Song of the Week – Fun to Lie, Psycho Sisters

Hello readers.  I’m posting today from the French Quarter Fest in sunny New Orleans!  I’ve heard a lot of great music so far including Lena Prima, Kermit Ruffins, Bonerama, and Irma Thomas.  I also heard Susan Cowsill (yes, of the famous Cowsill family of the 60s) who has been a resident of New Orleans for many years.  That inspired me to make today’s SotW one of my favorite songs that features her.

The Psycho Sisters was a side project by Cowsill and Vicki Peterson, who was the lead guitarist for The Bangles.  They worked together in The Continental Drifters, along with Peter Holsapple (the dBs) and Mark Walton (the Dream Syndicate).  The duo wrote tunes together and toured as the Psycho Sisters in the mid-90s.  But they didn’t record their work together… until 10 years ago!

In 2014 their schedules realigned and they decided the songs they wrote and performed together as the Psycho Sisters were worthy of recording, along with a few covers.  I couldn’t agree more.  The result was a 10-track album called Up On The Chair, Beatrice.

The songs they wrote together are what you would expect, given their backgrounds – hook-laden power pop, complete with jangly guitars and memorable choruses.  The highlight is their tight, soaring harmonies.  But don’t let the music distract you from the charming and witty lyrics.  They deliver the complete package.

By the way, Cowsill and Peterson are now really sisters – or at least sisters-in-law.  Peterson married Cowsill’s brother John in 2003.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Scratch My Back, Jan Panter

In the mid-60s, the British music industry seized on the popularity of “girl” singers with artists such as Marianne Faithfull (“As Tears Go By”), Petula Clark (“Downtown”), and Lulu (“To Sir With Love’).

But remaining true to the SotW mission statement, I need to go deeper than those well know singers.  Today’s track is “Scratch My Back” (1966), written and performed by Jan Panter.

The song reeks of mid-60s musical clichés.  It opens with a cowbell counting off quarter notes and a heavy, fuzz guitar riff.  I immediately picture this recording being used in an Austin Powers movie.  Horns and background vocals amp up the intensity.  You can see why it was chosen as the lead track on Ace Records compilation disc Scratch My Back! Pye Beat Girls 1963-1968.

Panter is a decent singer, but there’s no doubt that her good looks and sex appeal helped her launch her musical career.

I perused Discogs to check out the availability of Panter’s singles (she never released a full album).  A copy of “Scratch My Back” will set you back over $300!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Song 2, Blur

In 1997, Blur released their fifth album, simply titled Blur.  The album departed from the Britpop genre on which they built their significant fanbase and positive, critical reputation.  But it was time for a change.

The band’s guitarist, Graham Coxon said “The Blur album was a bit like us walking up a road and seeing what’s up ahead and wanting to try another route before we’d gone too far, a route that was more difficult and challenging, a more worthwhile route for us as musicians.”

So they decided to rough things up a little and scored a #1 album in the UK, though it only reached #61 in the US.  But the album’s “Song 2” made an impression on the US audience and rose all the way to #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

The track features a catchy acoustic guitar riff and simple lyrics.  It also employs the soft/loud tactic used so effectively by the Pixies and Nirvana.  Then there’s that distinctive “woo hoo” chorus that you must admit is quite infectious!

The band may have demoed the song to their record label as a joke but it has had a lasting impact.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Classical Gas, Mason Williams; Only You Know and I Know, Dave Mason; Rock the Boat, Hues Corporation

Playing on the albums Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek & the Dominoes, and George Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass would be enough to cement any musician’s reputation as a superstar.

What if that same artist was a key contributor to all of these past SotW:

  • Midnight At The Oasis – Maria Muldaur
  • Through With Buzz – Steely Dan
  • Jump Into The Fire – Harry Nilsson
  • My Maria – B.W. Stephenson
  • Delta Lady – Leon Russell
  • Run Boy  Run – Longbranch Pennywhistle
  • Goin’ Back/Wasn’t Born to Follow – The Byrds
  • That Old Sweet Roll – The City

And these:

  • Different Drum – Stone Poneys
  • River Deep – Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner
  • Gentle on My Mid/ Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell
  • You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
  • After Midnight – Eric Clapton
  • Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits

I’m referring, of course, to “Big” Jim Gordon.  He was not just a great technical drummer; he also had the innate ability to play the right part to enhance whatever song he was working on.  It was this skill that made him such a sought-after drummer in so many different genres.

Take a listen to “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams.

Jim starts off playing softly, but as the brass comes in, his drums push the recording forward.  The bigger the production gets, the bigger his drums kick in to keep up.

Then there’s “Only You Know and I Know,” by Dave Mason.

Gordon had recorded the song first with Delaney & Bonnie.  But when it came time to make an updated version with Mason, he completely remade his rhythm track.  And it is one of his most creative.  It allows the guitars to swim in and out of his groove.

And who would think he could provide a pattern that would become a template for the disco beat?  Check out his drumming on the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat.”

The Latin-tinged rhythm with the tom-tom offbeats is the song’s defining feature.

Unfortunately, the Jim Gordon story had a very sad ending.  He suffered severe mental illness for most of his life and could not control the voices he heard in his head that ultimately told him he must kill his mother.  He did just that in 1983 and spent the second half of his life institutionalized.

He died one year ago this week at the age of seventy-seven in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital.  A very sad coda to an illustrious career and contribution to rock and roll.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Round the Bend, The Tubs

The Tubs are a Welsh group of indie rockers.  Their lead singer, Owen “O” Williams, has a timbre that sounds like Richard Thompson, and their music falls somewhere between the guitar jangle of R.E.M. and Real Estate.

Their 2023 album, Dead Meat, received high critical praise – and deservedly so.

My choice to expose you to them is “Round the Bend.”

Williams’s favorite subject seems to be his mental health.

I think I’m losing my mind
For good this time
I think I’m going round the bend
We’re losing again

A pain in the arse
Alone, alone and a lot to ask
But here I go
Another manic episode

He recently told MOJO “I get a sick enjoyment out of finding the most embarrassing aspects of myself, my dirty laundry, and airing it in public.  I have OCD, and that’s often based in weird shame, so there’s some therapeutic effect in sharing things like that.  Doing it within a pop song where the melodies are nice brings a little joy to it, at least.”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I’ve Got Ramblin’ On My Mind, Otis Spann

Today’s SotW was penned by Michael Paquette.  Michael has been a friend since my post-grad years in Boston, many years ago.  A long-time blues aficionado, today he gives us a history lesson about the great Otis Spann.

Traditional Chicago blues and Mississippi Delta Blues are a major part of the fabric of American music.  This music is the main influence for much of American jazz and early rock and roll as well as a huge influence on the first wave of British musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, and some early Beatles’ works as well.  The artist featured in this post was a major contributor to both blues styles in his short lifetime. 

Otis Spann was born in Belzoni (some sources say Jackson), Mississippi in 1924 (some sources say 1930).  He began playing the piano at a very early age.  His mother played the guitar and his father was a pianist but Otis got his inspiration from local piano players Coot Davis and Friday Ford.  When he was eight years old he won a piano contest at the Alamo Theatre in Jackson and began playing with local groups in Jackson.

After his mother died in 1947 he moved to Chicago and worked as a plasterer during the day while performing at the Tic Toc Lounge at night.  He was mentored by Big Maceo and after Maceo suffered a heart attack he assisted him at the piano, playing the left-handed parts.  

Otis served a brief stint in the Army and then joined Muddy Waters in his seminal band which would become the group that brought traditional Chicago blues to mainstream America.  With guitar player Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter, it was, without exaggeration, the best band that Muddy ever had and probably the greatest assemblage of blues musicians in one band to the present day.  Otis would go on to play alongside numerous other artists including Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Walter Horton, Johnny Martin, Jr. Wells, and Johnny Shines.  In the 1960s Otis began making records under his own name.  His warm and hoarse voice blends beautifully with his melancholic style, learned from Big Maceo.  The song I have chosen is from his first solo release in 1960.  Teaming with Robert Lockwood, Jr. this song is a fine example of the wonderful and sultry duets they performed together.

Robert Lockwood, Jr. was strongly influenced by his stepfather Robert Johnson who is often considered the Father of the Blues and a huge influence on Eric Clapton.  Lockwood was born in Arkansas in 1915 and played alongside B. B. King and Sonny Boy Williamson among others and then joined Otis as a staff musician for Chess Records.  This team of artists blended beautifully together and they display a melding of Delta and Chicago blues that is unmatched.

Otis Spann was an artist who was described as a somewhat weary and sad-eyed man who was only happy when he was drinking or playing the piano.  Yet he was a friendly man and well-liked by his fellow musicians.  His drinking got the best of him and he died in 1970 of liver failure.  He left behind a legacy of blues piano that is part of the lexicon of a black music tradition that today is nearly extinct from the contemporary music scene.  But these recordings remain an influence on such artists as Kingfish Ingram, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark, Jr., Jonny Lang, and Samantha Fish among others.

As Muddy Waters said of Otis Spann:

“He knew my music better than any man alive.  There is no one left like him who played real, solid bottom blues like he did.  We’d better raise another before it’s too late.”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Ghetto, Donny Hathaway

The Donny Hathaway story is one of the most tragic in 20th-century popular music.

Hathaway was a musical prodigy.  He attended Howard University where he met some of the people he would later work with in the music industry, including drummer Ric Powell and the talented Leroy Hutson.  Hutson co-wrote one of Hathaway’s most political, and well-known songs – “The Ghetto.”

In February 2019, Emily Lordi wrote in The New Yorker:

At the start of the 1969 hit “The Ghetto,” the legendary soul singer Donny Hathaway plays a deep bass line on electric piano and swoops up to his falsetto, as if to outline a shape that the song will fill with guitar, bass, congas, soul claps, and fragments of speech. (“Leave her alone, man,” someone says. Someone else says, “Pass the joint.”) Gradually, the song, in defiance of the two-dimensional image of the depraved “inner city” that was pushed by sociologists in the wake of the urban riots of the sixties, paints a portrait of the ghetto as a site of complex pleasures, untold stories, and unwritten rules.

This song doesn’t depend on lyrics – it mostly relies on the title being changed over and over — but it has an irresistible groove.  It has been covered and sampled a jillion times.

Some view the highlight of his career as the duets he recorded with Roberta Flack, who also attended Howard.  Together they scored a #5 hit with “Where Is the Love.”

Hathaway’s creative gifts and success were unable to help him overcome his mental illness.  He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a condition that impaired his musical career and personal relationships.

On January 13, 1979, Hathaway was found below the 15th-floor window of his room in New York City’s Essex Hotel, the victim of an apparent suicide.  He was only 33.

But he left us with a legacy of beautiful music to remember him by.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Harvest Time, Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah Sanders was one of the greatest tenor sax players of the 20th Century.  After years of collaborating with John Coltrane at the vanguard of the “free jazz” movement, he transitioned into “spiritual jazz”.  Wikipedia describes spiritual jazz as “not follow(ing) a strictly defined musical style but generally features elements of free jazz, avant-garde jazz and modal jazz with influences from Asian and African music.”

Sanders’ 1977 album Pharoah was an underappreciated example of spiritual jazz.  After many years of recording on the respected Impulse! label, Sanders released Pharoah on the independent India Navigation.  It sank into obscurity and was out of print until finally reissued by Luaka Bop in 2021. 

“Harvest Time” took up the whole first side of the original vinyl album.

In a review of the album in MOJO, John Mulvey described “Harvest Time” eloquently:

… a two-chord vamp.  There’s a restrained guitar groove from Tisziji Munoz, weaving in and out of Steve Neil’s equally understated bass line.  Organ comes from Clifton “Jiggs” Chase, who’d go on to produce and co-write Grandmaster Flash’s The Message.  Harmonium shade is provided by Sanders’ then-wife, Bedria, apparently encountering the instrument for the first time.  No drums.  And Sanders himself, conjuring phrases out of his tenor as subtle as breaths, privileging his most sensuous playing rather than his fearsome capacity for skronk.

Sit back and let this meditative music wash over you as you sip your morning coffee.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Eve Was Black, Allison Russell

Today marks the 16th anniversary for the Song of the Week (SotW).  It all started back in the first week of February 2018.  I sent out a couple of MP3s attached to an email without any write up.  One of those songs was the Beatles’ “All My Loving” from the Ed Sullivan Show, which aired 60 years ago yesterday!  Truly a performance that changed the world – and that’s not hyperbole.  Thanks for supporting my posts for all these years.

February is Black History Month.  I enjoy paying tribute to the occasion by featuring artists that speak to the African American experience.  Today let’s shine a spotlight on Allison Russell, a contemporary, Grammy nominated artist.  Russell is a Canadian born resident of Nashville who was nominated for best Americana album last year for Outside Child.

Last September she released her second solo album, The Returner, which might be even better than Outside Child.  The provocative “Eve Was Black” is one of the highlights of the disc.

Eve was Black, haven’t you heard?
The Mother of All was Dark and Good
Eve was Black, didn’t you know?
Is that why you hate my Black Skin so?
Is that why you hate my Black Skin so?

This is boundary pushing Americana!  Russell is a woman that wants to speak her mind, and I like it.

Before focusing on her solo career, Russell was in the band Po’ Girl with Trish Klein (The Be Good Tanyas).  She moved on from there to join her husband JT Nero in Birds of Chicago.  (They have a child together, though Russell identifies as queer.  It’s complicated.)  Later she joined forces with Rhiannon Giddens, and others, in the group Our Native Daughters.

But now her focus is clearly on her doing her own thing, and I’m glad it is.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Just In Time, Rickie Lee Jones

This week I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Rickie Lee Jones from the second row of an intimate venue, the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, CA.  Jones, who will be 70 years old later this year, was in fine voice.  I swear, she sounded just like she did on her Grammy nominated debut album that was released 45 years ago this month!  Her voice was strong, and she could still hit the high notes with ease.

In 2023, she released a new studio album, her 15th, titled Pieces of Treasure.  It is a collection of jazzy standards from the Great American Songbook, sung by Jones with verve and panache.  The disc has received accolades, earning the #46 spot on MOJO’s list of the 75 best albums of 2023, and another Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.  Tomorrow night we will learn if she wins.

Today’s SotW is that album’s lead single, “Just in Time.”

“Just In Time” was written by Jules Styne (music) with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and first released in 1956.  It has been recorded by every famous vocal artist from Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, and Nina Simone.

Jones’ version opens with vibraphone, played by Mike Mainieri.  Mainieri may be best known to SotW readers for his work with Dire Straits and Carly Simon.  But he has been a fixture on the jazz scene too, often collaborating with artists such as Buddy Rich, Bob James, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, and David Sanborn, among others.

Jones wraps her voice around this tender love song.

Just in time
You found me just in time
Before you came
My time was running low

I was lost
The losing dice were tossed
My bridges all were crossed
Nowhere to go

Now you’re here
And now I know just where I’m going
No more doubts or fears
I found my way
‘Cause love came just in time
You found me just in time
Then you changed my lonely life that lovely day

Now you’re here
And now I know just where I’m going
No more doubts or fears
I found my way
‘Cause love came just in time

You found me just in time
Then you changed my lonely life that lovely day
You changed my lonely life that lonely day

If you haven’t read her 2021 memoir, Last Chance Texaco, you should.  It was named Book of the Year by MOJO and Pitchfork, NPR, and other media outlets.

Enjoy… until next week.