’m listening to at the moment, songs I’ve just discovered, or observing a song’s anniversary or historical significance.  I’ll also to include personal reflections and stories as to why these pieces of music mean something to me.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop posting the longer essays such as the Dylan and James Joyce comparison.  (I actually have a couple of more longer pieces that I’m working on, so stay tuned for those.)  Hopefully the daily song format will give me more satisfaction with Leading Us Absurd.

Hopefully I’ll try the first of this new format later today, but for now there’ soccer to be watched.  And as always, thanks again for reading.

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Hot Fun in the Summertime

It’s a thousand degrees in Baltimore, and judging by the weather forecast it looks like its not going to clear up anytime soon.  Springsteen is always good to listen to in the summer, but a real summer band is Sly & the Family Stone.  With Sly you can take comfort in the fact he and his band are sweating just as much as you are, if not more.  Just like The Band the sound that Sly and the Family Stone could only be made in America. If the Band was taking cues from Americana and roots music to create something original, Sly took R&B and gave it all whole direction that paved the wave for funk a few years later.  They tackled racism and politics but its message was held-down by a funky groove and soulful vocals.

“Different strokes for different folks” has become a cliche now, but back in the 1960s its message was loud and clear.  Do what you want, just don’t bother me.  Everybody is included here – come join the party.  If that message wasn’t clear enough Sly proved it by the make-up of his band – it was one of the first multi-racial and multi-gender groups.  At the very beginning rock and roll was about breaking boundaries, and Sly was doing that by including white, black and women into the group.  They were in fact “everyday people” from all walks of life.

In its own way, “Thank You (Fah Letinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is a very political song. This is the sound of a group of people who were oppressed and finally realizing their place in the United States. The era of the Civil Rights had ended, and the African American Community was beginning to finally beginning to truly become American.  “Mama’s so happy, mama starts to cry”, the song goes.  Those that came before are joyous that their sons and daughters are finally one with the rest of the nation.  Is the title of the song phonetic, or it just a slang way of saying “thank you for letting me be myself again?”  Either way, the message is clear: thank you for embracing us.  Thank you for letting me be part of the nation.

It’s a shame that Sly’s genius was also the very thing that made him one of the most aggravating frontmen in rock.  By being the leader of the group he became convinced that he could do everything himself – forgetting the very idea of the togetherness which not only made the group distinct, but also historically important.  Years before Axl Rose even dreamed of screwing over dozens of versions of Guns & Roses, Sly became notorious as a no-show for concerts.  Eventually he became rock and roll’s version of JD Salinger.

But Sly and The Family Stone’s vision of America will live on for years, and we still have the music.

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Recommendations For Me?

Every time I log onto Itunes, laugh at the recommendations that it gives me for music that I would like.  A lot of the stuff they recommend I already have, but sometimes I find their suggestions almost offensive.  Today Itunes wants me to buy a record by Danity Kane.  Not even a single song, but rather an entire album.  Who owns an entire Danity Kane album?   Though Pandora isn’t trying to get money out of you, I have given up on them after some of the insane artists they thought I would like.  Boston?  Steve Miller?  Seriously?  I’m a music snob.)

This soul-less recommendation is one of the many reasons why I’m sad to see CDs go, and with it the record store.  I buying a CD and asking the clerk what other things are good, or what is new.  I like to build up a good relationship with the record store clerk, and let them know that I have good taste.  That way, they can highlight some new artist that I have never heard of.  This also works in reverse though – if I’m buying a gift I want it to be known that the purchase was not my choice – “No sir this Dave Matthew album isn’t for me.”   I don’t want anyone telling me that official bootleg #466 had a particularly awesome extended jam of “Crash Into Me”.

But one of the other reasons why I don’t like like the recommendations on Itunes is that it takes away self-discovery of music.  While listening to a clip of a song is great it takes away the element of surprise.  When my older brother lived at home, his CD collection was probably somewhere in the 300 range.  I didn’t really know anything about the Velvet Underground, but I picked it up because the album cover looked cool.

I know I asked for recommendations the other day, but Itunes I didn’t ask for yours.

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Joe Strummer – Art Rock & The X-Ray Style

Usually I hesitate to listen to solo albums by the frontmen of bands I absolutely love.  Too often, the singer indulges himself and the album leaves you wanting the restraints the band put in place.  I first got into the Clash sometime in 1999, and wanted everything that they ever put out.  (I don’t count Cut the Crap as a Clash album in case you were wondering.)  Sometime later, I discovered that Joe Strummer put out another album with a new backing band dubbed the Mescaleros.  It couldn’t possibly be good, I remember thinking.

About a year or so later, I finally did break down and buy Art Rock & The X-Ray Style. I knew right away it wouldn’t sound like The Clash or be as good as their debut or London Calling. What possibly could?  (Even the band themselves never reached those heights again.)  But what shocked me, was how much it didn’t sound like The Clash.  Except for one song (“Techno D-Day”) there’s nothing on the album that even sounds remotely like The Clash.  Instead, Strummer takes on the listener on a laid-back groove that’s part folk, part world-beat that could only be made by the man who fronted a band where every single genre imaginable was tried on Sandinista!

“Has anybody seen the morning sun?” Strummer asks on the opening track “Tony Adams”.  For anyone else, this line might sound trite, but Strummer had been lost in the wilderness for years following the demise of the Clash.  Now, he’s revitalized with an album that actually sounds perfect for a late 40-something year old man.  The morning sun has come up to him, and he’s taking you on the road to rock and roll.  The song “On The Road to Rock and Roll” was originally written for Johnny Cash, but I’m not sure that it would fit Cash’s style stripped down style that he perfected late in life.  Strummer’s version takes blends two pieces of of rock and roll together – it’s led by a country/folk riff but the backing band plays a hip-hop beat.

I often find myself listening to Art Rock & The X-Ray Style whenever I can’t find something particular that I want to listen.  Every single track is of high quality.  Strummer is still political in parts throughout the album, but he doesn’t beat you over the head or demand something of you like he did with the Clash.  It’s him enjoying music, and its infectious for the listener.

His other two albums with the Mecaleros weren’t as focused.  Global A-Go took the world-beat of Art Rock, a bit too far and Strummer seemed to forget about the songs.  Streetcore could have been very good, but as it wasn’t completed at the time of his death in 2002, it feels too much like the collection of out-takes that it was.

Even if the world wasn’t listening like they were with London Calling, Strummer achieved a renaissance late in life with Art Rock & The X-Ray Style worthy of a legend.

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