Sunday, 25 January 2015

Fab Four

"Take Me To The River", written by Al Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, and performed by Al Green (and a crowd of wonderful musicians);; and also performed by Talking Heads;
There certainly are a lot of covers of this great song, which isn't surprising. I mean, c'mon -- it's a great song, and one which I fell back across for the first time in a long time a couple of days ago. You see how hard it is for great songs? They get forgotten for long spells, even, I daresay, by people with brains and ears younger than mine because even great songs are joyously multitudinous and just too hard to keep track of. (Singing is universal, and one of my favourite things about our species.)

Cute story: In the course of my finding a song that captured the elation of having a fresh baby in the family, "Stay Up Late," by Talking Heads seduced me, which led to my hearing "Take Me To The River," which is a heavenly (i.e., beautifully earthy) combination of intense musical talent, blunt adolescent impulse, and the pleas (that word isn't part of "pleasure" for nothing) of a lonely soul who, if he isn't looking for God, is at least looking for a girl to be saved by, which led to my discovery that Al Green had written it (I guess I should've known this), which led me to the splendid experience of his original version. Once the dust had settled, I realized I'd listened to four variations on a miracle.

In chronological order, then: 1) a live version by Talking Heads; 2) the Al Green studio version; 3) one of his live versions; and 4) the studio version of those Heads that Talk (and Sing, and Play) -- each rendition at least twice, of course. I'll listen to more versions when I have time, but that'll just be me icing my cake more than it actually needs. All four of my citations are guaranteed to fill your body and your brain and a nice chunk of your day with a sharp musical pleasure. Number Two is my Number One because you get to hear Al Green and because all the players are magnificent (bonus: it even has strings that, near the end, nestle themselves into a cosy place right beside the groove of the horns!). Number One and Number Three are my Number Two (they're both endlessly soulful, funky, and drenched in sweaty ecstasy, so, hell, it's a tie). Number Four is my Number Three (it has a slower tempo, and gets a little sludgy -- barely enough to notice, really, because all the playing still manages to rivet you right to your heartbeat, and David Byrne's singing will tingle any spine or elevate any pulse within hearing distance.)

Confused enough yet? Relax: A great song will fuck you up every time.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Future

"Stay Up Late" by Talking Heads
It's a curious thing, being a grandfather for the first time. I stare at photos of the little guy several times a day and all I can think, while I'm envying him his starting point with its approximately twenty-nine thousand-and-two-hundred days of future (I'm working with eighty as the average life span for a North American male here, but I'm hoping that the medico-technological future will provide him with a longer one), is that he's a flawlessly formed tiny human male who will one day die. Strangely enough, I've never been more cheerful. Many friends and family members (both those who have seen him in the flesh or via photo), have described him as "perfect," and he is, but that's only part of the story (only part of his story, whatever it becomes). 

He's perfect because he's new, of course. I'm well aware that this implies that imperfect equals old, and I can live with that, residing as I do on both sides of the equation. My first grandchild is named Rowen, and his parents (his mother is my still perfect daughter) are now the very happy protectors of his newness and his fresh perfection.

I love how Talking Heads sound like robots who are fully human, especially in this song about babies and new parents.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A River On The Radio

"Going Down To The River" by Doug Seegers

I heard this guy for the first time on CBC this morning while I was driving around town on a list of errands that was taking me nowhere near my river. It was a wise decision by the producers to play at least part of this song at the top of the segment, before Mr. Seegers was interviewed, because even the small sample hooked me: Yes, I wanted to hear him talk about his life and music, but I could hardly wait to get home and hear the whole song. The interview revealed a disarmingly humble singer/songwriter whose kin crafts seem to have been instruments of survival in a life beset by homelessness, drugs, booze, and fractured love, much of that dark stuff happening in Nashville, Tennessee. There must be a lot of fucked-up down-and-outers in that city with voices that make you thankful you have ears, and a brain, and a heart because you'd think a voice like this would have been singled out long ago. In any case, Mr. Seegers appears to have a few bucks in his pocket now. Good for him -- and great for us. Or for me, at least, because once I got home and was able to listen to the whole song, my day got a whole lot better. Even the lyrics delight with a couple of striking images that I've never encountered before: a pair of baptized feet and a soul that's getting re-washed; I realize all souls break promises to themselves, and that they pick up a thick layer of grime and dust on their journeys (my own, I know, could certainly use a long, warm bath), but I've never heard of feet getting baptized or souls getting washed again.

It's a perfect country song, and a perfect blues song, too (don't forget to listen to the players, especially to the one on electric guitar). I plan to listen to "Going Down To The River" many times in the future. How am I supposed to resist a voice that can do what it does here, a voice that so flawlessly holds so much pain and regret and self-knowledge and hope in it?

For an extra and equal treat, here's Mr. Seeger performing the same song in a recording studio with a couple of Swedish country singers (I didn't know there were any country singers in Sweden, let alone ones as good as these two, but why not?):

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I Like It!

"Venice, U.S.A", by Van Morrison
The players are all absolutely crackerjack, and the backup singers sound like a flock of something soaring in tight formation way up there (you know: close to heaven), and the groove is funky and intoxicating. Van Morrison, however, goes a little nuts here. Then again, Van Morrison goes a little nuts once he tucks into a lot of songs, doesn't he? That's part of the fun of listening to this one: he's crazy in love* with a woman in a restaurant in Venice, U.S.A., and then he's in the wet streets of Venice, U.S.A. (which is in southern California, so imagine that) -- sometimes walkin', sometimes strollin' -- as he's leaving the place. (I guess the love hasn't worked out: he and his woman -- she and her man -- are breaking up, so, of course, he's taking his time gettin' out of town.) On the way, three times, he is compelled to sing a really dumb song, which, as he tells us, "goes like this": Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/ Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah -- I LIKE it!

Wow! That "I LIKE it!" after the first of the three set-of-eight iterations of all the alliterative goofiness is the exploding heart of the number for me, even though it comes just two minutes into the six minutes-plus of this crazy, stupid, beautiful song: three little happy English words, three small-caliber happy bullets that you'll take over a lot of other ways to die. It's probably about two minutes too long, and I understand why some of you might not want to see it through to its completion, but I'm a sucker for the simple stuff. I don't think Van Morrison is as good a singer as, say, Frank Sinatra (who was always perfectly and emotionally disciplined), but he sure knows how to inflect and bend the groove of a song. In this song (as in many others), he pushes his words into the last empty inch of a beat, or crams them in up front, and you think he's gonna fall on his face in front of the next one, but he always hits his mark. And he repeats himself so unpredictably (when you think twice would be good, he thinks thrice, or vice-versa, and he's always right) that you can't let yourself breathe easily until the fade. His voice sometimes goes out of control, but, Jesus, does it go, and who cares about an occasional vocal spasm of madness? I don't, because the singing is about love, the thing that makes everyone lose control at least once in a while, and because, as I've already suggested, all the other singers and players are in control all the way, especially all those background almost-angels as they sing and sing and sing that diddly-dumb refrain right to the end of this so happy, so sad, so stupid, so funky, so entrancing song.
I like it!
(* An earlier Van Morrison song is called "Crazy Love", and although it's a sweet, gentle little thing, it comes nowhere near the Vanarchical beauty of "Venice, U.S.A." See -- no, hear -- for yourself: