Saturday, July 8, 2017

Right: Tom Waits - Step Right Up

purchase [Step Right Up]

SMM has posted about Tom Waits in the past (link to those posts), but Step Right Up isn't one of them. The album from whence it appeared, Small Change, has so many of my favorite Waits' pieces that I could choose almost any one of them. The album comes from his darker days, likely influenced by the too many days on the road - with repeated references to the seamier side of life.

It wasn't just the man's gravel-ly voice that piqued my interest; it was partially the minimal musicality of that style (something as simple as a lone bass accompaniment) and partially his way of twisting a word half way through such that it changed meaning from what you thought it was going to say. The song is like a rap before rap was conceived and the words just go on an on and on - no 2 and half minute Beatles pop lyrics here!
it's effective, it's defective, it creates household odors,
It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection
It gives you an erection, it wins the election

Step Right Up is an indictment of commercialism/advertising and so it is informative that Waits has had to resort to the legal system to keep marketers at bay (see Frito Lay).

Incidentally, there's also a tribute to Waits album by the same name.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Right: Red Right Ankle

The Decemberists: Red Right Ankle

We’ve heard much about Right hands since this theme started, but not so much about other body parts. So, here’s one about a Red Right Ankle, from the Decemberists.

I’ve made it abundantly clear, both on this blog, and elsewhere, that I’m a big fan of the Decemberists, while acknowledging their penchant for pretentiousness, bombast and prominent use of words even too obscure for the SAT verbal.

Back in 2007, lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy was interviewed by the A.V. Club, and was asked:

AVC: You are known for writing novelistic lyrics about obscure historical figures. Have you ever been tempted to write about something more typical, like your girlfriend or something else in a personal vein? 

CM: I do write songs about my girlfriend. They just come out in different ways. Specifically, once we had a fight and she drove all the way to Vancouver to get away for the weekend, and I sat down and was like, "I'm going to write as many songs for her as I possibly can." "Red Right Ankle" came out of that, which was probably more of your typical "write a song about your girlfriend" song. 

So, “Red Right Ankle” is a song about Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, Carson Ellis, a book illustrator who also does the artwork for the Decemberists. And while it is a relatively simple song, and beautiful in that simplicity, Meloy cannot help himself but to refer to his beloved's  “muscle, bone and sinews,” a “gypsy uncle,” and a “hide-out in the Pyrenees.”

Because even in a love song, Meloy insists on the unexpected.

Right: Something So Right

Jeanne O’Connor: Something So Right


Something So Right can be called a classic song by Paul Simon. It has certainly been covered often enough. But I had a hard time finding a version that came close to what I hear in my head. That has everything to do with how records were produced in the 1970s. The song originally appeared on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. It started well enough, but soon the production starts to swell with unnecessary strings that I have always felt provide a level of artificial emotion that this song does not need. The genuine emotion in the writing should be enough. Even so, the song does need a small ensemble to move it along. So, Simon’s live version on Live Rhymin’ suffers from the opposite extreme. Here, Simon strips the song down to just voice and guitar, but now the song sounds desolate in a way that still does not do justice to the lyric. So I went in search of the perfect cover, a version that heard what I hear. Phoebe Snow’s version is marred by the pop-jazz arrangement that worked so beautifully for Poetry Man, but became a cliché for her. Annie Lennox did a cover years later that Simon blessed with his backing vocals and guitar playing, but here again I find the production overdone. There is a DVD of Paul Simon and Friends where Dianne Reaves takes the song and gives it a promising small band jazz reading, but Reaves loses her mind at the bridge, and falls into the trap of oversinging the song. I was afraid to even sample versions by Barbara Streisand and Celine Dion with the Muppets.

Finally, I stumbled upon this version by Jeanne O’Connor. I had not heard of her before, but by this time I knew the version I wanted would be by an indie artist. It would be someone who avoided the temptation to overproduce the song by the simple expedient of not having the budget to do so. This is a small ensemble jazz take, which suits the song well, but O’Connor keeps her voice under control. By not forcing things, she allows the emotion of Simon’s writing to shine through as it always should have. O’Connor’s vocal has enough heart to make the song completely convincing, but she does not impose her will on a song that is too fine to need that kind of help. There is still room for someone to record the perfect version of the song, perhaps with guitar and a small folk combo. But until that version is recorded or finds my ears, this will do nicely.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


Couldn't resist. Or at least I think I couldn't, but maybe not. Fate. Kismet. Call it what you will, it's all pre-destined, yeah? Maybe.

In keeping with my last posting, I thought I would again follow on the dextrous direction that began with red and was followed by the devil. In truth, I am not sure of what fate's right hand, or indeed left, might mean, or how they may differ, unless the former is the butter side up, the latter, butter side down. Indeed, is luck the same as fate? Is fate the same as luck? I am uncertain whether this metaphysical troubled Rodney Crowell much when writing the song. It just sorta sounds good, the lyric then being one of those stream of consciousness lists like Reasons to be Cheerful (right hand) or We Didn't Start the Fire (left hand), the words as important for their order and sound as their meaning, yet entirely also dependent thereupon. Clever, if confusing.

Rodney Crowell feels to have been around forever in my musical lifetime, first as the callow youth alongside Emmylou Harris in her Hot Band, writing the knock-out (and album stand-out) side one closer, Till' I Gain Control Again, on Elite Hotel. That was back in 1975, and he has kept on keeping on. Marrying into country royalty, becoming husband to Roseanne, daughter of Johnny, Cash in 1979, until 1992, will have done no harm either, but he was already successfully penning material for a range of significant other artists, including Bob Seger, as well as a roster of more typical country performers. Having had limited success with his solo records, he effectively put his career on hold to helm her own, writing much of the material and producing. In the 80's he hit his own paydirt, with a run of records that cemented his reputation. 1988's Diamonds and Dirt managed 5 (country) number ones alone. Here's one of 'em.

However, for me it is his later trio of recordings, starting with The Houston Kid, in 2001, that hold the strongest appeal. Biographical in style, I strongly commend these three, with Fate's Right Hand, containing the eponymous song of this piece, and The Outsider making up the triad, now commonly referred to as the Houston trilogy. This period of his life also produced his book, the commendable and likewise autobiographical Chinaberry Sidewalks: a Memoir, covering the same somewhat tumultuous childhood as do the songs. Wonderful stuff. Here's a song:

Into the last decade he has again teamed up with Emmylou Harris, producing a brace of duet albums and going on tour with her, still managing other output as well. This years Close Ties reveals him now to be an elder statesman, performing alongside ex-wife Cash and Sheryl Crow, amongst others. I have seen him twice within the last five years, once with Emmylou, and once as a featured singer with the celebrated Transatlantic Sessions, the show that brings together the best of scots/irish with american musicians, held every year over here in the UK. On both occasions he shone, the grittier counterpoint to Emmylou at the one, and an altogether americana tour de force at the other.

A final word, lest all this talk of country be off-putting. This isn't and never has been any saccharine "& western": his genre has always been in those slightly rougher roadhouses, where rockabilly meets western swing, leaving always room for a weeping steel barroom ballad, ahead of another rousing rocker. I'd like to shake his hand. Right hand.

Choose Rodney!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Right: Dr. John's Right Place, Wrong Time

purchase [Right Time, Wrong Place]

The Nite Tripper indeed. Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, better known as Dr. John has been making music since the late 50s- from time to time finding himself in the right place. The list of musicians he has worked with is so long that it is almost shorter to list those he hasn't played with at one time or another.

In '72, a year before he made a name for himself beyond being known as a great session player, he came out with Iko Iko. And then followed it up in '73 with "Right Time".

The lyrics for his classic <Right Place, Wrong Time> point out how close you can get and still miss the mark. Kind of like "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades". I appreciate the "brain salad surgery" reference to the Doctor's state of mind - which Emerson Lake & Palmer picked up on. And this phrase leads to my more favorite and related line: "refried confusion" . I also note the multiple references to missed opportunities such as "right vein... wrong arm" and "right road ... wrong car". And yes, Dr John has been clean since the 80s, before when he was definitely on the wrong path.

The song is such a classic that you'll find a number of friends performing it with the man himself.

There's a pleasantly informative interview done by SongFacts that will give you some additional perspective.

with Johnny Winter:

with Eric Clapton: