Song of the Week – Friend of a Friend, The Smile

The Smile is a band consisting of Radiohead members Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, bass, keys, songwriting) and Jonny Greenwood (guitar, bass, keys, songwriting), and Tom Skinner (drums, percussion, keys, songwriting), the drummer from the jazz group the Sons of Kemet.

The group formed in 2020 – another COVID-19 lockdown project – and has released one album (A Light for Attracting Attention), a couple of live EPs, and a few singles from their second album, Wall of Eyes, scheduled for release on January 26th.

One of those singles is “Friend of a Friend” which hit the “airwaves” on January 9th.

From our window balconies we take a tumble as our
Friends step out to talk and wave and catch a piece of sun

“Friend of a Friend” was inspired when Yorke saw videos of Italians singing to one another and/or playing music from their roofs and balconies during the COVID-19 quarantine.

The music on “Friend of a Friend” has a sound that will be more familiar to Radiohead fans than most of The Smile’s other recordings; especially the crescendos during the “From our window…” sections.  They remind me of the grand buildup of the “24 bar middle section” on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”  Both used classical musicians – “Friend of a Friend” employing the London Symphony Orchestra.  Both also used the Abbey Road studios.

I like this song so much that I cannot wait to hear the whole album!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Marie Marie, The Blasters

The Blasters are a rockabilly band formed in Southern California in 1979.  They were piloted by the Alvin brothers, Phil (guitar and vocals) and Dave (guitars), along with bassist  John Bazz and Bill Bateman on drums.

I first became aware of this group with their self-titled 1981 album.  It kicks off with today’s SotW – “Marie Marie.”

The opening guitar strum intro kills!  And the track takes off from there with high energy.

In a 2014 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Dave Alvin discussed the origins of the song:

“It was one of the earliest songs that I wrote. I don’t think it was the first, but it was the third or fourth. And, yeah, I was laying in my bed, kind of excited about suddenly being in a band and being a guitar player. And so, I have these songs rolling around in my head and the sort of melody and everything kind of came to me. And I thought, well, this would be a great Cajun Balfa Brothers kind of song, and then if you put it to a Chuck Berry beat, this might be pretty cool. But I couldn’t think of any lyrics. And we had a rehearsal the next evening. And so, all that day I was walking around humming this melody. And I was like, what’s it about, what’s it’s about, you know, ’cause I had no idea how to write songs at that point. I still don’t. But I really didn’t have any idea then and I just – whatever I was doing that day, you know, I just – living inside my brain. And then – and the reality was about 30 minutes before we left to go to rehearsal, I sat down at our kitchen table, and I just wrote the lyrics – just came to me. I was kind of – I remember being a little kid and we were driving down this road up near the Puente Hills. And there was an old Victorian farmhouse and there was a girl sitting on the porch with a guitar. And for whatever reason, that image stuck with me and so I just wrote that.”

The British musician Shakin’ Stevens released his own version of the song in 1980 that reached #19 in the UK charts.  But I still prefer The Blasters’ original.

The Blasters are still around and performing, but without Dave Alvin.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Mr. Blue, Clear Light

Happy New Year, readers!

I’m starting 2024 with a psychedelic classic from an obscure late ‘sixties group called Clear Light.  The track is a “far out” cover of a song penned by folkie Tom Paxton, called “Mr. Blue” (1967).

I have to admit that 6 and 1/2 minutes of a song that mixes spoken word segments with fuzzed out psychedelia can be a bit much for some (most?) people, but I dig it for the period piece that it is.  At about 5:30, the band goes into a frenetic wig out that sounds much like their Elektra labelmates, The Doors.

Keyboardist Ralph Schuckett has told the story of playing a morning gig in the chapel of a prep school in Massachusetts in August 1967.  In his account, the “fresh faced, squeaky clean ‘old family’ teenage boys” at the school had no idea what to make of the stoned hippie musicians in Clear Light.  His story continues:

“At the cacophonous end of ‘Mr Blue,’ Dallas and Michael knocked over their drums, Bob was Townshending all over the place, hitting the gleaming wood railings and pews. Cliff banged his mic on the floor and things. There’s not much you can do to a Hammond organ without the proper tools, which I didn’t have, but I was sort of shaking it back and forth and running my hands up and down till they literally bled all over the keys. When the carnage sort of petered out, the band was in the car and on the highway in seconds.”

The band was also a little ahead of the curve with the idea to use two drummers – one of them being Dallas Taylor who would go on to greater fame as the drummer on CSN&Y’s classic Déjà Vu album.  This is a lineup the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers would adopt some time later.

In order to keep their branding message focused, Clear Light was named after a potent formula of LSD. 

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye & Trouble Child, Joni Mitchell

Today’s post is the next installment in my newest concept – the Contrast Series.  Today I’ll cover Mavin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and “Trouble Child” by Joni Mitchell.

Aside from the obvious fact that both songs have the word “trouble” in their titles, you might be surprised to find out they are connected far more intimately.

Marvin Gaye’s song was the title track for the soundtrack album to the Blaxploitation film directed by Ivan Dixon that was released in 1972.  Dixon was best known for his acting roles in a couple of Twilight Zone episodes and as “Kinch” Kinchloe in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes on CBS running 1965-1971.

“Trouble Man” describes the sticky situations the film’s lead, Mister T, encounters.

I come up hard baby, but now I’m cool
I didn’t make it sugar, playin’ by the rules
I come up hard baby, but now I’m fine
I’m checkin’ trouble sugar, movin’ down the line
I come up hard baby, but that’s okay
‘Cause Trouble Man, don’t get in my way
I come up hard baby, I’ve been for real, baby
Gonna keep movin’, gonna go to town
I come up hard, I come up gettin’ down
There’s only three things that’s for sure
Taxes, death and trouble, oh
This I know, baby, this I know, sugar
Girl, ain’t gon’ let it sweat me, babe

That part about “taxes, death and trouble” might relate more to Gaye’s personal life.

Joni Mitchell was fond of this song.  By 1998, she had added it to the set list for some of her concert performances.  She once explained “In the process of learning [the song] for performance, I discovered how truly original and eccentric the form of it is.”

In the early 2000s, Starbucks released a series of exclusive CD albums called Artist’s Choice.  For each, a famous musician was asked to curate an album’s worth of their favorite songs.  The Joni Mitchell version that came out in 2005, had 18 selections, the 15th being “Trouble Man.”  In the CD’s liner notes, Mitchell explained why she chose each of the songs on the disc.  For “Trouble Man, she said “I had this song on an album and I kept the needle on this track—playing it over and over.  It was so influential to my music and my singing. It excites me from the downbeat—the way the drums roll in – the suspense – the approaching storm of it.”

Mitchell’s 1974 classic, Court and Spark, included a song called “Trouble Child.” 

There is speculation that Gaye’s “Trouble Man” influenced this song.  While the lyrical theme isn’t the identical, there are similarities.  Gaye’s subject is in trouble with the law and gangsters.  Mitchell’s subject’s trouble is with inner conflicts and self-doubt.

Up in a sterilized room
Where they let you be lazy
Knowing your attitude’s all wrong
And you got to change
And that’s not easy
Dragon shining with all values known
Dazzling you, keeping you from your own
Where is the lion in you to defy him
When you’re this weak
And this spacey

So what are you going to do about it
You can’t live life and you can’t leave it
Advice and religion, you can’t take it
You can’t seem to believe it
The peacock is afraid to parade
You’re under the thumb of the maid
You really can’t give love in this condition
Still you know how you need it

Lyrics aside, the jazzy sophistication of the music is undeniably similar to the direction Gaye pursued.

These are both songs that are under the radar but deserve closer listening.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Now That Everything’s Been Said, Spring

In 1972 an eponymous album by Spring (later called American Spring) was released.  The group consisted of the duo Marilyn Wilson (Beach Boy Brian’s wife) and Diane Rovell, who along with Ginger Blake were The Honeys in the ‘60s.

Spring’s album received critical praise but sank like a stone in the charts.  The album consisted of mostly covers – “Tennessee Waltz,” “Mama Said,” “Superstar” – and a hand full of originals provided by Brian Wilson, including “Good Time.”  “Good Time” began as a candidate for the Beach Boys’ Sunflower album (1970) but didn’t make the cut.  The backing track was tossed over to Spring to add vocals for their record.  The song was eventually released by the Beach Boys on their 1977 disc, The Beach Boys Love You.

But the best song on the album is their cover of Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said.”

“Now That Everything’s Been Said” was the title of the album released by King’s band, The City, in 1968.  (The City was a subject of my post on November 13, 2021.)  Like Spring, Now That Everything’s Been Said also failed to connect with the public despite critical acclaim.

The song “Now That Everything’s Been Said” would have fit nicely on either of King’s Tapestry or Music LPs.  It is a piano based song that bounces along like a kid on a pogo stick.  It has a pleasant melody and lyrics about a lover that picks up and leaves unexpectedly.

Spring isn’t available on Spotify, but you can hear the whole album on YouTube.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Cool About It, boygenius

Every December for the past many years, a group of younger people in my family, mainly millenniums, send me their five favorite songs for the year.  I build an anonymous Spotify playlist and share it with the group.  Part of the fun is guessing who selected which songs.  It is a great way for an old geezer like me to keep a finger on the pulse of what younger people are listening to.  But it also prompts me to think about my favorite songs, albums, and artists from the year.

That leads me to boygenius – the “supergroup” that’s made up of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus – all talented and successful artists in their own right.

They released their first full length album this year called the record.  It is a worthy follow up to their 2018 EP that gave us the first taste of what they could accomplish together.

All three of the group members take their turn with the pen, so it’s hard to choose just one SotW from this fine album, but I’m going with “Cool About It”.

“Cool About It” is a gentle folk song centering on acoustic guitar and banjo.  It would fit nicely on a Simon & Garfunkel album.  The harmonies are stunning.

The lyrics tell the story of the singer meeting up either with an ex or someone she has a crush on, and trying to act like she doesn’t have feelings for him/her.

Met you at the dive bar to go shoot some pool
And make fun of the cowboys with the neck tattoos
Ask you easy questions about work and school

I’m trying to be cool about it
Feelin’ like an absolute fool about it
Wishin’ you were kind enough to be cruel about it
Tellin’ myself I can always do without it
Knowin’ that it probably isn’t true

This song is just a small sample of what boygenius is all about.  And don’t let this one song fool you.  The rest of the album is powerful indie Rock.  Its place on the record takes the role that “Landslide” fills on Fleetwood Mac.  Check out the complete record and this video from their recent appearance on Saturday Night Live.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – What a Way to Die, Pleasure Seekers

Ignored             Obscured              Restored

Back on January 18, 2014, I wrote a post called “Pioneering 70s All Women Bands.”  In it, I credited the band Fanny with being the first “self-contained, all women rock band to get a major label deal.”  Well, that may have been true of ‘70s bands, but not 100% accurate.

You see, in the 60s, a Detroit based, all women band called the Pleasure Seekers was formed.  They comprised future rock star Suzi Quatro and her sister Patti, along with Nancy Ball (drums), Mary Lou Ball (guitar), and Diane Baker (piano).  The group looked and acted tough, like the Shangri-Las, but with instruments.  By 1968 the group had landed a deal with Mercury Records and released a couple of singles.

But my favorite is the B-side of the single they released in 1966 on the indie Hideout Records label.  The Hideout was a teen club in Harper Woods, Michigan that also had a record label.  Hideout released records by The Omens, a band that included a young Bob Seger, and the Mushrooms, with Glenn Frey.

“What a Way to Die” is wild, guitar-based garage rock.  The vocals by 15-year-old Suzi are uninhibited, shrieking, and strained – perfectly suited to the song.  Each verse is followed by a cool, little guitar motif.  And it has a familiar, 60s, British Invasion styled ending.

Suzi Quatro would go on to release a slew of albums in the 70s that were much more popular abroad (Europe and Australia) than in the US.  But she gained fame here as an actress, playing the role of Leather Tuscadero in the ABC television series Happy Days.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Female Lead, Honeyglaze

One of my favorite songs of 2023 is “Female Lead” by Honeyglaze.

Honeyglaze is trio form South London.  Their calling card is quirky, eclectic indie rock.  Take, for instance, today’s SotW – “Female Lead”.  In this hilarious 2 minute pop song, the protagonist (singer Anouska Sokolow) bleaches her hair blonde because she thinks it will make her look like Madonna (or other famous blonde actresses).  But the treatment goes horribly wrong.  The funniest line is that she’s concerned she let her mother down.

I watched my favourite movie
And thought that maybe I could be
Just like the female lead
So I went out to buy some bleach

I put it in my black hair
And waited for an hour
But when I washed it out
Oh, God, I’ve let my mother down

I look nothin’ like Madonna
More like an ’80s horror film
I’ll have to wear a hat
Until my golden hair turns black

Sokolow’s breathy vocals convey how women are under pressure to conform to a certain standard of beauty.  She has said of the song:

“I was overwhelmed by the state of the world during the first lockdown and constantly being surrounded by bad news. It was a time when people were playing with changing their appearance and I felt incapable of writing anything of any actual importance so I decided to write about something as completely arbitrary as dyeing my hair.  I was inspired by the song ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-las and the narrative heavy pop songs that were coming out of the Brill building during the 60s.”

“Female Lead” will be on my “best of” song list for 2023.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Through With Buzz, Steely Dan

As most of you know, I’m a major Steely Dan fan.  How can I prove it?  How about admitting that I really like “Through with Buzz” from Pretzel Logic (1974).

Most Rock critics and fans alike rate it as one of the Dan’s worst songs.  Released as the B-side to the “Pretzel Logic” single, it is very unusual by Steely Dan standards.  First of all, it is their shortest recording, clocking in at about 90 seconds.  That leads to the next criticism – that it doesn’t go anywhere.  How far can you take a song that only lasts a minute and a half?  I’ve never had a problem with short songs.  I once wrote a SotW post about a couple of my favorite short songs (July 11, 2009).

All that said, Walter Becker and Donal Fagen make the most of their limited time.  The short verses – one line each – with the repeated “You know I’m through with Buzz, Yes I’m through with Buzz” conveys the frustration the singer feels toward Buzz.  He’s done, over it!  He can barely say another word to, or about the guy.

If you scour the internet, you’ll find the most common interpretation of the song is that it is about drugs.  But Fagen has been quoted as saying:

“Through With Buzz’ was just about a more-or-less platonic relationship between two young people. There’s nothing really sexual about it until one of the young people in the relationship realizes he’s being used and starts having paranoid fantasies and breaks off the relationship. There’s no symbolism or anything. We never used puns. It’s a very saccharine sounding track with a very cynical lyric. We often do that for an ironic purpose. That is to juxtapose a rather bitter against rather sweet music.”

Another thing that draws me to the song is the band’s use of strings.  “Buzz” is the only song in their catalog to use strings other than “FM”.  But the string arrangement on “Buzz” is so much more interesting.  It is the star of the dish.  It comes across more like a “classical” arrangement you might expect from ELO or from the Beatles on songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home.”  It’s beautiful.

Give “Buzz” a fresh listen.  I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by how fresh it sounds.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Outrageous, Paul Simon

Today’s post was written by my friend Julie Chervin.  Julie has a very deep appreciation for good music in a wide variety of styles that she demonstrated in her suggestions for our repertoire when we were in bands together.

Paul Simon wrote “Father and Daughter” as the theme song for the 2002 animated family film The Wild Thornberrys Movie.  At the time, the song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and in 2006 was released in an alternate version on Simon’s album Surprise in 2006.  Surprise reached number 14 on the Billboard 200 and number 4 in the UK, was written with significant collaboration from Brian Eno, and was largely inspired by 9/11, the Iraq invasion and the wars that followed.  Another critical inspiration for the album as a whole was that Simon had turned 60 in 2001.

Outrageous”, the third cut on the album, was also released as its third single.

While it received some radio airplay, it never reached the pop heights of “Father and Daughter”. A thoughtful, catchy, and playful tune that transitions rhythmically, melodically, and lyrically to carry the listener from an angry “old person’s” rant to a humble appreciation of loving and being loved, is perhaps the track that most explicitly represents Simon’s reflections on aging:

Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?

Tell me, who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?

(Instrumental transition)

God will

Like he waters the flowers on your window sill

Take me

I’m an ordinary player in the key of C

And my will 

Was broken by my pride and my vanity

Surprise was heralded as a “comeback” for Simon by some, but so far as this listener is concerned, he never left!  For an even more playful reflection on aging by Simon, also check out “The Afterlife” on the 2011 album So Beautiful or So What

Happy Listening!

Enjoy… until next week.