Song of the Week – Sweet Black Angel & All Down the Line, The Rolling Stones

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ classic double album, Exile on Main Street.  I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to verify the exact date of release.  I recently read a review by Robert Greenfield that was in Rolling Stone magazine dated April 27, 1972.  In the article, he says that the album will be out on May 7th.  But it’s very plausible that the release was delayed after he wrote that.

An article in the WSJ claimed the release date was May 12, 1972.  Wikipedia says it was May 22nd.  I think part of the confusion may be related to the US versus UK releases.  It could have been the 12th in the US and the 26th in the UK.  I guess it doesn’t really matter!

The backstory of the making of Exile is well known so I won’t be pedantic in telling it.  The short version is that the Stones were living in France in 1971-72 as tax exiles from England.  Unable to find an acceptable recording facility in France, the band decided to record from the basement of Keith Richards southern France villa (Nellcôte) using their mobile studio.

Describing this arrangement, Keith said “It was nice for me making this album.  At the end it got a little hectic in the house what with playin’ all night in the blazin’ heat… but with the 16 track truck always outside and ready, we’d go downstairs whenever we felt like it and work on a riff.”

My choices for SotW are the b-sides to the two singles released from Exile.  “Sweet Black Angel” was the flip to “Tumbling Dice” and “All Down the Line” was on the other side of “Happy.”

“Sweet Black Angel” was written in support of Black activist Angel Davis.  At the time, Davis was on trial for murder because she had purchased the gun used in the courtroom killing of a judge and the three black defendants (The Soledad Brothers) on trial for killing a prison guard.

But the gal in danger
Yeah, de gal in chains
But she keep on pushin’
Would ya take her place?

She countin’ up de minutes
She countin’ up de days
She’s a sweet black angel, woh
Not a sweet black slave

For a judge they murdered
And a judge they stole
Now de judge he gonna judge her
For all dat he’s worth

I skipped one verse that makes me cringe and probably makes the song unplayable in concert for the same reason “Brown Sugar” is avoided.  It just ain’t politically correct.

Ten little niggers
Sittin’ on de wall
Her brothers been a fallin’
Fallin’ one by one

“All Down the Line” is an R&B influenced rocker.

It features some smokin’ horns and a bluesy, rockin’ slide guitar solo by Mick Taylor.  It was originally recorded in an acoustic version during the Sticky Fingers sessions and is available on bootlegs.  I’ll include it here because I can.

Clearly, the Stones made the right decision to table it until they could record a version worthy of release!

Exile has survived the test of time. Upon its 1972 release the messy, beautiful album was met with mixed reviews.  Rock journalist Nick Kent summarized his review with this:

On Exile the Stones have picked up on the old idea of ‘when in doubt, get back to your roots’ – there is no spirit of adventure or any real variety and for a double album that’s bad.  But by concentrating on what they’ve always been good at, they’ve proved once and for all their capabilities as rockers.  For that alone, Exile on Main Street should not be ignored.

Exile is often in the top 10 of lists of the greatest albums of all time. In Rolling Stone’s most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (October 2020) Exile earned the #14 slot.  Not bad!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Wine, Wine, Wine

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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:

“Wine” Spotify playlist

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Gold Coast Sinkin’, Blake Mills & Rack of His, Fiona Apple

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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.

According to Wikipedia:

Blake Mills was born in Santa Monica, California, and grew up in Malibu, where he attended Malibu High School with Taylor Goldsmith.  Mills and Goldsmith began their musical careers in a band they co-founded called Simon Dawes.  After the band broke up in 2007, Goldsmith and his younger brother, Griffin, formed the band Dawes with Simon Dawes bassist Wylie Gelber, and Mills went on to serve as a touring guitarist for Jenny Lewis.  He went on to tour with Band of Horses, Cass McCombs, Julian Casablancas and Lucinda Williams.  As a session musician, Mills has collaborated with Conor Oberst, Kid Rock, Weezer, The Avett Brothers, Paulo Nutini, Norah Jones, Carlene Carter, Jesca Hoop, Dixie Chicks, Zucchero, Pink, Lana Del Rey, Dangermouse, Vulfpeck, and more.  He has been nominated for two Grammys for producing, including the sophomore release from Alabama Shakes. He also famously produced Fiona Apple, who he has also toured with, and who legendarily recorded the not-so-happy song A Rack of His about him.

From time to time, Mills hosts invite-only musical performances at Mollusk Surf Shop, in Venice, California.  Previous shows have seen Mills accompanied by musicians such as Jackson Browne, Billy Gibbons, Jenny Lewis, Charlie Sexton, Benmont Tench, and Tal Wilkenfeld.

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.”

WaPo – How Blake Mills Became Good at Everything

I hope you dig this record as much as I do.  If not, there will be another SOTW next week.

Song of the Week – Thumbs, Lucy Dacus

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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.’”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Think (About It), Lyn Collins

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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.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Heebie Jeebies, The Boswell Sisters

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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!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Undun, The Guess Who; Sunlight, The Youngbloods; Only a Fool Would Say That, Steely Dan

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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!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Someday, Someway, Marshall Crenshaw

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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.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Sub-Rosa Subway, Klaatu; Boots, The Residents

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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.

The Residents: A Sight for Sore Eyes, Vol. 1

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Traveling Alone, Jason Isbell

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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.”

Enjoy… until next week.