Saturday, March 11, 2017

Middle: Meet You In The Middle

Parker McCollum is an up and coming Austin-based country rocker. His debut, The Limestone Kid, is a captivating mix of sounds, immediately familiar to fans of Texas Red Dirt country, but full of a great sense of energy that pushes this collection past whatever genre label you’d want to apply. McCollum’s songs are made for radio, made for driving, but there’s also a touch of melancholy that puts him in some pretty interesting shared company as a songwriter. Think, really handsome cowboy poet, strumming away outside church, not really taking part in the service, but well aware of all that talk about sin and redemption. McCollum moves deftly from soul-tinged tales of heartbreak to rockers burning with country twang. His take on Americana covers a lot of landscape and he avoids the stereotypical lyrical and imagistic content so much ‘new’ country seems to traffic in. Despite his young age, McCollum is rooted not only in an old soul’s world view, but his sound has a distressed, age-worn feel that makes the music a little timeless, in the very best way.

McCollum has had some success with “Meet You in the Middle”, a perfectly penned bit of breakup poetry, talking about being left behind, and having to deal with all the parts of life that don’t seem to stop for heartache or the lowliness of feeling like you’ve been screwed over. I love how the song deals with an angry bout of loneliness, but set to a soaring soundtrack of pedal steel, a rolling lead guitar rollickingly picked like a banjo line, and a tempo that rises and falls in a mimic of the narrator’s emotional ebb and flow between sadness and strange optimism as he tries to catch up, but never gets that far.

The Limestone Kid is a fantastic album from a songwriter with a literary, poetic bent and a knack for writing the kind of songs that could fall into multiple musical categories and fit right in. This is country, to be sure, but it goes beyond the trappings of Texas and Nashville to traverse a landscape of McCollum’s own tuneful, addictively singalong-worthy design. This is a road trip collection of songs, and you'll be glad for taking the ride.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Middle: Omaha

Counting Crows: Omaha


Counting Crows is a band that grew out of a music scene in the bay area in California. Omaha is from their first album, 1993’s August and Everything After, so I think it’s safe to say that the band had not traveled much by the time the song was written. Omaha, then, is not a reference to a place, but to an idea of a place. I read an article online that suggested the choice of location for the song was random, but I don’t think that is entirely true. Omaha is, as the song says, “somewhere in Middle America”, and that idea is vital to what the song is about. There are two Midwests in the US: the industrial Midwest, as represented by cities like Chicago and Detroit; and the agricultural Midwest, which is where Omaha fits in. Cities here are smaller, and they grew out of market towns where farmers would bring their grains and livestock for transport to the rest of the country. In Adam Duritz’ mind, places like Omaha are tied to the life cycle of agriculture, from the spring growing season to the fallow time of winter. Rain here is life, because it means a good harvest later. Full disclosure: I too have never lived in the Midwest, so I am responding to my knowledge of the region from afar as I hear it expressed in the song. The song Omaha starts in winter, and tells of a place where life boils down to its most essential elements. Duritz begins with an old man and ends with a young one, telling us that endings are also the origins of fresh starts. The lines about walking on water that close each verse are a brilliant metaphor, at once referencing the importance of Christianity in this part of the country, while at the same time echoing the rain references that are such an important part of the song. Other cities around the country have associations that would have detracted from the essentials of the song, but the agricultural Midwest is where this song needs to be.

Bonus track: I couldn’t resist closing this post with this live version of the song from 2012. Counting Crows have been influenced by the jam bands, in that they allow their songs to change over time. By 2012, Duritz is arguably a better singer that he was early in his career. He has retained his love of making music, and he welcomes the audience in to this performance, even asking their help on the chorus.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Middle: Smack Dab in the Middle

purchase [ Chicken Skin Music ]

I only know of Charles Calhoun/Jesse Stone from digging through the  Internet. Maybe if I had held on to my vinyl 33's, I could have gone back and looked at the jackets for track details, but like most everyone else, I shifted away - in fact, I gave my rather large collection of maybe 700 LPs to a local radio station. For free, in the hopes that they would make better use than myself (sitting on a shelf for 20 years)

"Chuck" Calhoun (you'll need to search for Jesse Stone as well), seems to have had a pretty long life (1901-1999). What he did with that time is even more impressive:
He is credited with writing this post song: "Smack Dab in the Middle", but is  also the author of "Money Honey" - another Ry Cooder "hit".

It looks like Calhoun got around in the 30s and 40s - his songs were performed by Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman and more - no wonder Ry Cooder came across his music: he's hard to miss if you do a little research. His version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" appears to have been a chart topper that lead to "Rock Around the Clock"

Charles Calhoun (aka Jesse Stone) appears to have also been the first black musician to join Atlantic records - via Ahmet Ertegun (and that  leads us back to my home city of Istanbul, Ertugun being Turkish)

Other version of possible interest:

The above claims to be the man himself in 1955, I can't verify, but it seems to fit.

and then, there's .. Ray


and the Deep River Boys:

and on and on the list goes. You want more? Do a YouTube search for the title .. Looks like there could be 50 or so there.


I don't think Ruthie has had a mention in these pages before. She is part of a select coven of female guitar slingers of a distinctive bluesy feel that I adore. Oddly for this genre, and I mean in the "modern" day, so as to avoid upsetting the myriad fans of icons like Sister Rosetta Tharp, she is black. (A quiet pause as I quickly check I am allowed to say that.) But, yes, it is odd, with all the Bonnies and Susans that seem now to epitomise the style, even my old home-town girl prodigy, Joanne. I make this point on neither any grounds of race/ethnicity, nor of blue men (women) sing the whites authenticity, merely an observation.

With a textbook background in a gospel choir dynasty, she took the unusual career choice of a would-be musician and joined the U.S. Navy, honing her chops in forces recruitment band 'Pride'. On de-mob she headed for the big Apple, being wooed, I guess, as a latterday Tracy Chapman, before returning to her roots, both musically and geographically, Texas.

Her first album, 'Full Circle', was self-released, cutting sufficient headwind to be picked up by local label, the combination aptly/ironically titled Blue Corn, for whom she has continued to work, another 6 studio and 2 live sets appearing over the next few years. Awards were also piling up, a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy in 2009 being followed by a Best Blues (now not just contemporary) Album in 2012.  Accolades elsewhere are aplenty, continuing right up to the present, earning her a second  Koko Taylor Award for Best Traditional Female Blue artist, in 2016. So, from contemporary to traditional in just 7 years!

Stylistically I think she reminds me most of Robert Cray, although this may more be more how, like him, she has engineered a wonderful earthy soul, R'n'B meets gospel, into the sometime rigidity of the blues. I guess these were always assumptions and understatements within the idiom, the various all arising from the same source(s), but reintroduced and reiterated so as to remind that the child is ever the father to the man. (Have I lost you?)

Recent years seem to see her pushed more as a vocalist than a guitarist. Maybe not as stellar on the instrument, maybe, as her above-mentioned peers, she is no slouch, and I for one prefer the idea and image of her, plugged in and playing. To my eyes there is little less pleasure than the sight of a woman toting an electric, slung low, but that may be too much information.

So have you heard of her? If not, I hope this taster gives you appetite and that, in the middle (SWIDT!) of all these posts you can find space for her Love in the Middle. The song itself comes from 2009's 'The Truth According to Ruthie Foster'.

Buy it!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Middle: Piggy In The Middle

The Rutles: Piggy In The Middle
[purchase the album]
[purchase the DVD of All You Need Is Cash]

It’s my fourth TV related post in a row (fifth, if you count the section of my In Memoriam piece about Fred Tomlinson, who did much of the music for Monty Python’s Flying Circus). And speaking of Monty Python, we’re going to discuss The Rutles, created by Python member Eric Idle and Neil Innes, who became part of the extended Python family late in their TV run, performed live with them and wrote music for, and appeared in, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. More about Innes’s distinguished career can be found here.

Idle and Innes created The Rutles, “The Prefab Four,” for a sketch show called Rutland Weekend Television. Innes, who had worked with Paul McCartney in his Bonzo Dog Band days, was able to brilliantly, but, for the most part, lovingly, parody The Beatles. Idle later played bits from Rutland Weekend Television, including The Rutles segment, when he hosted Saturday Night in 1976 (before Live was added to the show’s name), and Lorne Michaels suggested expanding it to a one hour show. A few months earlier, Michaels had taken the stage at Saturday Night and offered The Beatles $3,000 to reunite on the show, and when they never collected, it seems that he thought that The Rutles might be a good substitute. Years later, it came out that Lennon and McCartney were together that night watching the show in Lennon’s apartment in New York, only a short cab ride to the Rockefeller Plaza studio, and considered showing up to try to claim half the money.

In 1978, years before Spinal Tap popularized the rock mockumentary as a genre, All You Need Is Cash appeared featuring Idle as Dirk McQuickly, Innes as his writing partner Ron Nasty, Ricky Fataar, who had a stint in the Beach Boys, as guitarist Stig O’Hara and drummer John Halsey, who played with Lou Reed, as Barrington Womble, better known as Barry Wom. Ollie Halsall actually sang and played the McQuickly parts which Idle mimed and lip synched in the film. Halsall also appeared in the movie as “Leppo,” the Fifth Rutle, at once a commentary on his behind the scenes performance and a parody of both Stuart Sutcliffe and Zeppo Marx. Andy Brown played bass on the album, but didn’t appear on screen.

The film is, essentially a series of sketches that parody and follow The Beatles’ history. There were some pointed barbs at the band, but apparently they (mostly) didn’t mind—George Harrison, a huge Python fan who also helped to finance Life of Brian—appears in the show as a reporter. The cast also featured Python Michael Palin, SNL performers John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, Bianca Jagger, and Ron Wood. Paul Simon and Mick Jagger appeared as themselves.

But the best part of the show, and what has lasted, are the songs, often direct parodies of specific Beatles songs, and others pastiches of a bunch of tunes. Innes, in fact, was sued by the former holder of The Beatles’ publishing rights, and was required to add Lennon and McCartney as co-writers to many of the songs.

“Piggy In The Middle” is the alt-“I Am the Walrus,” if John Lennon had used different nursery rhymes as inspiration. The title refers to a game that I remember better as “monkey in the middle,” or less insultingly, if not less infuriatingly, as “keep away.” Here’s a piece from American Songwriter about the song which explains it better than I can.

A few semi-reunions of the Prefabs took place after the release of the movie. In 1996, a new album, Archeology, was released, parodying The Beatles’ Anthology, and a weaker sequel film was released in the early 2000s. And in 2014, Innes put out what he called Ron Nasty’s last song, “Imitation Song,” a parody of "Imagine."

The spot-on quality of the music and cleverness of the parody have continued to make The Rutles one of the most beloved fake bands ever. There even is a Rutles tribute album and Rutles cover bands. Which is still pretty odd.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Middle: Middle School Frown

Josh Rouse has written across a wide genre of sounds since his first release, Dressed Up Nebraska, which in a bit of self-imitation, was a folk album, dressed up in wash of alternative guitar rock. More so on his second release, Home, which was even more a shift to a late 90’s era feedback/keyboard swirl. Each album has subsequently seen Rouse shifting focus and direction,  always to genuine and superb effect. 1972 is a homage to '70s AM radio; Nashville sounds like a celebration of its namesake while still being lofty in ambition and traversing well beyond the country soundscape. Later releases carry the flavor of Rouse’s adopted home, Spain, with classical guitars, and off-center, Latin and rhumba rhythms.

What I love about Rouse’s music is how natural each foray into style and genre comes off.  And it’s not as if he in reinventing himself, or the sound he’s going for from album to album. Josh Rouse is unmistakably Josh Rouse when you hear him. A bourbon-smooth vocal style that sometimes veers into crooning, lyrically poetic, often delving into a shared kind of memory of growing up, falling in love, failing into melancholy, but always playful and easily moving from groovy to funky to heartfelt serious. Rouse songs are strong on harmony and have an odd familiarity, even if you’ve not heard them before, as he draws on classic song writer’s tools.

To fit Mr. Rouse into our theme of Middle I picked “Middle School Frown”, from the aforementioned Nashville.  A smooth guitar rhythm movement gives way to a lazy jazzy groove. The song builds on the speaker’s reminiscence of how he treated someone back in middle school, an outsider with hair that “hangs down” and dances “like a clown.” The song works up to a lament, the chords going from that languid guitar rhythm to a more urgent, rockafied push. The vocal delivery is conversational, spoken rather than sung, as if the speaker is still that young kid who feels guilty, but in the rising course, the change over in the vocals is representative of his secret admiration for the kid they made so much fun of, the “punk rock star.”
Rouse’s songs have a literary quality in that he uses sound  the way a short story might use imagery to both flesh out the story but also fill in the sensory depth. His sense of using pauses, the influx of a keyboard, of sound effect, to enhance the emotional sense of the story in the song has always struck me as brilliant. Rouse makes the kind of music that leads to repeated discoveries the more you listen.

It’s a sad song, in a way, and Rouse mines those seemingly auto-biographical memories to relay a narrative of loneliness and guilt, and that sad kind of wisdom that comes from growing up and recognizing our mistakes. It’s familiar territory for Rouse, and what’s best is the open-ended reality of his character’s angst and emotions: there’s never really a solution or a fix to the problem, save for the music, which in its own way, makes things better. And sometimes the only way to tell a sad story is through beautiful, exuberant music.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Middle: Oh Yoko

purchase [ Oh Yoko]

Andy La Ray Gun had me contemplating how the Beatles might fit in next. Mission accomplished - at least for now. "Oh Yoko" solves that equation.
We get a chance to visit Lennon in the middle of a bath, a shave, a dream and the night. Yoko is always on his mind. And had been for quite some time:  the date for the song is '71. Lennon and Ono's documented relationship goes back to 67 or so, with a child born in 68. There are those who would call it more of an infatuation than a relationship, but it seemed to work for them.
Critics weren't as terribly impressed with Imagine, the album where the song appeared, as they were with Plastic Ono Band. Me, neither. It wasn’t until Double Fantasy that I once again enjoyed listening to his/their work again. Much more so. And there, in place of "Oh Yoko", we now have "Dear Yoko".  Again, there are those who say that the peace, harmony and love that come through on Double Fantasy is just that: a fantasy, after his several year absence from the music scene. And then, that same year, he was gone.
"Oh Yoko" is light - one of the major criticisms of much of Imagine. But it's playfully light, with a simple structure, and [overly] repetitive lyrics. And, there is a catchy-ness to it that keeps it in my mind 35 years later despite its faults. We talk about the success of (the Beatles), and even as far back as "Twist and Shout", the simplicity was there - but there was an element of artistic drive that is missing from much of the Yoko-inspired "art". IMHO.
Still, a primo example of <Middle> for your auditory enjoyment and reminiscence.