Later today I’ll be enjoying a wine tasting at the fabulous Hafner Winery in the Alexander Valley region of Sonoma County. I thought it would be fun to make a “wine music” playlist to listen to on the drive up. So why not share it with you?
The selection here isn’t my complete playlist, but it has a few of the highlights. It covers a broad range of genres; from R&B to reggae, blues, rock, and even jazz.
I’ll pass on making my usual commentary and analysis. This is just for fun!
If you’re interested in hearing the complete playlist, you can check it out here on Spotify:
Today’s SotW was written by my buddy, guest contributor Steve Studebaker. His band, Blind to Reason, gigs regularly in San Francisco’s East Bay. He’s also fun to be with when exploring the music and food scene in New Orleans.
Electric guitar players are tone seekers and gear junkies, always searching for that next piece of kit that will transform their thin, plinky sound into the psychedelic roar of Hendrix or the down and dirty funky blues of Billy Gibbons. There are many Youtube channels dedicated to this quest. One of my favorites is ‘That Pedal Show’ hosted by Mick Taylor and Dan Steinhardt. They do deep dives into pedals, amps, and how to combine them to find that magic tone. They also will shout out guitar players that have sounds that move them.
I was watching a show from 2019 where they were hosting the guys from Walrus Audio, a boutique pedal company. Mick started blasting fuzz and delay and harmonic tremolo and some other cool stuff mixed together. He then said he was getting all ‘Blake Mills’, and the Walrus guys mentioned Blake and the ‘Heigh Ho’ album. I said, “Hmm, maybe I should check this out.” Which started a deep dive into all things Blake.
This SotW is focused on his 2014 album Heigh Ho. Guests include Fiona Apple, Jim Keltner, Don Was, Benmont Tench, Jon Brion, and Mike Elizondo. Mills recorded Heigh Ho at the legendary Ocean Way Recording studios in a room built for Frank Sinatra. Every song on the album is good, ranging from indie ballads to fuzz-drenched roots music. It’s hard to pick one, but the track I keep coming back to is “Gold Coast Sinkin”. It’s got a cool, mid-tempo groove, some fuzzy guitars, and a feel that somehow makes me think of one of my favorite Beach Boys songs and a former SotW, “Feel Flows.”
For me, a song is usually 80-20 music to lyrics, so I didn’t know what the song was about until I sat down to write this. With Blake being a California surfer, it’s not a stretch to figure out why he would be on the Gold Coast of Australia:
Ain’t no better way to spend our time Warm my bones with your steady breathing Put a worm out on a line Make a home that we’re never leaving A door wide open all the time
Go to Spotify and check out the rest of Heigh Ho. It’s a lost gem full of good writing and cool guitar sounds with superstar drummer Jim Kelter’s drunken grooves throughout.
If you like what you hear, go deeper and check out the Tiny Desk Show with Blake and superstar bassist Pino Palladino. Freeform jazz from outer space? Maybe, but very cool nonetheless.
An interesting read is the 2020 Washington Post article “How Blake Mills became good at everything.”
Lucy Dacus is a talented singer/songwriter that released her first album, No Burden, in 2016 when she was just 21 years old. It received significant critical acclaim as have her other works, including albums Historian (2018), Home Video (2021), and EP Boygenius (2018), her collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.
One of the best songs on Home Video has a particularly interesting backstory. “Thumbs” was written about a night when Dacus went out to a bar with a friend to a meeting with the friend’s ne’er-do-well, mostly absent father. By the end of the get-together, she was fantasizing about killing the man.
I would kill him If you let me I would kill him Quick and easy Your nails are digging Into my knee I don’t know How you keep smiling
Then she tries to give agency back to her friend by reassuring her:
I wanna take your face between my hands and say “You two are connected by a pure coincidence Bound to him by blood, but baby, it’s all relative You’ve been in his fist ever since you were a kid But you don’t owe him shit even if he said you did You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did”
The minimalist musical accompaniment adds to the drama of the scene. The tone of it reminds me of Suzanne Vega’s a cappella “Tom’s Diner.”
In an interview with MOJO’s Victoria Segal, Dacus was asked “Your songs (on Home Video) are so personal and specific, do you worry about the subjects coming to find you?” Dacus replied:
“That’s one of my biggest sources of anxiety right now because there’s a lot of songs that are on the record that are about people I haven’t spoken to for a really long time, I think in my previous records I’ve been really careful about not writing about people that I wouldn’t want to hear from, but that cut me off from a lot of material. If people reach out to me, I am prepared to talk to them – it just makes my stomach hurt to think about it.”
But it doesn’t necessarily turn out bad. For “Thumbs”, Dacus was quoted in Rolling Stone saying:
“… my friend that it’s about told me, ‘The song is about the fact that you were there for me on that day. And that’s not sad at all.’”
Fifty years ago a singer named Lyn Collins released a funk record that would become a very influential song in hip hop; samples from it were used in dozens of rap songs. That record, written and produced by James Brown, was “Think (About It).”
“Think (About It)’ only made it to #66 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but did reach the top 10 on the Soul chart.
If you’re familiar with “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, you will instantly recognize the distinctive “Woo-Yeah” sample that is the heart of “It Takes Two.” A 1989 article in Spin magazine ranked it as the greatest single of all time! (Spin was obviously trying hard to be hip.)
On its own, “Think” is a fun listen. The grooves are funky and support Collins’ muscular growl. Her performance is worthy of the female empowerment lyrics.
Hey, fellas I’m talking to you, you and you too Do you guys know who I’m talking to?
Those of you who go out and stay Out all night and half the next day And expect us to be home When you get there
But let me tell you something The sisters are not going for that no more ‘Cause we realize two things That you aren’t doing anything for us We can better do by ourselves
So from now on, we gonna use What we got to get what we want
So, you’d better think, think Now’s the time when we have That’s the thing I never will forget
Collins died in 2005 at the age of 56, from heart disease.
Today’s SotW is coming to you from the great city of New Orleans. It is quite a bit different than most of my posts. For starters, it reaches back to the early 1930s, by far the oldest song I’ve ever featured. It is “Heebie Jeebies” by NOLA’s own Boswell Sisters.
The Boswell Sisters were a trio of real-life siblings led by Connie Boswell, who was unable to walk due to a childhood bout with polio, and her sisters Martha and Vet. As a result, the group typically performed with Connie and Martha seated at the piano with Vet standing behind them. This was a ploy designed to disguise Connie’s disability.
When you first hear this song, it will remind you of other female, harmony vocal groups, like the Andrew Sisters, whom the Boswells preceded and influenced. But don’t be fooled. The Boswells were classically trained musicians but were also jazz hipsters true to their New Orleans roots. In fact, the original recording of “Heebie Jeebies” was originally recorded by New Orleans jazz icon Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in 1926.
But don’t take my word for it. In his book Eminent Hipsters, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen discusses the Boswells’ version of “Heebie Jeebies.”
The Boswells could have just remade the record in their key. Instead, they bust the piece out by giving it a nuanced dramatic structure complete with tempo changes, ritenutos (slowdowns), additional lyrics, new melodic material, special vocal effects and their unmatchable group dynamics…
After a wordless introduction, the Sisters rip into the chorus. They’ve got the heebie jeebie blues and the only cure is to bring the feeling to critical mass by doing the heebie jeebie dance. Then Martha’s piano slows to an easy blues tempo and Connie, in an ethereal solo, explains the situation:
I been havin’ ‘em – havin’ ‘em all day long
I got the heebies but I can’t go wrong
‘Cause when I got ‘em I just roll along
Now listen everybody while I sing this song…
The newly composed melody and lyrics in this section totally change the character of the piece. Suddenly, having a case of the heebie jeebies isn’t all that funny. It’s a specific sort of agitated depression, and moreover, now stated by Connie as a gentle blues, it’s a state of mind specific to women. Banishing the blue devils with a beat, Martha and Vet then join in at the faster tempo. One chorus later, they paraphrase Armstrong’s scat vocal, but arranged as an ensemble for all three voices. Finally, they correct the Hot Fives’ famously flubbed hokum finish, and all is well again on Camp Street. The Boswells have transformed Armstrong’s party tune into a sonic moving picture of a woman’s inner life over a day’s time. And all this without sacrificing any jazz heat.
Here’s the Louis Armstrong version for context.
There are two items of note regarding Armstrong’s recording. The first is that accounts of the recording session have reported that his scat vocal was spontaneous because he dropped his lyric sheet during the take. The other point of interest is what Fagen referred to as the “famously flubbed hokum finish.” Wikipedia describes it as “a line (that) is delivered too early, leaving the break over which it should have been spoken completely empty.”
If you like this song by the Boswell s\Sisters, dig a little deeper. There are treasures to be discovered!
I had this idea to write a post that featured a few of my favorite rock songs with a Latin flavor. But not the obvious ones performed by Latin artists like Santana. As I listened to them, I realized I didn’t have the technical expertise to properly describe them. Were they Samba, Rhumba, Bossa Nova? How do you tell the difference?
I strive for factual accuracy in these posts (though I’m sure I’ve made mistakes) so I gave a list of my selections to my high school friend, Dan D, who has a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) and teaches courses in trumpet, Chamber Music, Music Theory and The Beatles. I asked Dan for help. Here’s what he had to say:
So I gave a listen to these (songs) with your question in mind. The Samba, Rhumba, and Bossa Nova all share similar characteristics and each one of these works are not completely defined by the Latin genre – they are Latin-infused rock tunes. The genre not closely identified in any of them as rhumba. The conga sound is prevalent in any of them. For rhumba, the Beatle cover of “Mr. Moonlight” by Roy Lee Johnson fits that bill. Samba and Bossa Nova are closely allied. Often, the Bossa Nova is associated with jazz idioms. I could identify a jazz flavor in the Guess Who and Steely Dan tunes but it is not really that strong to differentiate. So with all that said, I am most apt to describe these tunes with a Samba flavor. Whew! A long, winding answer!
Thanks, Dan! So here are a few tunes I like that are loosely tied together through “a Samba flavor.”
“Undun” was the B-side to The Guess Who’s “Laughing.” Written by Randy Bachman, it reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. (“Laughing” rose to #10.) In an interview with Ear of the Newt, Bachman was quoted saying “I remember the joy of hearing that (“Undun”) on the radio, figuring ‘Wow, a song with more than three chords,’ you know, ‘with lyrics that don’t rhyme.’ “
He goes on to describe the inspiration for the song came when he learned about a woman who went into a coma after taking some bad acid at a party he attended in Vancouver.
“Sunlight” comes from one of my favorite Buried Treasure albums – Elephant Mountain (1969), by The Youngbloods. Lester Bangs endorsed the album in his review for Rolling Stone. Written by Jesse Colin Young, “Sunlight” is an ode for a special woman.
Have you seen the sunlight pouring through her hair Felt her warm mouth on you in the summer’s air Running in a field of brown Laughing rolling on the ground Smiling as she pulls you down That’s the way she feels about you
Three Dog Night, who in their early days were masters at finding great songs to record, covered “Sunlight” on their 1970 album Naturally.
Steely Dan’s “Only a Fool Would Say That” (1972) has often been interpreted as a dig at John Lennon’s utopian worldview as professed in “Imagine.” This position was recently described in an article in Far Out, by Sam Kemp.
I’m not sure I buy into Kemp’s thesis. Steely Dan’s lyrics are always cryptic and subject to varied interpretations. To me, it’s a cynical knock on hippy idealism more generally.
Wait until the very end of the song where you can hear laughter and someone utter the phrase “Jiji, solamente un tonto lo mencionara”, “Only a fool would say that” in Spanish!
The debut, eponymous album by Marshall Crenshaw was released 40 years ago this month. It is a really fine album, filled with catchy songs that his fans love, but has flown under the radar for most people, even many music lovers.
Crenshaw received his first break in the music industry in the late ‘70s when he won a slot in the musical Beatlemania, in the role of John Lennon. It was during his stint with the show that he wrote many of the songs on Marshall Crenshaw, including the popular “Someday, Someway.”
“Someday, Someway” sparkles with jangly power-pop hooks and harmonies, with a nod to ‘50s Rockabilly. It’s impossible to hold back a smile when you hear it.
In a PBS program, On Canvas, that first aired in 2013, Crenshaw said that the lyrics for “Someday, Someway” were written to describe “the awkward beginnings of a marriage” when you suddenly realize you’re in something permanent.
I can’t stand to see you sad I can’t bear to hear you cry If you can’t tell me what you need All I can do is wonder why
Someday, someway aww Someday, someway, yeah now Someday, someway Maybe I’ll understand you
After all you’ve done for me All I really want to do Is take the love you brought my way And give it all right back to you
The album was given a brighter sheen with the help of producer Richard Gotterher, who did the same for Blondie and The Go-Gos.
Back in 1976, a band called Klaatu released their first album. For some reason they chose to package the album without any photos or credits. This anonymity led to speculation as to who was behind this “mystery band.”
That speculation took flight when journalist Steven Smith, of the Providence Journal, published an article suggesting that Klaatu might really be The Beatles, reunited under a pseudonym. This rumor seemed to be supported by the Beatlesque sound of some of the recordings and the coincidence that they were released on Capitol Records – the same as The Beatles’ early records in the US.
It was later revealed that Klaatu was a group of Canadian musicians. “Sub-Rosa Subway” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” were minor hits (both reached #62 on the Billboard Hot 100). “Interplanetary” was covered by The Carpenters who carried it to #32 in the US in 1977.
Around the same time, in the mid-’70s, another band chose to labor in obscurity – San Francisco’s Art Rock band, The Residents.
In a 2018 article for NPR Music, writer Jason Roth described The Residents’ approach to music:
The group’s musical canon – comprising over 60 albums that collectively are more of an ongoing act of cultural subversion than a traditional catalog of songs – includes a “four-part trilogy” of concept albums about a subterranean race of mole people, a record that contains exactly 40 one-minute-long commercials for itself and an album of Eskimo folk music consisting of what The Residents imagined Eskimo folk music might sound like. Which also, naturally, provided the group with its critical and commercial breakthrough.
The Residents’ debut album was titled Meet the Residents and had one of the best covers ever – a defaced parody of Meet the Beatles (released on April Fool’s Day, 1974). This too, caused some rumors to circulate that The Beatles were behind the group.
The album opens with an anarchistic, deconstructed (unrecognizable) version of Nancy Sinatra’s “The Boots Are Made For Walking.” Not everyone will be able to make it through the cut’s brief, less than 2 minutes, of chaos.
From 2010 to 2016, the band toured using the character names “Randy, Chuck, and Bob.” But in 2017, Hardy Fox revealed himself as the primary composer for the band as well as “Chuck.” Apparently he decided to finally expose his identity because he was sick and dying.
If you’re a fan or are interested in learning more about The Residents, check out the new book documenting their history from 1972 to 1983.
About a month ago I went to see Jason Isbell with a few friends at the Warfield in San Francisco. Shawn Colvin did a nice solo set to warm up the audience, then Isbell took the stage with his talented band – The 400 Unit — including his wife, Amanda Shires (singer, songwriter, fiddle), who only joins Isbell on occasion due to the commitments of her own successful career.
One of the highlights of the set was his signature song, “Traveling Alone.”
Isbell has recounted a story about meeting Bruce Springsteen where The Boss told him that he was introduced to “Traveling Alone” by his son – then proceeded to sing the chorus to Isbell.
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
Won’t you ride with me?
But the song is much more than that catchy chorus. It is a semi-autobiographical story about how he needed Shires to help him through a rehab program to end the downward spiral his life was in due to alcoholism.
I quit talking to myself
Listening to the radio
Long, long time ago
Damn near strangled by my appetite
Ybor City on a Friday night
Couldn’t even stand up right
So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay
They said come see me on a better day
She just danced away
Isbell is known to include covers in his set. He has recorded and/or performed Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and “Because the Night.” On the night we saw him, he closed his set with a kick-ass version of early Fleetwood Mac standard “Oh Well.”
Last November, Disney+ relased The Beatles: Get Back. The three episode documentary, directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, took 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio tape — from 22 days in January 1969 — and reconstructed it into an 8 hour, “fly on the wall” experience that seeks to revise the negative vibe and historical record of what actually occurred during the sessions that culminated in the original Let it Be movie from 1970. At that, The Beatles: Get Back succeeds.
However, it can’t be denied that a mere 15 months later, on April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced that The Beatles had broken up through his ambiguous answers to the questions he was asked during an interview about his first solo album, McCartney.
I was browsing through the recent Paul McCartney book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present that my wife gave me for Christmas. It has the lyrics to 156 McCartney compositions along with his commentary and loads of photos and memorabilia.
I was interested in his explanation of the lyrics to “Too Many People”, from 1971’s Ram.
This song was written a year or so after The Beatles breakup, at a time when John was firing missiles at me with his songs, and one or two of them were quite cruel. I don’t know what he hoped to gain, other than punching me in the face. The whole thing really annoyed me.
The key lyrics blame John for the breakup and scold him for preaching and telling people how they ought to live.
That was your first mistake You took your lucky break and broke it in two.
Now what can be done for you? You broke it in two.
Too many people preaching practices Don’t let ’em tell you what you wanna be Too many people holding back This is crazy, and baby, it’s not like me
What surprised me was that John’s most scathing song aimed at Paul, “How Do You Sleep”, was written as a response to “Too Many People.” I had originally thought it was the other way around. “How Do You Sleep” was on Lennon’s Imagine that was released about 4 months after Ram.
John’s basic personality had an acerbic, mean spirited side that was foreign to the genial McCartney. So John’s swipes were direct stabs to the heart where McCartney’s were more subtle. John says:
So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise You better see right through that mother’s eyes Those freaks was right when they said you was dead The one mistake you made was in your head
You live with straights who tell you, you was king Jump when your momma tell you anything The only thing you done was yesterday And since you’ve gone you’re just another day
Those last lines are references to McCartney’s signature Beatles’ tune, “Yesterday”, and the soft rock of his solo song from Ram, “Another Day.” Ouch!
I’d like to think that if John were still alive today, these past grievences would be forgiven and settled, and the Lennon/McCartney team would be friends again.