Tag Archives: blues

#FridayFinds: Music Memoirs, Dollar Bin Discoveries, Lip Syncing to Styx, Saxy Tunes, and Getting it Right on the First Take

photos courtesy (clockwise L to R): consequenceofsound.net, robsheffield.com, liveandbreathing.com, nbc.com
photos courtesy (clockwise L to R): consequenceofsound.net, robsheffield.com, liveandbreathing.com, nbc.com

Friday! Weekend! And the ides of May are nigh. My goodness. How time doth move.

It’s been a good week. Lots of action and activity in all the right areas, particularly in the area of personal/professional growth in music adventure and experience. Solid stuff all around.

And here for you now are five of the things that have added that extra dash of excellent these last few days.

1. Rob Sheffield’s Book – Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke

I picked up this fun little read over Christmas and heartily enjoyed it from the get go, but it wasn’t until just last night that I was able to find the time to finish it. Ah time… thou art a flighty and fickle mistress.

For those familiar with Sheffield’s other work, this book will offer a welcome and decidedly more hopeful conclusion to his previous stories of love and loss and the music that brought him to adulthood (Talking to Girls About Duran Duranand got him through the tragic, untimely end of his first marriage (Love Is a Mix Tape).

That said, the book isn’t off limits or full of anything that would make it difficult to understand for those not familiar with those stories, and Sheffield’s musings on music, karaoke, and life in general are honest and sincere and thus effortlessly universal.

For Sheffield, music is a labor of love in and of itself. He’s self-deprecating and humble about his own shortcomings as a performance artist (how many different ways can you tell people you’re not the most on-key singer? There’s at least 20, judging by the number of times it comes up in the book) and has an unabashed admiration for anyone who puts themselves in the limelight. The karaokes lifers, the career session musicians, the up-and-coming musical prodigies and wunderkinds– the David Bowies, Neil Diamonds, and everyone in between.

But it’s not all karaoke and musical jargon either. There’s really something in here for everyone. From the awkward 20something to the purportedly less awkward 30something, and from the new husband learning the ropes to the old professional romantic– and certainly the shower singer and the closet musical mastermind– everyone can find something to identify with in this collection of vignettes.

2. Discovering the Untold Pleasures of the Dollar Used Vinyl Bin

So I may have mentioned that I recently inherited a lovely little record player. It’s amazing, and I’m still very much in that “new father with newborn babe” stage wherein I take extensive precautions to ensure proper handling of turntable, records, and all related paraphernalia that the listening experience entails. With great power come great responsibility, after all.

But of course, with great responsibility comes great temptation to stock up on whatever things you don’t have but think you might need to have the best possible experience. Record brushes and cleaning fluid, plastic covers for each individual record sleeve, and a whole new arsenal of albums to play loud and proud.

Anyone who’s considered themselves an enthusiast in anything can tell you, having a hobby is expensive. Comic books, photography, stamps even– shout out to the quiet, the proud, the esteemed few stamp collectors still among us– every endeavor comes with quite a costly price tag if you really want to get serious.

Which is why the dollar bin at your friendly, neighborhood record store is all the more dangerous. One moment you’re leafing through the sea of titles thinking nothing of it, and the next you’re on your way out the door with half your day’s pay in the friendly, neighborhood record store’s till. But at least you got that Gordon Lightfoot album you never knew you always wanted, right?

Jokes aside, there’s generally a lot of decent items among the stacks. You just have to be willing to dig. In my first two visits, I spent just under $30 on seven albums that would have, at their original list price, probably gone for $100 all told (estimate adjusted for inflation, naturally).

P.S. If you’re looking for the perfect birthday gift for that special music blogger in your life, consider getting him (or her… what do I know… June 10, people) a handful of dollar bin delights. What better way to expand one’s musical horizons. Thoughtful and fun too.

3. Tonight Show Lip Sync Showdown between Jimmy Fallon and Emma Stone

Though I’m overall on the fence about The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, the man and his staff definitely have one thing down: a fantastic assortment of musical segments. They’ve done barbershop quartet renditions of popular hip hop tunes and spot-on impersonations of everyone from Neil Young to Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty. And pretty much every Jimmy Fallon / Justin Timberlake collaboration you can find from the show is both uproariously enjoyable and musically inclined. Excellent stuff all around.

This isn’t the first lip sync battle that he’s done either. It started with an energetic face-off against Joseph Gordon Levitt while he was still at the 12:35 Late Night spot and then continued with a moderately silly one against Paul Rudd, but this one is the best thus far, particularly in the area of visual accuracy in lip sync lyric delivery.

Honestly it’s over at the end of the first round when Ms. Stone delivers a stupendously articulated rendition of Blues Traveler’s other hit from their 1994 breakout album Four– “Hook.” I think John Popper would approve.

4. Getting Saxy with the Saxyderms

Last weekend I went out with some friends to see the spring concert of a Tufts University-based saxophone ensemble called the Saxyderms (the Tufts mascot is an elephant, they play saxophones… Saxyderms…. get it? good). I’d seen them once before while on a mid-summer’s afternoon stroll through the Boston Common, and they were fantastic. Plus it turns out that my friend Jason is not only a Tufts grad but also a member of the band himself. Surprise, surprise. The guy’s got some chops.

With all the rock, roll, and other fun sounds out there on the airwaves today, it’s always nice to remember that music doesn’t need words, a raucous, romping guitar line, or even a cowbell beat to be enjoyable (though the cowbell doesn’t hurt). And these guys and gals prove it.

The program was a lovely mix of chorale pieces, jazz hits, and even one or two pop covers. All were beautifully arranged and delivered, but my hands down favorite of the afternoon was their rendition of the Dizzy Gillespie tune “A Night in Tunisia.”

And speaking of sexy saxes and pop music, check out this little mash up of great rock songs that feature that lovely sound. I’m hard pressed to think of any recent hits that really showcase that sound, but now I’m going to keep my ears dutifully peeled for it.

5. Bring the Band to Your Living Room: Live and Breathing Sessions

These days there are a lot of ways to find out about new music on the internet. And just about every day it feels like there’s a new YouTube channel devoted to enterprising young videographers looking to capture your favorite or soon-to-be-favorite bands in a new way with crazy camera angles, exotic locations, and all matter of color and light filters.

Enter Live and Breathing. They showcase well-known and up-and-coming bands, recorded with a few cameras, yes, but done all in one take, and without too much crazy camera mishegas or ridiculous, over-wrought lighting. They put the emphasis on capturing the essence of the performance, placing the premium on the musicians and their craft, not suped up production.

I learned about a lot of cool groups from their videos like The Wood Brothers and St. Paul and the Broken Bones (listen to those guys now). It’s also how I solidified my obsession with The Lone Bellow and Lake Street Dive. Check out their stuff today, and make yourself a little country/blues/folk-rock-americana in-house concert playlist this weekend. And enjoy!

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#MondayMixtape – The Promise of the Open Road

photo by Mark Swick
the road to endless possibility (photo by Mark Swick)

This is the 2nd installment of our ever-so-often series on Songs About Travel and Far-off Places.

Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
– Walt Whitman

The thrill of exploration, the promise of something new. When everyday is filled with this sort of perspective, it gives us reasons to wake up in the morning and make every day count. Perhaps that’s why there are so many songs about the promise of the open road and the shining potential of what lies just beyond the horizon. There’s so much out there to be discovered. You just have to get moving and be open to whatever comes. Even the most distant milestones and goals can be made all the more attainable by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and taking your first steps in their direction.

All that potential, all that promise– all that traveling– can also take its toll on even the most hardy of explorers.  We may get too comfortable with a routine, lose track of the spark that set us out on the path to begin with, or maybe we’re blown off course by forces out of our control. But the potential for adventure and discovery is always there. It just might require a different approach– a different route– to find it.

These songs speak to the promise of new discovery that open roads– and open minds– inspire us to believe in.

1. Bruce Springsteen – Thunder Road

No song rivals this one in terms of brilliance and gusto– the sound of joy uninhibited. Such promise… such potential… It’s a “do you remember when we were wild and free” moment that’s running on a super-charged, turbo engine of love and burning, yearning desire. “These two lanes will take us anywhere.” All that power– all that potential– encapsulated in the long, emphatic delivery of that final word: “Anywhere.” Springsteen’s signature vibrato practically shivers with nervous excitement and anticipation of a man ready to take on whatever comes his way.

It’s the soundtrack starter to any James-Dean-esque drag racing scene. A start your engines moment, and feel those lions purr underfoot. Look out at the road as far as the eye can see and start dreaming.

2. Elton John – Tiny Dancer

Dial back the pulse pounding, sweat inducing pace and a massage in a little more dreamy, misty remembrance of those bygone days and you get this Elton John classic. A tender ode to a love that once was and frenzied, frantic setting that made that made it all possible– out there on the wide open road. It’s a mad world out there, filled with some crazy, zany characters, John sings. People trying to sell you everything including those things that can’t be measured like businessmen selling love or “Jesus freaks” selling God and salvation. They promise quick fixes and cure-alls but are then gone as quickly as they’ve arrived and the problems still remain.

The only sure refuge, John sings, is to put your trust in the ones who really love you– the ones who will always be there. “Count the headlights on the highway / You’ve had a busy day today…” Let me take the lead for now, and lay back in the comfort of this trusty, rusty, and warm old jalopy. It’s heading on to somewhere fresh and new, on a course for somewhere, moving south by south-wherever. The chance for a new start is there just over the horizon so long as we’re together.

3. James Taylor – Riding on a Railroad

For all the positivity and promise that time on the open road affords, some days are just tough no matter where you are. Those days where time seems to fly by even as you feel it’s slogging along and that you’ve just been sitting in place for hours on end; those days you think about how much time you spend promoting other people’s visions and wish you had more time to spend on the things you care about; those days you aspire to your pinnacle best but simply end up chipping at the weeds below. This is the song for those days.

It’s the soliloquy of a man reflecting on his lot and wondering how it got this way. What happens when you’ve worked hard all your life only to realize that you’ve just been playing a supporting role to someone else’s succes “singing someone else’s song” (and that the higher power you always believed in might just be another with “chains upon his hands”– a mere mortal passenger in this life just like you)?

That’s what this song’s all about, and it says it all in just over two and a half minutes.

Some days are like that. But even as your beliefs may feel shaken or rattled to the core– that life’s no simple dichotomy of black and white, fair and unfair, or right or wrong– the best thing you can do is hold on tight, “sing along,” and believe in yourself to get through. You’ll get there. One trip at a time.

4. U2 – Angel of Harlem

Other times there’s a certain comfort derived from those tried and true melodies. Songs like the one remembered that’s exulted and celebrated here. These weary travelers could just as easily have been on another routine trip to New York, but it wasn’t. Because of this song. It’s a jubilant exhalation of finding security and contentment that can shine its way through any gloom and withstand all earthly elements and the test of time weather it’s a “cold and wet December day” or an ability to “see the truth behind the lies.” And as the song builds towards its zenith, it’s clear that like finding “salvation in the blues,” hope and joy can be found anywhere. Anywhere.

5. Paul Simon – Under African Skies

When the situations aren’t so rosy and bright, when we are compelled to get up and go by those aforementioned outside factors, this song reminds us that we never need feel alone in our situations. Our story– our song– is inextricably linked to the ones who have come before, connecting us all as part of that great wide, wandering world. “This is the story of how we begin to remember” and this is an appreciation to the power of music as both constant companion to us as we are now as well as the link to our history and place in time.

New Music Tuesday: Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits

lake street dive - bad self portraits

Seven weeks into the new year and already I’ve started compiling my Top 5 Albums of 2014 starting with these lovely folks and their excellent, brand new album Bad Self Portraits. Call it premature if you will, but then again this was the same band that made me totally reconsider my top concert picks of 2013 only moments before the end of the year, so it’s probably worth proactively saving them a spot this time around.

These guys are something special and you don’t have to look at their upcoming tour of sold out shows to know it.

The album is their second full-length record and is, at its simplest, a testament to what this band does so well: blending the sounds of 60’s Motown and early 70’s rock and roll with modern arrangements and sensibilities.

Suffice it to say this album is a treat. It’s a house party wrapped up and neatly delivered in a 40-minute package that’s vibrant and playful but won’t leave a mess, eat up all your food, or require you to power wash the premises when it’s over.

Producer Sam Kassirer’s contributions are nothing if not complimentary to the group’s talents, wonderfully extending the depth of every moment, both sunny and somber (of which there are a few– life’s not all fun and games, after all). On the track “Better Than,” for example, the steady dose electric piano and added light reverb on Rachel Price’s voice beautifully illustrate the isolation and sorrow felt by the song’s protagonist. On the flipside, the combination of layered horns and just a touch of extra electric distortion gives the driving, bluesy anthem “You Go Down Smooth” the juice it needs to take it soaring straight out of the stratosphere.

Most of the time, however, it’s not about studio enhanced wizardry or soundboard tricks– it’s about letting the band do what it does best: kicking the jams and having a good time. Nowhere is this more apparent than it is on the track “Seventeen,” in which the rich vocal work of Rachel Price, the explosive bass lines of Bridget Kearney, the cool guitar riffs of Mike Olson, and the deft percussive stylings of Mike Calabrese all share center stage. Add to that solid foundation some honeyed vocal harmonies, a clever application of syncopated hand claps, and even a breezy little vocal solo by drummer Calabrese, and you’ve got one serious groove machine that deserves every bit of its burgeoning following. Playful and flirtatious– that’s this band to a T.

At the end of the day, this band of fun-loving, talented musicians is first and foremost a band of friends: a group of individuals who met nearly a decade ago at the New England Conservatory in Boston and nearly immediately started working and playing together. Over the years their sound has changed (they originally formed as an alt-country/jazz band— who knew?), but their love of each other has not. It’s this love and friendship that shines through on every track of their album and in every performance and every show.

Whether charming audiences nationwide with a totally awwwshucks adorable interview on their network television debut, dressing up and paying homage to the 2-guy/2-gal bands that came before on Halloween, or just sharing their goofy moments with their fans in the in between time, this is one band who’s talents, chemistry, and energy will keep giving for years to come. I’d bet on it.

Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
Signature Sounds Recordings, 2014
Grade: A+
Listen Now: “Stop Your Crying”, “You Go Down Smooth”, “Bobby Tanqueray”, “What About Me”

Monday Mixtape: ‘Tis the Season for Ballads and Slowjams

love - it's right in front of you
it’s right in front of you.

Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but love is always in the air. At the very least it smells better than the old snow and rock salt combination that’s been so prolific these last few days and weeks. Just like with any other special occasion  Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be the only time to celebrate love and appreciation for someone else. It’s something to be acted upon often and appreciated always.

When words fail, as they conveniently seem to do when you’re saddling up close with that special someone, music has a remarkable way of filling in the gaps and saying it all for you. It doesn’t really require a lot of breath to say the “right” thing anyhow. A few lines will do it.

With this in mind, here are a few songs to help you carry that Valentine’s Day flavor throughout the week and feed into the moments that come after, each song’s individual merits described… in 5 lines or less.

1. Bill Withers – Lovely Day

Timeless, thy name is surely Bill Withers. This breezy ballad has the power to transform even the most mundane task into the most euphoric and blissful experience of one’s waking hours. Trust me. You will never look at shoveling the driveway or cleaning the bathroom the same way after giving this song permanent residency on your daily chores playlist. Go forth in good spirits.

2. John Splithoff – Love Affair

And after the working day’s done… a helpful, healthy little attitude adjustment. Something to use while you’re fluffing the pillows, lighting the candles, creating the after-hours ambience, and setting the mood for an intimate little evening (while maintaining some pep in your step). Have some fun, go all out, and put it all on the tab of this up-and-coming music maker’s debonaire baritone. You’ll be glad you did.

3. Tedeschi Trucks Band – That Did It

No denying it: TTB does a phenomenal job with their cover of the sultry 60s blues/soul classic, selling it on every possible level, from horns to high hats, guitar licks and tantalizing vocal tricks. This one goes out as much to the single people as it does to those non-single people… and perhaps even more so. It shivers and shakes, beckons– but never begs– you to get good and close so you can know it’s every last breath. It clocks in at just under 8 minutes, which might be just enough for some. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting more.

4. Al Green – I’m Still In Love With You

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, and Mr. Green is the genuine article when it comes to the genre of soulful love songs and slowjams. This one hits all the quintessential bases (not to mention high notes): an airy, heavenly high tenor and falsetto accompanied by a faithful, complimentary cacophony of horns, backing female vocals, and groovin’, happ’nin’ beat. This puts the delicious strawberry jam topper on your three-day weekend toast of wholesome wheat goodness. Play on, Mr. Green, play on.

5. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Slow Down Love

Days get hectic, people get crazy. Put this one on and do as the lady says. Slow it down, keep it cool, count your blessings, and reconnect with what really matters: making time for intimate moments with the ones you love. The rest of the world can wait. Get yourself back in the moment you’re in right now.

Now doesn’t that feel good? Doesn’t that feel right?

photo by Robert Egger

Monday Mixtape: 5 Songs for Freedom

mlk

Today being Martin Luther King Day, it seemed appropriate that today’s selections reflect the values and teachings that Dr. King fought for so tirelessly. Of peace, of love, of humanity and compassion, and, above all else, of equality for all.

Certainly we’ve come a ways from the days when buses, trains, and other public spaces were segregated, and now more than ever the positive effects of their work can be seen across the US by the wonderfully diverse make up of so many schools, universities, and businesses. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Even as we’re making good progress towards a healthier, more accepting society, racism is very much still alive, and one only has to take a look at the comments section of any social media site where whatever celebrity, athlete, or even regular old joe featured there can become a lightning rod of intensely racially charged rhetoric overnight.

It’s not just black vs. white either (if ever it was). Latinos, people of middle eastern descent, sexual preference or orientation all have some equity, ironically enough, when it comes to being in the discrimination spotlight.

As much as I often feel hard pressed to believe that we’ll ever be able to “just get along” and put an end to racism and discrimination in this country, I know that as long as children continue to be taught to love their neighbors as themselves and to respect each person’s right to life and happiness– there is hope.

The songs below echo this belief, from trying to deal with the world as it is (Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”), to beginning to see how freedom and social justice can be brought about (Amos Lee’s “Freedom”), to taking the steps ourselves to be the change we wish to see (Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World”), and everything in between.

Change, as Mr. Cooke says, good, positive, lasting change is gonna come, but it’s not going to happen with out the conscious effort of regular people like us, willing those changes into being.

The time is always right to do what is right.
– Martin Luther King Jr.

5 Songs For Freedom, Equality, and Justice (+1 Extra For the Man Himself).