Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Song A Day: Rexy, "Perfect Day"

MAY 31, 2017




In 1980 or so, Vic Martin, a veteran of the early 70s British blues/rock scene who had played with Gary Moore, went “digital.” He joined Eurythmics as a keyboard player and began writing songs for a new project using synthesizers, drum machines, and post-disco tempos. Always looking for the ‘next’ thing, he began infiltrating some of the post-punk fringes of London.

He met some people active in the “new romantic” scene, a group of fancy dressers reacting against both hippies and the no-exit of punk. Martin was taken with “Rex” Nayman, a stylish, funny art student, and asked her if she would sing on his new songs despite her complete lack of performing experience. She thought, “Why not?”

Chris Burne co-wrote a couple of songs and Mike Anscombe provided some drums, but most of the instrumental work was Martin’s.

Having a Cockney-accented girl sing about police brutality, sexism, and class struggle was a very punk/post-punk thing to do. Wrapping socially conscious lyrics in a lo-fi dance beat, however, was daring and brilliant.

Oddly, despite the pretensions inherent in the new romantic movement, Rexy’s songs are fun, danceable, and almost entirely without affectation. The album of these sessions, Running out of Time, was released in 1981.

The entire album has a loopy quality to it that speaks to its out-of-the-mainstream quality. It’s not the new-romantic style of early Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet; it’s not the dark psychedelic world of the early Eurythmics. It’s fresh, bright, funny, and quite odd, a collision of spontaneity and rehearsal, technology and street, old and new, male and female.

Covers of rock and roll standards “Johnny B. Goode” and “Heartbreak Hotel” feel like album filler, and perhaps they are, but their arrangements (utter deconstruction) and Rex’s vocal capabilities (over-the-top funny) render them especially nutty.

As is so often the case with pioneers, nothing happened with the album when it was released. It took 30 years and a few devoted record diggers to make the album better known. Singer Samantha Urbani heard the record, loved it, and in 2016 reissued it on her URU label. Thanks to renewed interest in the album, Martin and Nayman, who hadn’t spoken for decades, decided to work together again.

The album’s opener, “Perfect Day,” is a sardonic nod at holiday travel for the rich. In this nightmarish setting—set, of course, to a super-catchy arrangement—the latrine abuts the dining room, local disease is widespread, and all you get is a photograph to remind you of the misery. It’s the audio equivalent of “My parents went to Vladivostok and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

The instrumental coda, which rises into the sonic stratosphere, is worth the cost alone. Thanks, Rexy, and thanks DJCB for hipping me.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Song A Day: Los Pajaros, "Salsa Ye Ye"

MAY 30, 2017




For decades, I’ve had the habit of digging into any record racks in sight. In the summer of 1985, that meant sifting through albums in a department store called Gigante in the Nueva Santa Maria neighborhood of Mexico City.

When this album cover—four young ladies in 60s finery smiling amidst a splashy multicolored explosion—glared at me, I didn’t hesitate a second.

Los Pajaros (The Birds) were four Central Americans: Colombian sisters Carmen and Mary Vargas and Venezuelans Gloria Campos and Otilia Rodriguez. They recorded at least two albums, with Mary…Otilia…Carmen…Gloria most likely the first. It was issued on the Discomoda label of Veneuzuela, with a soft cover, and also in a stiff cardboard sleeve by Ibersound, based in Miami.

(Their other album, Cariñosamente, was released by Philips, a much larger label. At one point they apparently received an award as Venezuela’s top group of the year, but I can find no further details about the award, or even the year. Hit songs are mentioned in that album's liner notes, but I find no evidence of 45 RPM releases.)

Mary…Otilia…Carmen…Gloria is really all over the place in a wonderful way. One cut, for instance, “Has Amado Alguna Vez,” is a Spanish-language adaptation of a Hollies song ("Have You Ever Loved Somebody") first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1966.

While wrapping your head around how a coterie of Central American singers might have chosen that, note that the LP also features boogaloo, bolero, cumbia, R&B, cha-cha, traditionals, and a dose of Sunset Strip-styled rock. One number was written by Lucho Bermudez, Colombia’s top big-band impresario of the 1950s and 1960s.

Los Pajaros offer superb harmonies and personality plus. The arrangements, by Sergio Olguin, are tight and played with tons of energy. Mary…Otilia…Carmen…Gloria reminds me of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s Equinox, or the Odell Brown records, or even the Blow-Up soundtrack: funky, poppy, “latin” 60s lounge/club jams. It’s all that, except this one is actually Latin American in origin.

It would be nice to learn more about Sergio Olguin, and Gunther Ricardo, who wrote two of the album’s best songs. Most of all, I’d like to find out what happened to Mary, Otilia, Carmen, and Gloria. Perhaps someone in Venezuela or Colombia can tell me more. I sure hope so.

For now, I hope you enjoy the groovy, upbeat “Salsa Ye Ye,” which in title and content sums up the “going in all directions” feel of this wonderful album.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Song A Day: Johnny Bond, "Hot Rod Lincoln"

MAY 29, 2017




People don’t really write a lot of car songs any more. Oh, they may mention sitting in the back of a Cadillac, but that’s not really a car song.

This is a car song. Written in the early 1950s by Charlie Ryan and Bill McCall (a record mogul using a pseudonym) and as a response to the new hot-rodding trend, “Hot Rod Lincoln” imagines a world where the drag-racing show-offs are driving big domestic American boats.

Johnny Bond, an experienced and successful country singer already in his 40s, covered this utterly swinging fusion of country, rockabilly, and western swing in 1960. Like the recordings of Pigmeat Markham and Lord Buckley, this is evidence that rapping started well before the late 1970s.

Complete with sound effects, volume swells, and a laid-back delivery of some pretty funny lyrics, “Hot Rod Lincoln” deserved to be a hit, and it was, reaching #26 on the Billboard singles charts.

The picking is done by Joe Maphis, a country veteran of classic pedigree who finds time to put in some hot slapback-echo riffs while Bond gets through an incredible amount of words in less than three minutes.

It’s not surprising that the song had its biggest success on the west coast, as it was recorded, released, and referenced greater Los Angeles. But “Hot Rod Lincoln” was also top 20 in Chicago, Minneapolis, Toronto, Denver, Boston, Houston, and Philadelphia.

A lot of you may have grown up hearing “Hot Rod Lincoln” as done in 1972 by Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. I dig that version a lot. But this one, to me, is even more off the rails, both over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

And if you’re lucky enough to find the Johnny Bond 45, there’s the great “Five Minute Romance” on the flip side, too.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Song A Day: Lazy Smoke, "Under Skys"

MAY 28, 2017



Lazy Smoke, a rock quartet from Massachusetts, recorded only one album, 1969’s Corridor of Faces. The band disappeared immediately into the mist of time and was only rediscovered by record collectors in the 1980s.

Luckily for us, their album has been legitimately re-released both on vinyl and CD.

The band began cutting its record in 1968 at a studio in Methuen, MA, a midsize town on the New Hampshire border. Lead singer and songwriter John Pollano chose to combine electric and unplugged textures in realizing his songs, bringing in contemporary influences as diverse as acoustic folk and Steppenwolf.

The discerning listener to some of Corridor of Faces’ quieter tracks may hear similarities to some of John Lennon’s ‘White Album’ material. Interestingly, Lazy Smoke recorded those tracks months before The Beatles was released.

Despite being a “rock album,” C of F feels hazy, dazed, and lazy. The acoustic numbers are appropriately pastoral, with gentle guitar textures and beguiling melodies that flow effortlessly despite odd shifts in key and tempo. Even the rockers on Corridor of Faces come complete with melancholy lyrics of lost love, thoughts of escape, and nostalgia for better times.

So why isn’t Lazy Smoke on your local “deep tracks” radio show, or netting a big review when their album was re-issued?

Lazy Smoke were a local group with a minuscule following that had its only album released on a tiny label. And nobody at Rolling Stone or SiriusXM—which exist because of the advertising and support of large conglomerates—is going to get excited about a small band on a tiny label that the mainstream missed. Much of the contemporary interpretation of 1960s culture, in fact, is based on the very idea that what was a hit then was the only music that mattered.

The bass playing is rudimentary on several songs, as bassist Bob Dorr was in the process of leaving the group; Lazy Smoke, in fact, were no more by the time the record was finally issued in 1969. But the somewhat tentative four-string work only adds, in my mind, to the LP’s homemade, moment-in-time quality.

Despite the album’s small recording budget, interesting sounds abound, from backward guitars and cymbals to surprising fillips of flute and electric piano. Producer/engineer Pat Costa, who had a long career in Boston-area studios, did a fine job.

Lazy Smoke gets some shade for being derivative. John Pollano has been ripped for singing with an English affectation, and the album undoubtedly has Beatles influence, but such sins are rarely held against other Anglophilic U.S. critical favorites such as The Merry-Go-Round and The Left Banke. And if you want to complain about bands following in the Beatles’ footsteps, you’ll have to call out virtually every rock act after 1963.

As to the idea that Lazy Smoke don’t have enough good songs, I call shenanigans. Unlike some other obscure, high-priced rarities of the era that earned their reputations on one or two good songs, Corridor of Faces has, to these ears, eight solid tracks of ten, only “How Did You Die?” and “Salty People” falling short. Eight of ten is a pretty strong ratio for any album, especially one produced on a shoestring budget.

I’ll say one thing: Corridor of Faces is better than what a lot of classic-rock favorites released in 1969. If you want me to name names, how about The Byrds, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and Bob Dylan?

Enough! The track featured here, “Under Skys,” is among the best on the LP. It commemorates the very moment that a relationship is ending, the lyrics consisting of images already embedded in the singer’s mind. But lead guitarist Ralph Mazzota, who co-wrote the track, adds a booming, psychedelic solo—recorded in the studio while the rest of the band actually played outdoors—gives an edge of aggression to the otherwise bucolic, heartbreaking proceedings. And the drumming by Ray Charron is spot-on.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Song A Day: Nouvelle Vague, "This is Not a Love Song (Thievery Corporation Remix)"

MAY 27, 2017




When you get right down to it, nothing seems weird anymore. Especially not an abrasive 1983 postpunk song by Public Image Ltd. being covered by a French bossa nova ensemble in 2004 then remixed two years later by a pair of Washington, D.C. DJs into a trippy drone with Indian sitar, tanpura, and tabla.

John Lydon’s aggressive, defiant “This is Not a Love Song,” a refusal to remain poor while music industry money floats around him, was reimagined two decades later by Nouvelle Vague into a slinky declaration of self-control and power. But this isn’t a case of simply replacing PiL’s “difficult” sounds with something more “smooth”; singer Melanie Pain (one of several vocalists NV used) purposely pitched her vocals flat in the best Brazilian tradition.

When looped, lengthened, and dipped into a languid, liquid new setting in 2006 by Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, the already discombobulated track lost even more of its original intent, floating freer of context and more into the realm of pure, shimmering, enveloping sound.

Over the years, Thievery Corporation has proven itself outstanding at two things: compiling tracks from various artists (an ability best heard on DJ Kicks and The Outernational Sound) and remixing others’ material.

The CD Versions, a terrific example of the second skill, recontextualizes artists as disparate as The Doors, Bebel Gilberto, Herb Alpert, Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, and Ben Folds using funk, downtempo, and lounge beats, odd samples, and Indian, Brazilian, and Jamaican settings. “This is Not a Love Song” is the most audacious of these remixes, but not the only great one.