Wednesday, November 15, 2017

All The Fixings: Pecan Pie



Golden Smog: Pecan Pie
[purchase]

Getting older mostly sucks. I’m sore, I take medication, I have to watch my diet, and on and on (actually, I just can’t remember everything about getting old that sucks). One good thing, though, is that I now enjoy foods that I never thought that I would like when I was younger. So, hello, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, nuts of all kinds, beets, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, and yogurt. Sorry, broccoli and seafood, I’m still not there (notwithstanding the one oyster I gulped down at Husk in Nashville, a restaurant everyone should try to go to), and I don’t expect that to change.

Pecan pie always looked kind of gross to me. You had these huge nuts that looked like tiny brown brains entombed in some sort of sticky goo. Usually, it was easy to walk right past it to something with chocolate, lots of chocolate. Because chocolate is what desserts are supposed to be. I’m not sure when my opinion changed, but it turns out that pecan pie is not just good, it is amazing. Sweet, smoky and what turns out to be the perfect ratio of goo to crunch. And sometimes there’s bourbon in it. And sometimes there’s chocolate. And sometimes there are both bourbon and chocolate.

The song “Pecan Pie,” is by Golden Smog, the so-called alt-country supergroup that I have written about at length here, and there, so I won’t repeat myself. It was written by Jeff Tweedy, and was originally rejected from Wilco’s first album. Unlike some of the other songs on Golden Smog’s debut, Down By The Old Mainstream, which rock, “Pecan Pie” is more folky and stripped down, with acoustic guitars and mandolins. I’ve seen it described as being about dessert and longing, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. At the end of this goofy performance at a high school benefit in 2013(!) you can hear Tweedy, a pretty fair songwriter, remark that it is the best song that he has ever written, although you can’t always take him seriously. Nevertheless, he has been known to play it at both Wilco and solo shows (sometimes with Golden Smog friends), so clearly, he enjoys it.

Thanksgiving is a great holiday, at least for me, who was lucky enough to grow up in a family that got along. (And were, and still are, all politically pretty close in our beliefs, mostly preventing fights at the table.) In fact, when I was a kid, I lived up the street from my aunt (my mother’s sister) and uncle, and my uncle’s brother’s family also lived in the neighborhood. There were 9 kids, and all of us considered (and still consider) ourselves cousins, even though that wasn’t completely true. We would have huge Thanksgivings, with the three families, plus grandparents, and I can’t remember ever having any real stress.

Of course, over time, Thanksgiving morphs. People move, grow up, marry, divorce and die, changing the dynamic. I remember having to alternate spending Thanksgiving with my parents or my wife’s family, which then merged into a single affair, now at our house. My son has started to alternate years with his fiancée’s family, and a divorce has forced a nephew and niece to only be available every other year. My daughter lives in Spain, and last year was the first Thanksgiving without my father. And this year, my in-laws are not coming, because my father-in-law finds the travel too difficult (so we are bringing them leftovers on Friday). So, it will be a small-ish group getting together next Thursday, for good food, drinks and conversation.

My wife will be making a chocolate pecan pie. All will be good with the world.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

All the Fixings: Let’s Turkey Trot

Little Eva: Let’s Turkey Trot

[purchase]

Ian & the Zodiacs: Let’s Turkey Trot

[purchase]

Back in the days when I moderated here, I would have defined our new theme as “All the Fixings: post songs about items on the table at Thanksgiving.” So we might get songs about cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie before we are done, but the meal centers around the turkey, so that must be our starting point as well. I will be looking for the ultimate version of Turkey in the Straw for this theme, unless someone else beats me to it, but let’s begin with a look at the state of the music industry in 1963.

It would prove to be a year of major upheaval. Four lads from Liverpool would come to the United States, and begin to change the sound of popular music forever. But the year began innocently enough. In February, Little Eva released her third single, Let’s Turkey Trot. Like The Locomotion, it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Little Eva got her start by babysitting for the couple, and they thanked her when they heard her voice by writing hits for her. Like The Locomotion, Let’s Turkey Trot was an attempt to launch a dance craze, but that part never happened. The Turkey Trot was a real dance, and, as Little Eva sings, it would have been danced by Little Eva’s grandparents, to ragtime music. The dance was briefly popular in the years leading up to and through World War I, but it was considered risqué. There was eventually a church led campaign to wipe it out, and the fox trot wound up being both more acceptable and more enduring. So I am not sure why Goffin and King thought the turkey trot should live again, but the British invasion halted that idea. Let’s Turkey Trot reached # 20 on the charts, but that was a disappointment after Little Eva’s earlier success.

The song was popular enough to inspire cover versions, however. Jan and Dean’s version was not one of their better moments. But the cover by Ian & the Zodiacs has something to tell us about pop music in 1963.The band was as talented as many of the merseybeat bands who followed in the wake of the Beatles, but they never caught on, except in Germany. One problem was that they were never able to get green cards to perform in the United States, which kept them from gaining traction here. They also may have been hurt by the fact that most of their material consisted of covers. Still, the Beatles did plenty of covers of American hits in the beginning, so I offer this version of Let’s Turkey Trot as a glimpse of what the song might have sounded like if the Beatles had covered it.

Finally, I wondered what the dance itself looked like. For the answer, I had to dig up this clip fromNCIS:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Train: Silver Train

Purchase Silver Train: The Rolling Stones  or Johnny Winter


Goat's Head Soup, by the Rolling Stones, came out in 1973 and marks the next to last entry into what I believe is one of the great artistic and creative runs by any band, ever.

This string of greatness started in 1968 with Beggar's Banquet, wherein the band left behind the psychedelic niceties of the Flower Power era and emerged from that silliness as full fledged rock n roll roughnecks, carrying on switchblade sharp and full of  ballsy, cock-sure swagger on their next five albums. Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Goat's Head Soup gave way to the  glorious finale, It's Only Rock 'n Roll. The Stones cemented greatness with these albums; aspirations of pure genius, despite, or perhaps because of, the chaos in the world around them. Their reactions to the madness of the Viet Nam era, their own bad habits and the darkness they sought out through their own arcane desires and misguided investments into the under world of substance abuse--all of it comes out in these albums. And the legends, even if it's only that--legends--make the accomplishment of these albums even more astounding. Lesser mortals would have faded long before approaching anything quite as grand as the Stone's '68 to '74 run.

To have produced such greatness, so many amazing rock songs, sounds and words that were iconic almost as soon as they were pressed to vinyl and will remain so, for as long as rock 'n roll is rock 'n roll? It's amazing, akin to the New Testament of the Bible of Rock. Prophetic and significant, timely and vital still. Fresh blood still runs in the grooves of these albums and will continue to be an influence on music in perpetuity.

One of my favorite tracks off Goat's Head Soup is the 6th track, "Silver Train". It's almost an afterthought, after an opening set of five utterly iconic songs ("Dancing with Mr. D", "100 Years Ago", "Coming Down Again", "Heartbreaker", and "Angie").  It's a guitar boogie, with a harmonica/train whistle warning sounding throughout, as if telling you to get off the tracks. The guitars chug and slide, playing havoc off one another, but it's Ian Stewart's piano, building from a rhythm check into something that threatens to derail the whole song into a beautiful chaotic wreck that moves this track at such a fevered pace.

In researching the song, I didn't realize that the title was a reference to Johnny Winter, the albino guitar king, who, after hearing a demo of the Stone's version, recorded "Silver Train" himself and released it on Still Alive and Well. His version came out just a few months prior to the Stones', and it is pure jam, too.  Johnny Winter is best known for "Rock n Roll, Hoochie Koo", which is really kind of nuts, when you listen to what he did on the guitar and hear how hot he could light up a fret board. Too bad his genius is often relegated to getting lazy football fans our of their seats on game day...



I give you both versions today. I've had my acoustic in Open G for a few weeks now, working hard at learning "Tumblin' Dice" (off Exile), but I'm going to give "Silver Train" a go, as well. Nothing better than learning from the best...


Friday, November 10, 2017

TRAIN: LAST TRAIN TO LHASA/BANCO DE GAIA

I was slow to get on the techno train, electronica/dance a difficult ask of my guitar shaped ears. Half the battle was getting my head around the genres, so many and various seem the sub-stations, from techno to dubstep, deep house to psy-ambient, slimewilt to naughtystep, I just get bogged down in the detail. But it seems there isn't much ever explored on this site, perhaps a giveaway to our ages, or maybe the still lingering lip-service to not including anything too recent, as was the unwritten rule in the downloadable mp3 days of blogging. But the truth is that I love much of it and have taken it and all it's labels I don't understand to my heart, even if the only dancing I do is in the car, whilst driving.


This guy, Banco, or Toby Marks to give him his given, is one of my favourites, ploughing his furrow of world music sample-based soundscapes for some, gulp, near 30 years. His amalgam of afro and reggae, middle-eastern and pan-european folk musics, underpinned and over layered by dense percussion and dubby bass-lines, never fails to lift me. In a truth I find extraordinary, but maybe unsurprisingly, and like so many in electronic dance music, he started his musical odyssey in a heavy metal band, as the drummer. Then, following a move to Portugal: Banco de Gaia is portuguese for Gaia's bank, Gaia being the earth mother and personification of all life in greek mythology, he invested in a digital sampler, just as the rave culture was sweeping mainland europe, having been swept out of his homeland by police crackdown and legislature. The track I have featured here is from an early release, remaining his best known piece of music, subject to numerous remixes and revisions in the intervening years. The rhythm is unmistakably and intrinsically that of a train, carried along with a panoply of Tibetan sounds. Or Tibetan sounding sounds. It was a 1995 UK independent album chart topper and has found it's way onto innumerable compilations of both straight world music and dance music ever since.

Marks has continued to produce music, usually self-produced and released on his own label, a true cottage industry. He has also toured solidly, both as a DJ with decks and, more recently, as a live band. I was lucky enough to catch him in that former guise at Bearded Theory music festival last spring. And terrific it was, I still having no idea "how" he, or any other musician reliant on computers and decks does it, fitting it all together so seamlessly and seismically intricate. Detractors say it is cheating, all pre-recorded ersatz spontaneity, but it so isn't, lacking only an explanation of how I can know that. (If you are a detractor, go bite on your prejudice and experience it in a live setting. You may even become converted.)

Have some live, the same tune, by the band:


Explore!

Train: Talking Vietnam

[purchase]

Our fearless leader made it clear when announcing this theme that we should consider all of the meanings of the word “train” when posting. I’m always game to try jumping the tracks, so I wanted to write about something other than a mode of transportation before this theme left the station. Now, I know that they say that people don’t want to know how the sausage gets made, but here are some behind the scenes secrets about how I (and I suspect most of the writers here) approach a theme. First, you hope that something jumps out at you immediately. Failing that, you pore over your music collection hoping for inspiration. Finally, there are sites that allow you to search for words in song lyrics. That’s how I decided to write about Phil Ochs’ “Talking Vietnam.”

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War recently, and I’m still in the relatively early years of the conflict—at the point that the United States is poised to go all in, and send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight a war that most of the American leadership privately believed was unwinnable. So, writing about a song about the war made sense. I also wrote my senior thesis back in the Stone Age about television’s coverage of the war, so it is something that has interested me for years. I was almost 14 when Saigon fell, and was against the war, but was just a few years too young to really have remembered the details of the fighting or the protests. But by the time the US involvement ended, I was certainly aware of what was going on. Another thing about writing these posts is that I do research.

Turns out, Ochs’ “Talking Vietnam” is considered to be the very first protest song that specifically mentioned Vietnam. It was released in 1964—months before the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was probably the first time that a significant number of Americans found out that our country had been involved in that obscure, far away country for years.  In fact, a slightly different set of lyrics to the song were published in Broadside's September 20, 1963 issue! So, it is pretty remarkable that Ochs was already so pissed off, and so well informed, that he could write such a powerful, detailed protest song.

The first stanza of the song is:

Sailing over to Vietnam, 
Southeast Asian Birmingham. 
Well training is the word we use, 
Nice word to have in case we lose. 
Training a million Vietnamese 
To fight for the wrong government and the American Way. 

Ochs recognized that while at that point, the American mission was officially “training,” in a war, trainers by necessity fight alongside their trainees. In 1964, Ochs also already recognized something that took our leadership years to understand—if they ever did—that the South Vietnamese government wasn’t at that time, or ever, one that in any way inspired its people. And while the failure of the war was, of course, caused by many different things, I think that there is a fair argument that the lack of a government in the south that had the loyalty of its people was the root cause that doomed anything that was tried.

Stanza three:

Well the sergeant said it's time to train 
So I climbed aboard my helicopter plane. 
We flew above the battle ground 
A sniper tried to shoot us down. 
He must have forgotten, we're only trainees. 
Them Commies never fight fair. 

Again, Ochs points out the disingenuousness of the position that the American soldiers were there (at that point) for training, not combat.

The final mention of training is in the next stanza:

Friends the very next day we trained some more 
We burned some villages down to the floor. 
Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide, 
Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide. 
Threw all the people in relocation camps, 
Under lock and key, made damn sure they're free.

Again, Ochs is somewhat prescient, referring to soldiers burning villages. Clearly, this was not unknown, but it wasn’t until 1965 that Morley Safer’s report on CBS showing this actually occurring became a sensation. Of course, American troops remained for another decade.

As a student of history, I believe that the world today is affected by the past. I’ve written here and elsewhere about how this country is still dealing with issues from the Civil War, and how the whole world is still affected by World War I. I also think that you can draw direct lines from the Vietnam War era to problems that we are facing today.  Remarkably, Phil Ochs seemed to see it coming before almost anyone else.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Train: Train in Vain


The Clash: Train in Vain
[purchase]
Back when the original wave of punk rock was hitting the US, I took to saying that punk would die off when the musicians learned to play their instruments. I was not completely right. Bands like the Sex Pistols literally died off when members succumbed to drugs. There were also those who stubbornly stayed with the style long after they were capable of more, and their music began to sound less and less authentic. But when I was right, we got vital and amazing music from people like Johnny Lydon, and we eventually got two tone ska. And we got the best of The Clash. The Clash never lost their rebelliousness, continuing to make the music they wanted to, and in complete disregard to market dictates. Their monster hit with Rock the Casbah was taken by some as a sell out, but I view it more as the marketplace catching up to them than the other way around. Before that happened, however, there was Train in Vain. The song comes from the album London Calling, which has many of the band’s best songs of political and social criticism. But Train in Vain has a classic theme for its subject: a relationship gone wrong. In the hands of The Clash, the song was propulsive rock, and very powerful. But there were other ways to hear it.

Annie Lennox: Train in Vain
[purchase]
Annie Lennox heard classic R&B. Her version became one of her biggest songs as a solo artist. It reveals a singer with legitimate chops as a soul shouter. She displays a grit here that was never a part of her vocal style with the Eurythmics, although their late rock experiments hint at it. This arrangement has a synth horn section that is little more than an idea, gone almost as soon as it appears. I would love to hear an old school R&B version that uses a live horn section all the way through the song.

Dwight Yoakam: Train in Vain
[purchase]
You could say that Dwight Yoakam brought a punk sensibility to country music when he debuted. He has always delivered high energy performances on his albums. Here, he blends his Bakersfield-inspired sound with bluegrass, to great effect. Now, Train in Vain has banjo and mandolin solos, and it all works beautifully.

Smocking Flamingo: Train in Vain
[purchase]
It was to be expected that there would be at least one Jamaican version of Train in Vain. The Clash, as they branched out from punk, were inspired by both ska and reggae, and their work in these genres was almost certainly a major inspiration for the two tone ska movement. Smocking Flamingo is a reggae and ska instrumental jam band, and the song suits them perfectly.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Train: Train of Angels/ JoeSatriani



Joe Satriani's Train of Angels has the driving force of trains.
It has the driving force of Satriani's guitar style.

The Internet [world] agrees: Satriani is more or less immediately recognizable, Having heard him once, most every one can identify him when then hear him again. his web site says he's " the most recognizable guitar voice of his time". Maybe so.

I am always in search of music that is legally free. I equally follow sites that legally publish media that may not be advertised as free - but, because of the vagaries of the rules governing "free", end up being legally free. As a result, I was surprised [and impressed] to find the above link to some of Satriani's works available for free online.

There are several other bands who embrace [some form of] free distribution of their work. [I've hit on the Grateful Dead again and again here], but each new discovery makes me feel better. I likewise share mine - but I do covers, and that's nowhere near the same as giving away originals.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

TRAIN: DOWNTOWN TRAIN/ROD STEWART

WhaaaaatTF? Surely a serious muso (sic) site like this wouldn't mess up so big time as the above heading? Rod bloody Stewart, fer chrissake... But hang on, hold that thought for a moment. And of course I know it isn't the original, but, whisper, it's better, an unpopular viewpoint, but still mine. Plus  it came at a time when there was still, just, a smidgeon of credibility in the Stewart cache. I think it initially appeared as a new song on the 'Greatest Hits' compilation of 1989, one of the first CDs I ever bought. A massive worldwide hit as a single, it probably introduced the name of its writer, Tom Waits, to many and certainly then to me. Like many, I then sourced the original, finding Waits' voice a step too far for my sensibilities, a situation that remains to this day, no matter how hard I have tried. But Stewart glides his rasp effortlessly through the sweeping chorus, deservedly winning the Grammy for best male vocalist that year, the richly layered backing pepped by Stewart's one-time boss, in his eponymous group, Jeff Beck on slide guitar.



So what is it with Stewart, a man whose music I had earlier loved, both with the Faces and alone? If 'Greatest Hits' was one of my first CD purchases, 'Sing It Again, Rod' had been one of my first on vinyl. My generation had been endeared of his boozy and shambolic persona, with the uncanny knack of both having a way with his own words and music, and being able to pick plum covers. The rot had seemed to set in with his transatlantic crossing, SWIDT, to be with Britt Ekland. As ever is the way, the fickle british uber-fans took umbrage with his fame and fortune and left him to their wives and girlfriends to enjoy, whose patronage lingers to this day, as my elder sister can testify. The odd gem could still be cherry-picked from his catalogue: the boy could still know a good song when he heard one, although that tolerance became ever more strained by his discovery of the great american songbook. Was he the first rocker to plough this lucrative furrow? Though I doubt we would have been spared Mr Dylans's forays into similar territory, I can think of many who might not have had that thought had Stewart, or his bank-manager, not had that thought first. ( I lie awake in dread of the forthcoming Seal tux'n'tapdancing travesty 'Standards.')

So, too, what is it with Waits, a supremely talented songwriter, whose songs, when covered by other voices, I adore? Am I alone in finding his corncrake throat-clearing anaethema? I sometimes think I must be, my friends and peers all seemingly in awe of him and his deranged Charlie Chaplin meets Charles Bukowski image, with his musical arrangements more of the foundry than the footlights. Or do I troll? (No, which is why I also include, for balance, or proof as I call it, his version of 'Downtown Train' below, with a couple more to take away the taste.)


Everything But The Girl


and Mary Chapin Carpenter



Get some versions here.
Me? I'm heading back under my bridge.