Song of the Week – In a Manner of Speaking, Tuxedomoon

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

In the late 1970s, there was a post-punk band out of San Francisco called Tuxedomoon.  Their first album, Half-Mute (1980), was released on Ralph Records, home to another avant-garde Bay area band – The Residents.

Their fourth album, Holy Wars (1985), included today’s SotW – “In a Manner of Speaking.”  It is their most well known song, though probably few of you have ever heard it.

The song has sparse instrumentation; a simple riff — first on keys, then guitar – with a whistled melody that transforms into a haunting electronic whirr that emphasizes the tortured vocal and lyrics.

In a manner of speaking I just want to say
That I could never forget the way
You told me everything by saying nothing
In a manner of speaking I don’t understand
How love in silence becomes reprimand
But the way I feel about you is beyond words

Oh, give me the words
Give me the words
That tell me nothing
Give me the words
That tell me everything

I find the line “You told me everything by saying nothing” to be beautifully evocative.

Tuxedomoon composed songs using unusual instrumentation and electronics, at least for “rock” music.  In that regard, they remind me of yet another avant-garde band from the ‘80s, Pere Ubu.

Wikipedia gives a quote from original band member Steve Brown that describes their musical raison d’etre:

“The only rule was the tacit understanding that anything that sounded like anyone else was taboo.”

They most often succeeded at creating music that was fresh and unique.  That probably accounts for their lack of widespread popularity and ultimate cult status.  But you have to admit, “In a Manner of Speaking” is strangely catchy.

I can hear how Tuxedomoon would have been an influence on groups like Depeche Mode.  In fact, that band’s Martin Gore covered “In a Manner of Speaking” on his 1989 EP, Counterfeit.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – December, Teenage Fanclub

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Teenage Fanclub is a Scottish band that reached the height of its popularity in the ‘90s.  The core band was Norman Blake (vocals, guitar), Raymond McGinley (vocals, lead guitar), and Gerard Love (vocals, bass)  All three were songwriters and worked with an occasional keyboardist and a revolving cast of drummers.

Their most popular album was Bandwagonesque and was voted the Album of the Year by Spin magazine in 1991 (beating out Nirvana’s Nevermind).

The SotW is the timely “December”, written and sung by Love.

Musically, “December” is slower than many TFC songs.  The guitars are reminiscent of their contemporaries, The Jesus and Mary Chain.  A false ending is rescued with strings.

The lyrics are vague, ending with the repeated line “I wanted to assassinate December.”

The band Big Star is often cited as a major influence on TFC and Bandwagonesque, in particular.  That may offer a clue as to what the “assassinate December” line is referencing.  Big Star’s classic “September Gurls” has the line “December boys got it bad.”

It sounds to me like an acknowledgment of the cold, bleakness of December, or the depression that afflicts many people during the holidays.

TFC is still around (albeit without Love) and released an excellent album, Endless Arcade, as recently as 2021.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Turn it on Salvador, Toy Matinee

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A few weeks ago, I was ushering at the Guild in Menlo Park and was having a very nice conversation about music with one of our guests.  Through our conversation, I learned that his son, Alex Jordan, was sitting in on keys and vocals with the warm-up group, Santa Cruz’s Wolf Jett.  The dad, Jay Jordan, was the music teacher at Junipero Serra High School, in San Mateo, CA, for over forty years.  Serra’s most famous alumnus is quarterback Tom Brady.

Jay told me he knew Brady back in the day but was very proud of another Serra alumnus that he worked with as the music teacher.  He asked if I was familiar with the work of Kevin Gilbert.  (I wasn’t.)  He told me Gilbert had an interesting backstory that I should look into.  I did, and Jay was right – Gilbert has a very colorful and interesting backstory.  Here’s the thumbnail (courtesy of Wikipedia):

  • Gilbert was an accomplished composer, singer, producer, and instrumentalist who played keyboards, guitar, bass guitar, cello, and drums.
  • Released the eponymous No Reasons Given album with Jason Hubbard in 1984.
  • Toured with Eddie Money.
  • Placed 2nd in the 1988 Yamaha International Rock Music Competition with his progressive rock group Giraffe.
  • Worked on the projects of several established pop musicians, including Madonna (I’m Breathless), Michael Jackson, and Keith Emerson.
  • Released one album with his next group, the eclectic Toy Matinee.
  • Was part of the LA songwriting collective “The Tuesday Music Club”.
  • Introduced his then-girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, to The Tuesday Music Club which became the title of her debut album.
  • Released his first solo album Thud in 1995.
  • Reformed Giraffe to perform the Genesis double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Progfest ’94, reflecting his fondness for progressive rock and early Genesis in particular.
  • Died in 1996 of autoerotic asphyxiation.

This is exactly the type of story I wanted to share when I started the SotW almost 15 years ago!

Today’s SotW is “Turn it on Salvador” by Toy Matinee.

It was dedicated to Salvador Dali and features backing vocals by Julian Lennon.  I like the arrangement that is mostly typical power pop but incorporates New Orleans jazz elements at the end using Sal’s Clarinet Trio.

Gilbert was an unhappy person.  He was never able to gain the fame and recognition that his talent deserved.  That frustrated him, as did the superstar status of Crow whose career he played a significant role in launching.

As for his early death at age 29, look it up yourself.  I prefer not to go into the salacious details here.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Vinnie’s Lookin’ Good, Dan Hicks

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Dan Hicks made music that both was and wasn’t of its time.  He created his own brand of swing, I call it hippie swing, that harkened back to influences from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s without turning off his contemporary audience as performing corny, old-timey music.

Hicks released four albums with his band, the Hot Licks, between 1969 and 1973, when he broke up the band.  In those years Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks released several classic songs, including “I Scare Myself”, “Canned Music”, “Walkin’ One and Only” (skillfully covered by Maria Muldaur), and the hilarious “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”.

For the next 5 years, he was on hiatus from releasing music but resurfaced with a solo album, It Happened One Bite, in 1978.

… One Bite is a terrific album.  It includes “Cruzin’”, “Crazy ‘Cause He Is”, and today’s SotW, “Vinnie’s Lookin’ Good”.

The interesting thing about … One Bite is that it was originally written as the soundtrack for a film by Ralph Bakshi, the director behind the X-rated, animated, Fritz the Cat (1972).

In 1975, Bakshi was working on his next full-length movie to be called Hey Good Lookin’.  It used a combination of animated and live-action characters. However, it ran into problems and wasn’t released until 1982 – without the live-action and without the Hicks soundtrack.  (Rumor has it a performance by the New York Dolls was one of the live-action sequences that fell to the cutting room floor.)  But fortunately for us, Hicks signed with Warner Brothers in 1978, resurrected his soundtrack, and released it as It Happened One Bite.

If you like the revivalist western swing of Asleep at the Wheel or Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, you will dig “Vinnie’s Lookin’ Good”.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Love Came, Felix Cavaliere

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

In the mid ‘70s, Felix Cavaliere of the (Young) Rascals released his first two solo albums on the Bearsville label.  The first was produced by Todd Rundgren, but Cavaliere was not pleased with his work.  The second, self-produced Destiny (1975), allowed him to “spread his wings” to deliver an album more to his liking.  It contained the outstanding “Love Came”, today’s SotW.

Cavaliere enlisted help from some of New York’s best studio musicians at the time – horn players David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, George Young, and Joe Farrell, and Foghat’s Rod Price and Leslie West on guitars.  Although not all of them were on “Love Came”, the song does have some excellent horn solos – first a trombone (at about 2:10), then a sax-trombone dual (at about 3:10) to take us home.  I wish I knew specifically which players performed these solos.

On “Love Came” Buzz Feiten played guitar and electric sitar, and was the horn arranger.  But the highlight of the song is the wonderful backing vocals provided by the queen of blue-eyed-soul, Laura Nyro.  Cavaliere and Nyro were friends from when he produced her album Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1971).

Destiny is available on Spotify if you’re interested in exploring it further.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – When We Disappear, The Mother Hips

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I attended a concert by The Mother Hips at the new Guild Theater in Menlo Park last Saturday.  They played their recently released single “When We Disappear” which will be on their new album of the same name upon its release in January 2023.

The band’s press release says:

Based in Northern California, the Hips headed to New Mexico, spending time at Ghost Ranch before settling in at Jono Manson’s Kitchen Sink studio in Sante Fe in late 2021 for the sessions. Self-produced, When We Disappear features nine new tracks co-written by co-founders Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono — a collection of lit-psych rock songs Inspired by psychology and literature — as well as a raw, garagey cover of Buffy St. Marie’s 1964 addiction song “Codine.”

They also played “Codine” at last Saturday’s show.

The Hips are a sort of cottage industry here in California, much like NRBQ was in the northeast back in their day.  Founded in Chico when Bluhm and Loiacono met in college in 1990, they are still based in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  Their tour dates through year-end have them performing in Oregon, Utah, and about a dozen more gigs up and down the CA coast.

Their own (Mother Hips) website describes their sound aptly as:

… architects of a new breed of California rock and soul, one equally informed by the breezy harmonies of the Beach Boys, the funky roots of The Band, and the psychedelic Americana of Buffalo Springfield.  Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “one of the Bay Area’s most beloved live outfits,” the group’s headline and festival performances became the stuff of legend and helped earn them dates with everyone from Johnny Cash and Wilco to Lucinda Williams and The Black Crowes.  Rolling Stone called the band “divinely inspired,” while Pitchfork praised their “rootsy mix of 70’s rock and power pop,” and The New Yorker lauded their ability to “sing it sweet and play it dirty.”

If The Mother Hips play in a town near you, run to see them.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Why Worry, Dire Straits

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I realized recently that I don’t feature many ballads, so today I’m switching up.

The SotW is “Why Worry” by Dire Straits, from the multi-platinum album Brothers in Arms (1985).

“Why Worry” has a perfect combination of music and lyrics.  The music has a beautiful melody that is reminiscent of an Everly Brothers style song.  (In fact, the Everly Brothers covered it!)  The music is proficiently played by Mark Knopfler and his band, with a little extra help from Tony Levin playing the bass part on his Chapman Stick.  (Levin had to be brought in when regular bassist John Illsley had a roller skating accident and sprained his wrist.)

It clocks in at over 8 minutes, which gives it room to breathe in the instrumental sections.  That is, unless you’re listening to the vinyl version that is abridged to 5:22 to avoid a “groove crowding” problem.

In the lyrics, sung in a near whisper, a friend or lover offers words of comfort to someone in need.

Baby, I see this world has made you sad
Some people can be bad
The things they do, the things they say

But baby, I’ll wipe away those bitter tears
I’ll chase away those restless fears
That turn your blue skies into gray

Why worry
There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now
Why worry now

I found this terrific synopsis of “Why Worry” on the internet but can’t recall the attribution.

The (album) side ends on ‘Why Worry’ which is kind of the mirror image of the last song: instead of a bitter betrayal from a distance this is the warmth of a new relationship up close, with the narrator seeking to calm the fears of his loved one. Despite being the last and poorest selling of all the album’s singles, it’s probably the most covered song Knopfler’s ever written (Art Garfunkel does a great version of this song), despite the fact that no one else could have come up with the lovely extended opening which is born for Mark’s crystal clear guitar work. His vocal is up to speed now, too, and the equal of his fine lyrics about turning problems around (another common idea, sure, but well handled here: would that other songs providing comfort had the chorus line ‘there should be laughter after pain, there should be sunshine after rain, so why worry now?’) The one real love song on the album, its moving indeed, the aural equivalent of a blanket a hot water bottle and a box of chocolates, looking for positives in negatives. Interestingly this song is very similar in mood, theme and structure to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – an album very close to ‘Brothers In Arms’ on the list of best-selling albums – suggesting that what a wannabe successful artist should record for their first album is a kind of warm audio hug; both songs are slow and ponderous but with enough going on to keep the excitement – perhaps more importantly both songs are closely rooted to gospel, although here the music is dominated not by an organ or piano but by Alan Clark’s subtle synthesiser work. Alas two things prevent this from becoming the highlight of the album: the mix of this song is awful; its much quieter than the songs either side of it (despite neither being particularly noisy) with Knopfler’s vocal, which should be the centrepoint of the song, ducked quieter than anything else in the mix; there’s also yet another extended ending which despite giving Knopfler’s guitar a good work out sounds more like a battle than act of comforting and undoes much of the atmosphere built up on the track’s first four minutes. Still, this is a lovely song even with all the ‘mistakes’ and it deserves its place in the pantheon of great AAA ‘covered’ songs.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I’m Still a Struggling Man, Edwin Starr

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Edwin Starr was a soul shouter that had a couple of minor hits on the Ric-Tic label in the mid-’60s – “Agent Double-O-Soul” and “Stop Her on Sight (S.O.S.)”.  When Berry Gordy bought out Ric-Tic and took their talent roster over to his Motown label, Starr scored big with “25 Miles” (#6) and “War” (#1), in 1969 and 1970, respectively.

In between, he released “I’m Still a Struggling Man”.  The SotW strives to bring attention to the lesser-known but deserved releases.

The song is a plea to his woman to be loyal in love to a man who isn’t financially secure and struggling to get by.

You better stop fooling if you want to get along with me
We grew up on the block and we know about poverty
So, tell all your high-falutin’ friends we just can’t compete
It’s only been a little while and I just got on my feet

And I’m still a struggling man
Doing the best that I can
I can only take it, girl, I can only make it, girl
Long as you, you understand that baby

“… Struggling Man” and Starr were both hits in the Northern Soul scene in the UK.  His popularity in the UK led him to move there permanently in 1983 where he stayed until his death from a heart attack at age 61, in 2003.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I Love My Shirt, Donovan

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Sometimes music is emotional.  Sometimes sophisticated.  Sometimes political.  But sometimes it’s just for pure, simple fun.

In that vein I offer “I Love My Shirt” by Donovan from the underappreciated Barabajagal (1969) album.

So there it is!  Don’t judge me.  That’s all I have to say except…

Enjoy… until next week.