Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I heard a handful of great songs in a row on oldies radio while driving yesterday.

"Radar Love" -- who did that song? What a great song! The best part -- the drums and the bass just riffing with nothing else for measures at a time. Then the verses with guitar fills answering. Choruses are OK, functional, nominally more exciting but effective really more just by way of contrast. I don't understand the words -- but the noise is joyous. (Looked it up: A Dutch group called Golden Earring did it in 1973, and the speeding car of the song is a ‘70s Dutch 3-wheel car! The video’s plot is charming too.)

"You're No Good" -- Linda Ronstadt. I love the line, "I'm gonna say it again" -- because it feels so good to say it! You're no good! The catharsis of invective. What a great song, and she's a fabulous singer.

"Lady Madonna" -- so much musicality to such an "ehh" lyric, and does it matter? No. It doesn't matter. The music is infectious. The endearment of style -- when Ringo plays a tasty drum fill, my heart beams -- that's Ringo! My sonic friend! I've built an imaginary bond with this musician, so that when I hear him do something pleasing, the pleasure is increased by the fiction of our relationship. I'm rooting for him, I like him.

"Tears of a Clown" -- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. A fabulous song, terrific vocal and instrumental arrangement, great singing. Watching the documentary about the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers,
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, made those musicians endearing too, even if I don't remember their names or even know which ones played on which records.

The narratives of publicity help to endear musicians to their public.

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I've been listening to two different Fats Domino tribute records recently. I’ve mentioned one of them before, a collection of covers from the '50s, '60s, and '70s called That’s Fats: A Tribute to Fats Domino. I was listening to it recently, thrilled again by the wildly eccentric, frenetic performances by the Four Lovers (Frankie Valli's group preceding the Four Seasons), Dion and the Belmonts, Cheap Trick, and others. As a rule, the African American singers are smoother, more elegant, more polished -- this was often the case in 20th century African American pop -- it was more refined than white pop. When Elvis covers Little Richard, for example -- Richard's singing is more intense, but his band is more refined. Elvis's band was terrific, but simpler and rougher. On this Domino tribute, the covers by African American musicians are great, but tamer than the covers by white musicians.

The record vaguely reminded me -- didn't John Lennon cover a Domino song on his mid-'70s tribute album to '50s rock and roll? I went to the used record store to look for it, and found something better -- a 2-disc Domino tribute charity album for New Orleans post-Katrina, made of all new recordings except one archival recording -- Lennon's mid-’70s cover of "Ain't that a Shame."

Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino is a terrific album, but all the way through, nothing on it is as wild or intense or just plain weird as the songs by Four Lovers or Dion and the Belmonts or Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio on the older comp. It's an old story that rock has become as smooth and institutionalized as Perry Como was in his time and style; listening to these tribute albums in succession brought it home for me.

One partial exception to the rule of smoothness: Neil Young. He does an elegant cover of "Walking to New Orleans," accompanied by an orchestra and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, but he's still a freak-weird singer, even toned down as here. Hearing him made me wonder -- who's a freak weird singer now? I thought of two -- John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, and Joanna Newsome. And neither of them are nearly as big a star as Neil is. The mass audience for freaky weirdness has dried up. I think Darnielle & Newsome are making their livings from their music, they seem to be doing fine, but the difference in scale is striking.

Other exceptions to the rule of smoothness: Herbie Hancock's '70s-funk-jazz-style synthesizer solo on "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday" brings a splash of old-school noisy joy; Olu Dara's shambles elegantly and eccentrically through "
When I See You
"; Ben Harper with the Skatalites bring infectious ska exuberance to "Be My Guest"; local New Orleans musicians Rebirth Brass Band, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Walter "Wolfman" Washington (whom I saw and wrote about 17 months ago) all bring an intensity to the proceedings, as does the archival John Lennon recording. And looking at this list, it strikes me: Most of the musicians on it are African American. And most of them are jazz. But the whole album is terrific.

* * *

My son and I had stopped going to our Tuesday night open mike because he's had swimming lessons on Tuesday nights, but last night was a night off from the lessons, so we went to the open mike. The kid sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and I played piano for the first time in public since high school. I sang an old song that the kid wanted to sing back-up on. It was great to hear everybody again. Our friends Jillian and Jim, who sat in with my band a month ago, had arranged one of my songs for voice and bass, and they played it last night -- very different than any arrangement I would have come up with; I loved it.

* * *

Seventh wedding anniversary the other day. Grateful for my tremendous good fortune.

* * *

Spring is here.

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