“A Song for You,” Donny Hathaway

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As with many other songs, radio d.j. Vin Scelsa introduced me to this some suburban weeknight many years ago while I sat in my basement probably writing a short story or love letter fiddling with the radio to pick up WNEW from New York with the least amount of static. That was the original Leon Russell version; Leon also wrote the song around 1970. (RIP Leon 2016; I saw him do a few songs with Elton John at the Talking Clock Revue show around 2010. He was, let’s say, wooden.)

The original is great but this cover version is better. It feels like it has more risk than Leon’s, more vulnerability. When Leon sings through the character in the song, a rock star who has treated his lover badly but is now going to make it all up to her by pulling out his trusty guitar and singing her a song, there’s something overdetermined about how successful he’ll be. This song would melt anyone into a puddle, and Leon seems aware of that going in. Perhaps he’s even used the same move on other, past lovers who he treated badly.

In Donny’s version you hear pride and the self-aggrandizement in the lyrics (“While you’re considering whether to forgive me don’t forget to factor in that tens of thousands of other people love me”) but also something pleading. It feels like an interaction, not a performance. The voice is pure, the piano glissandos beautiful, the pace slow but it’s a bit of a cover for how hard he’s trying, for how much he knows this matters.

I mean, it’s still a bit overdetermined–you know no one’s going to be able to resist that voice–but Donny manages to convince you he doesn’t know.

Donny Hathaway is a bit of a tragic figure: he had a few solo songs that still get played, neither of which I’m a big fan of (“This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free”) and then a few hits with Roberta Flack that I do enjoy, especially “Where Is the Love.” (Fun fact: they met as undergraduates at Howard University.) He was diagnosed in the early seventies with paranoid schizophrenia and heavily medicated off and on, the “off” mostly due to his own neglect. He committed suicide in 1979 by jumping from a hotel balcony. Jesse Jackson presided over his funeral.

Anyway, this song, in either Leon’s or Donny’s or even Andy Williams’s version: guaranteed to quiet a room. That moment at the end when the voice comes back in after the piano solo, “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time”? Sublime.

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2017 Favorites

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Superlatives:

Happiest Song of the Year: “Molotov,” Jason Isbell. “If We Were Vampires” is the song I probably played most this year (it’s amazing) but this one from late in the album (one of the few albums I bought!) is a guaranteed smile-bringer. I like that they are still together at the end, I didn’t catch that the first few times I listened when I thought it was another “my high school girlfriend was so cool” exercise in nostalgia. F%$% nostalgia! (Mostly.)

Saddest Song of the Year: “Wandering Boy,” Randy Newman. Kills me every time. Perhaps I am reading too much into it.

Hey, I Recognize That Guy! Song of the Year: “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” Elvis Costello. The first Costello song I’ve wanted to play over and over since, since, since…um, maybe “Still” from 2003? Maybe he should give up rock and roll like he’s been threatening since the early 90’s and just do lounge-y MOR stuff. (What he should NEVER do again are cover versions slowed to dirge tempos to show off his “vocal chops.” Only works on his own stuff.)

Gorgeous New Voices of the Year: Joan Shelley, Molly Burch, Jade Jackson. I’d throw in Annie Clark (St. Vincent) but I’d heard a few of her songs previously…though nothing as drop-dead pretty as “New York.” (Special shoutout to including a “motherfucker” in there so it doesn’t get too pretty.)

Song That I Have No Idea What It’s About But Still Love of the Year: “Hustle Unlimited,” Lambchop. I am a lyrics guy, but I’ve never bothered to listen to the lyrics on this one. Will someday. For now, just like the groove.

Disk 1

  1. Jackpot, Nikki Lane
  2. Molotov, Jason Isbell
  3. In Undertow, Alvvays
  4. Sparks Fly, Waxahatchee
  5. Painted Yellow Lines, Dispatch
  6. Revolution, Van William featuring First Aid Kit
  7. She’s About to Cross My Mind, Red Button
  8. Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me, Ron Gallo
  9. Westermarck, Charly Bliss
  10. Out Worn, Soccer Mommy
  11. The Hustle Unlimited, Lambchop
  12. What’s That Perfume You Wear, Jens Lekman
  13. New York, St. Vincent
  14. You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way, Elvis Costello
  15. Leaving LA, Father John Misty

Disk 2

  1. Soulfire, Little Steven
  2. Hungry Ghost, Hurray for the Riff Raff
  3. Everything is Magical, Jeremy Messersmith
  4. Sleeping By Myself, Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge
  5. Darling, Real Estate
  6. The Push and Pull, Joan Shelley
  7. Postcard from Paris, Glen Campbell
  8. Downhearted, Molly Burch
  9. Reckless, Rodney Crowell
  10. If We Were Vampires, Jason Isbell
  11. No Guarantees, Jade Jackson
  12. Wandering Boy, Randy Newman
  13. I’ll Be Your Pilot, Belle and Sebastian

Missed Songs

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This will be my 25th anniversary of putting together a compilation (first on cassette, then on CD, it’s just a matter of time before it’s digital) of my favorite songs of the year. To mark the occasion I put together another compilation, of songs I failed to include the first time around and should have: my missed songs.

Some of these I missed because I never heard them the first time around, and some because I heard them too much. In the second category I’d put some songs I considered too slick and radio-omnipresent: why would I put something on my faves CD I already felt like I’d heard too much? (I call this the “Graceland” effect because there was a year-long period when that Paul Simon album was playing at every party and restaurant I went to…I knew it was great but I never got around to buying it because I heard it so much.) But now I turn up the radio whenever I hear these songs, like “Do You Realize?” by Flaming Lips, “Yellow” by Coldplay, “How to Save a Life” by The Fray, and “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol.

Similar omissions were the result of pure snobbiness: “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Wonderwall” by Oasis. I justified not including these by saying they would stick out from the indie rock and Americana that dominates my faves, but this was a bad justification since they are great songs that again I turn up whenever they come on.

In the first category, of stuff I just didn’t hear, I’d put: “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead, “Waltz #2” by Elliot Smith, “7 Nation Army” by the White Stripes, “Book of Love” by Magnetic Fields. I probably read about these bands at the time and for one reason or another decided they weren’t for me.(Remember this was before you could hear every song ever recorded with a few taps on a screen…you actually had to go to a record store and lay down your money.) Radiohead I came to through folk music cover versions I mostly heard on the Emerson College radio station, WERS. The Magnetic Fields song I also first heard in a cover version, Peter Gabriel’s, which they played on a “Scrubs” episode. The White Stripes I finally caught up with on a plane trip where the “Elephant” album was a in-flight entertainment selection.

Other songs I didn’t hear at the time I included because when I did hear them, randomly years later, they hit me emotionally, choked me up: “Love Story” by Taylor Swift, “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, “Jesus Etc.” by Wilco, “The Story” by Brandi Carlisle, “Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon. I’m almost glad I didn’t hear them until the moment when they would land so hard.

Some songs I can thank my son for, and offer gratitude for his musical journey from gangster rap enthusiast to musical omnivore. Among the songs I first heard blasting from his bedroom or the bathroom while he showered: “Common People” by Pulp, “Glad Girls” by Guided by Voices, “Redbone” by Childish Gambino. I don’t think he first played me “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens and “This Year” by the Mountain Goats, but I don’t think I appreciated them as much until after he did. I liked that these were songs he liked.

And then there are the songs that I did hear and inexplicably failed to appreciate, the “what the hell was I thinking?” songs: “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley, “Orphan Girl” by Gillian Welch, “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes.

There are a few more. Here’s the full list of 28; see you in 25 years for the next edition!

Anthem, Leonard Cohen (1992)
Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley (1994)
Wonderwall, Oasis (1995)
Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead (1995)
Common People, Pulp (1995)
Orphan Girl, Gillian Welch (1996)
Waltz #2, Elliott Smith (1998)
I Want It That Way, Backstreet Boys (1998)
Book of Love, Magnetic Fields (1999)
Yellow, Coldplay (2000)
New Slang, Shins (2001)
Glad Girls, Guided by Voices (2001)
Do You Realize, Flaming Lips (2002)
Jesus, Etc., Wilco (2002)
7 Nation Army, White Stripes (2003)
Keep Me in Your Heart, Warren Zevon (2003)
Chicago, Sufjan Stevens (2005)
How To Save a Life, The Fray (2005)
This Year, The Mountain Goats (2005)
You Give Me Something, James Morrison (2006)
Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol (2006)
The Story, Brandi Carlisle (2007)
Love Story, Taylor Swift (2008)
White Winter Hymnal, Fleet Foxes (2008)
Sequestered in Memphis, Hold Steady (2008)
Dog Days Are Over, Florence + the Machine (2009)
Bad Romance, Lady Gaga (2009)
Redbone, Childish Gambino (2016)

“Grateful for Christmas,” Hayes Carll

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It probably doesn’t go this way for everyone, but for enough people that it’s good someone wrote a song about it.

Those early Christmases when you’re a kid and there are so many people around, the cousins and aunts and uncles, a meal that seems to magically appear because who goes near the kitchen when your Uncle Ed is teaching you to play cribbage and your cousin Leslie is explaining why she rubs vaseline on her troll dolls? The thrown-together-at-the-last-minute Christmases when you’re in your twenties, you had other plans but your Mom calls and says you need to be there, it’s important to your father, and so you show up and plaster a smile on your face and indulge in sad thoughts about death and divorce and how you’d be having so much better a time with your girlfriend’s family. Then the Christmases when you’re north of 35 and hardly anyone is left, your Mom and a spouse if you’re lucky, and usually you’re someplace way too warm for December and sometime early afternoon you put on the news channel so there’s something to talk about and later you eat a Honey Baked Ham and exercise as much self-control as you can muster not to think sad thoughts because that’s a bottomless pit right there.

And you know what? You’re grateful every time, or should be. At least there’s someone around who remembers when everyone was around. And trees, lights, presents: even diminished they are something. We all need a pause to remember that every moment contains every other moment, to reflect on where we find ourselves.

I remember such moments of stillness from past Christmases: driving home dead-tired from a party, at 2 AM exchanging presents with my wife because we decided gifts on Christmas Eve would be our way of asserting ourselves over the family obligations that took up the rest of the holiday (we changed our mind because it was kind of stupid), turning off the Christmas lights last thing at night in an otherwise dark house. One year I made up a story about meeting Santa that reduced my son to astonished silence, and another year he whispered “He came!” under his breath upon seeing the gifts under the tree Christmas morning.

I loved Hayes’s album “Trouble in Mind” (check out “Beaumont”) and liked “KMAG YOYO,” which is where this song appears. His latest overly-morose effort, “Lovers and Leavers,” didn’t do much for me but I am already on record about my feelings about self-proclaimed divorce albums. I heard Hayes had a verbal feud going on with Steve Earle because he’d been dating Steve’s ex-wife. Long-held resentments and complicated family dynamics is another thing that Christmas provides an opportunity to be reflective about.

Happy holidays to everyone anyway! And try not to forget to be grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Seasons Can Turn On a Dime

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Every three or four years I become re-obsessed with the Tom Waits song “Broken Bicycles.” It made no impression on me when I first heard it during the movie it was written for, “One from the Heart,” (boring!). But later on a transatlantic flight one of the featured albums was that soundtrack and I must have listened to the song five times in a row. I’ve done the same thing a few times since and did it again yesterday: the foggy middle of the night feel of the melody, the conversational vocal (in my mind as close as Tom got to Frank Sinatra, in feel if not quality), and especially the devastating last few lines, when you find out what this guy musing about broken bicycles laid out on his lawn like skeletons really has on his mind:

The seasons can turn on dime
Somehow I forget every time
These things you’ve given me, they always will stay
They’re broken, but I’ll never throw them away…

Here in Boston the season turned on a dime last night: yesterday it was seventy degrees and this morning it’s barely scratching forty. Winter is in the air and the clocks turn back tomorrow and those first few days when it turns dark at 4 and you’re still sitting at a desk in an office are always depressing. “Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast,” Bob Dylan said and the changing seasons and approaching holidays and “Broken Bicycles” made me think of that line again and about how I almost used it as my quote in my high school yearbook. I’m glad I didn’t, so pretentious and what did I know about time at 18? A little, I guess.

Some other things that changing seasons and “Broken Bicycles” made me think about: a short film a girl on my hall in college made of her parents lipsyncing to the “Fiddler on the Roof” song “Turnaround.” Cringe-y but I remember also finding myself a little choked up. What did I know about time at 21? Enough, apparently. Also that Donald Hall poem about how men at forty learn to close softly the doors to rooms they know they won’t be coming back to. That didn’t kick in for me until later but I definitely feel myself doing it these days, a pause for a few last lingering looks, though not always sadly.

When one door closes, another door opens. Or, as I saw on tea towel while trying to start my Christmas shopping the other day, when one door closes, talk shit about it. Seasons change and so do we. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but hey, what do I know about time anyway?

Tom Petty R.I.P.

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Trigger warning: less than fulsome praise for the recently-deceased contained below.

It’s not I’m not saddened by Tom’s passing, and the suddenness of it. Cardiac arrest days after concluding a wildly successful world tour is admittedly a totally rock and roll way to go for a guy who had a Springsteen-esque belief in the mystic power of rock and roll (Tom’s may have predated Bruce’s) but it is still cardiac arrest and 66 is way too young. He had two wives, three kids, bandmates he managed to stay close to for over 40 years, plus more rabid fans than I’d have anticipated. He deserved a reposeful old age producing records for less-successful artists he admired and overseeing a box set and coffee table book. I offer my condolences and join those family, fans, and bandmates all in a full-throated singalong to the chorus of “Free Falling” in tribute and appreciation.

My problem is that I never liked “Free Falling” very much, nor really anything Tom did after “Damn the Torpedoes” except “The Waiting” (which was supposed to be on “Damn the Torpedos” anyway). I heard the songs on the radio, sometimes they were fun (“Stop Dragging My Heart Around”) and sometimes annoying (“Don’t Come Around Here Anymore”) but mostly they landed on me with a shrug, okay, here’s another Tom Petty song that sounds like a lot of others (“Learning to Fly,” “Great Wide Open,” etc.) I bought “Wildflowers” based on early reviews, listened to it a few times through, shrugged, and ended up giving it away to Morgan Memorial during the music purge phase of my last move.

“Damn the Torpedoes” though: so many college evenings with it playing in the background! So many drunken singalongs to it with my high school friends during the summer of 1980! Ah, okay, side two trails off a little but the snarl of “Refugee”! The marble-mouthed-verse-ecstatic-release-chorus of “Here Comes My Girl”! The dumb fun bounce of “Don’t Do Me Like That” and (a personal favorite) the guy in “Even the Losers” trying to restore his pride after a shattering break-up, howling words to an empty street he wishes he was saying to his absent lover!

When you fall so hard for something, and then the artist (in your mind) never lives up to it again: there’s a disappointment there. Clearly not Tom’s fault, as shown by those rabid fans mentioned above, for whom the newer stuff must have connected in a way it didn’t with me.

Still love Tom for “Damn the Torpedoes,” and will still feel sad the next time (next 200 times) “Free Falling” comes on the radio. Even when the material was weak the guy knew how to make it sound great on the radio. Track down if you can a live concert on Wolfgang’s Vault of Tom and the Heartbreakers playing the Paradise in Boston in Fall of 1979, just before “Torpedoes’ was released. Magic.