Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Song A Day: We Five, "You Let a Love Burn Out"

MAY 23, 2017




To quote This is Spinal Tap, San Francisco’s We Five currently reside in the “where are they now” file, regarded as nothing more than one-hit wonders.

That’s a shame, because this quintet was really talented. Their one super smash, “You Were on My Mind,” reached #3 in the country in fall 1965 and is one of the great songs of the mid-1960s. But their other material never quite took off commercially.

While We Five were not, as some claim, the first big rock/pop group to come out of San Francisco—the Beau Brummels preceded them on the charts by several months—the fivesome forged a crucial link between the pop/rock and folk/nightclub movements in the Bay.

A 1965 stint at San Francisco’s hungry i, the coast’s most prestigious folk/comedy club, brought them to the attention of A&M co-head Herb Alpert. A&M signed We Five and issued its first recording, “You Were On My Mind,” that summer. Within weeks, the single hit big and international stardom beckoned.

Singer Beverly Bivins gave the group a rich, distinctive voice, combining with the four male members on three- and sometimes four-part harmonies. Banjoist/guitarist Mike Stewart provided strong arrangements. Augmented by a drummer on stage and record, the well-rehearsed and tight We Five always walked a fine line between their interests, balancing folk, contemporary ballads, show songs, rock & roll, and even proto-psychedelic elements.

The group’s third single, “You Let a Love Burn Out,” was penned by Randy Steirling, a friend of the band who performed with Mike Stewart’s brother John, late of the Kingston Trio and a popular solo artist in the 70s.

This was a lot of single packed into 2:10, well ahead of the curve in innovation and harmony. Stewart provided an Indian underpinning on the banjo and Bob Jones’ careful 12-string picking lent folk-rock flavor. Bivins and the rest provided strong vocal work. The affecting lyrics are delivered with beauty and palpable regret.

Issued in late in 1965, it didn’t catch on, picking up only sporadic radio play. Perhaps the lyrics and music were too down, too strange, or too Eastern (which wouldn’t be a problem a few months later), but despite promotion and live shows, “You Let a Love Burn Out” didn’t even make the charts.

Either way it was the start of the end for We Five. After one more single, Bivins decided to hang it up and the original group capitulated, leaving behind a finished second album. While not all their material was chart-worthy, most of it was very, very good.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Song A Day: Matthew Sweet, "I've Been Waiting"

MAY 22, 2017




Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album Girlfriend is stuffed with terrific pop-rock songs.

Picking just one from this bag of glittering gems is difficult stuff, but the second track, “I’ve Been Waiting,” is not only Sweet’s perfect pop moment, it’s among the greatest pop-rock tracks ever.

Start with a quality song. Sweet combines a strong major-key melody with words of vulnerability, mixing the strong and the soft. He then lays his sublime lead vocal and harmonies above a tight rhythm section and guitars that jangle, crunch, scream, and chime. “I’ve Been Waiting” is just long enough, and is recorded and mixed perfectly.

The musicians on Girlfriend are superb. Guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd and drummers Ric Menck and Fred Maher deserve special mention. What they play gives the songs much of their muscle and their intricacy. Lloyd’s solo on “I’ve Been Waiting,” for example, truly has it all: melody, drive, tone, and the swagger that says, “I am a great solo.”

Nothing about the sound of "I've Been Waiting," or in fact the Girlfriend album, betrays any particular technological DNA or date stamp. It's timeless rock and roll.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Song A Day: Murry Kellum, "I Dreamed I Was a Beatle"

MAY 21, 2017



RELEASED 1964 ON 7” 45

This is just an adorable little record.

Murry Kellum was a country music artist who cut his teeth in bar bands in Mississippi. In 1963 he’d had a surprise hit with the novelty “Long Tall Texan,” written by his friend, bassist Henry Strzelecki. The Beach Boys later covered “Long Tall Texan” on a live album.

The following year, after a similar follow-up, “Red Ryder,” failed to chart, Kellum issued this, another ‘novelty.’

Many people released songs about the Beatles in 1964, but unlike most of the ones done by men, this one is lighthearted, has no snark or jealousy, and rocks convincingly. And it’s funny.

There I stood on a big bandstand with my hair hanging down in my face
While 37 acres of twistin’ little shakers were screamin’ all over the place.

The company that issued the record, M.O.C., was a subsidiary of Hi Records in Memphis, itself a sub-label of larger London Records. The publisher of "I Dreamed I Was A Beatle" was Lyn-Lou Music, which bore the same name as a well-known Memphis recording studio. It is not clear, however, where this song was recorded.

Nothing is known about the writer, an E. Grace, suggesting that it might be a pseudonym for someone. Could it be Glen Sutton, a friend and bandmate of Kellum’s, who produced some of his singles? Anyone know?

Like most great pop records, “I Dreamed I Was a Beatle” says its piece and gets out quickly. In just 2:12, Kellum charmingly drawls his funny, overstated dream over a rocking, Mersey-ish backing that features, oddly, an electric organ.

Sadly, “I Dreamed I Was a Beatle” received little radio play and essentially sank. It’s too bad; this is one of the very best Fab-related novelties. If Sirius XM’s new Beatles channel were to play stuff like this, it might be worth a subscription.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Song A Day: Steely Dan, "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again"

MAY 20, 2017




You couldn’t ever accuse Steely Dan of not being serious, at least about the quality of the musicians, production, and songs on their records.

At times, however, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—the core of the band—came across as overeducated smart-asses, a mix of homespun East-Coast cynicism and adopted West-Coast laissez-faire. They weren’t afraid to make fun of people, and that tendency made it harder to feel their occasional sincerity.

Their “bite before being bitten” philosophy made them the bane of critics and, sometimes, other musicians, but the quality of their music hoisted them almost immediately to the top echelon of American rock.

For Fagen and Becker, who were raised on jazz, blues, and the best of pop, the tension between commerciality and creative self-expression was ever-present. This dynamic makes their first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, the best to my ears. In fusing disparate American, European, Cuban, and Brazilian influences, they created 11 state-of-the-art pop songs, with intellectual lyrics, clear but complex music, and first-rate instrumentation.

Two singles, “Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” brightened up AM radio during some of its darker days, and most of the album had a radio-friendly, tasty, yet organic feel that made it a triumph of intelligent commercial rock. Guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder provided worthy support for the complex arrangements Fagen, Becker, and producer Gary Katz dreamed up.

The album’s final track, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again,” is one of Steely Dan’s masterpieces. Fagen sings about a criminal caper gone tragically bad, the lyrics full of foreboding, guilt, and the knowledge that whatever peace the protagonist enjoys will only be temporary.

It's all backed by an attractive, if somewhat herky-jerky setting. The verses begin with something like a tango, or even an operatic recitative, before releasing into a samba for the second half of the verse and the enigmatic chorus.

Catchy yet highly unusual three-part harmonies, a spine-chilling, almost classical guitar solo-slash-duet, and a sonorous electric piano give the track its sonic punch. It sounds great going down, but is ineffably sad; many of their greatest tracks can be described that way.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Song A Day: Amy Winehouse, "Addicted"

MAY 19, 2017




When Amy Winehouse partied herself to death a few years ago, the world lost a hell of a singer and songwriter.

Before she left, she released two albums, Frank and Back to Black, and recorded enough material for another two or three. Bonus editions of Back to Black, for example, featured raucous versions of first and second-wave ska classics.

One track on the British version of Back to Black and NOT the original American edition is “Addicted,” a black-comedy character study which is very simple to hear as a self-examination of Amy Winehouse’s often troubled life.

The song’s protagonist is laying down the law to her roommate. The roommate’s boyfriend has been smoking all of the singer’s marijuana, and unless they bring her a bag of weed in apology, Mr. Wonderful is no longer welcome on the premises.

It’s a slice of life full of wordplay, real talk, and uncomfortable revelations about the singer’s own needs and desires. I’ll leave it to you to find the funniest lyrics in the song, but one of my favorite couplets is

Don’t make no difference if I end up alone;
I’d rather have myself and smoke my homegrown.
The producer of “Addicted,” Salaam Remi, bathed Winehouse’s lead and backing vocals in tremolo guitar and R&B horns. The rhythm section plays Motown parts with Memphis aggression; it’s a great soul fusion.

It’s some kind of stupid that the writer and singer of “Addicted” died from alcohol poisoning, her system weakened by bulimia and the consequences of years of fast living. And in retrospect, it’s easy to see how joking about addiction, even to something as benign as pot, isn’t funny.

But Amy Winehouse lived her own life and chose to produce her own art. She had agency in this, if perhaps in not much else. And in that spirit, I can still listen to this song and marvel at her vocal ability, her humor, and her nerve. And wish that she’d had time to keep growing.