Archive for February, 2019

28
Feb
19

Richard Harris “Slides”

This record is thrift store gold, not because it’s a rare find and worth anything, or even that it’s a great record, but because you will see it in thrift stores—usually recycling back through several times because people will buy it on a whim because of its whimsical cover (designed to look like a photographic slide, but record album size, with a clear plastic window revealing a very corny photo of Harris in a matching denim jacket and hat). Then they find they can’t deal with Harris-world, and send it back into the system. But if you do see a copy—and if you haunt the thrift store record bins long enough, you will—you should really buy it and give it a chance, because maybe, like me, the Harris-switch will flip in your brain and you’ll understand him as the genius that he is. I normally will never use the word genius—even for an undeniable one like Thelonious Monk—though sometimes I’ll use the word in a somewhat ironic way, like the genius who drives his car through something destructive but non-life-threatening. But then there is a certain type of genius where the word must be used hyperbolically to make your point, because pretty much no one agrees with you (though in the case of Ricard Harris, I bet there is a legion of people who do agree with me, but they’re people kind of like me—old guys, smoking pipes, who generally complain a lot, but love a few things passionately about which they spout their feeling via blogs to a totally indifferent and uncaring world wide nothingness).

This may be the first Richard Harris record I bought—though I’m not sure. I can’t really remember if I realized I was in love with “MacArthur Park” and then sought out Richard Harris records, or if it was the other way around. I think maybe I had this record for awhile before I figured out that I loved Ricard Harris records—I think for a long-ass time I didn’t really play it—and just was aware of the pretty ridiculous song, “Gin Buddy.” I mean, that is a great song, but it’s pretty silly, too. “He ain’t drunk, he’s just foggy, so one more gin toddy, and then I’ll take my old gin buddy home.” A lot of Richard Harris’ earlier stuff is written by and in collaboration with Jimmy Webb, one of the best songwriters of all time, and certainly the greatest weird one. There’s no J. Webb on this record, but who there is a lot of is Tony Romeo—in fact you could pretty much call it a Tony Romeo album with Ricard Harris singing—he wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs, produced it and played on it. A great and prolific songwriter, he’s best known for the Partridge Family hit “I Think I Love You” (a song I think about every year on this (almost) date, the birthday of the first girl I ever had a crush on (never got over it) and for that, T. Romeo will always hold a place in my heart).

If you are one of the impatient youth, and don’t take the time to fully digest an album like you need to do with this one, you might just drop the needle on the title track, “Slides” which has a kind of really nice intro, just Harris singing to harpsichord. Then he goes onto narrate an actual slide show (we get slide projector sound effects, and some visual accompaniment and lyrics on the back cover). I like it, but I can see how it might kind of freak out the casual listener. But then the last song, “There Are Too Many Saviours On My Cross” (the only one written by Harris) is essentially spoken word (aka poetry) with orchestral accompaniment that sounds like the soundtrack for a very grim period war tragedy. It’s well-done, over the top, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. It would be a crime to judge the album by these last two songs, though, because there are some really beautiful pop songs earlier, and if you don’t believe me, play them one at a time. “Roy” sounds like it’s going to be a Partridge Family song, and it builds to an emotional climax, a great pop number. “How I Spent My Summer” is also good, and sounds eerily like a Jimmy Webb song. “I’m Comin’ Home” is almost ridiculously catchy, one of those songs that you find yourself singing along with the chorus the first time you hear it. “Once Upon a Dusty Road” is another one that starts out quietly and then builds dramatically, then subsides, then explodes again, which Richard Harris can really pull off. The song that really snuck up on me on this record, because it’s just kind of hidden in the middle of the first side, is “Sunny-Jo”—it’s a very emotional love song (and no, I never even have been in love with someone named Sunny-Jo) that just kills me. It’s my favorite song late in the evening on the last day of February. I like it so much I’m going to put it on again, and I don’t joke about things like that.

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27
Feb
19

Sammi Smith “Mixed Emotions”

It might be hard to believe, but I had never heard of Sammi Smith (well, I probably had—after all, I used to listen to the radio and watch Hee Haw—but over the years a lot of brain cells have been eradicated, I’m afraid, and Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout had more prominently ghosted my radar, apparently), but I saw this older record of hers at the used bookstore (I haven’t written about it yet) and it had a very personality-rich cover, so I bought it, expecting it to be unlistenable, but it was great. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for Sammi Smith records. She was country and western singer who put out 17 or 18 albums in the Seventies, then moved on to other things. You can easily find a brief history on the internet if you’re interested. But I have a feeling that, just with my brief exposure to her, she was a fascinating person—maybe someone will write a biography about her.

The cover of this album (on Elektra records) is odd in that I would have guessed it was from the Eighties, just by the layout and graphics, the colors, the style. I admit I’m considerably more of a fan of things from the Seventies than the Eighties, in all forms of culture—including record albums and album covers. So I almost didn’t pick it up, but then I noticed it was Sammi Smith, and I looked at the back expecting to see a later date, and was kind of surprised that it was 1977. There is actually a really great photograph on the cover, but for some reason it is kind of weirdly cropped and vertical, with several inches of border on either side— why? A square version of this photo, blown up, would have been a much better cover.

The first song scared me because of its prominent use of a kazoo—never a good sign. Never judge an album by the first song, though. The next song is great—it’s called “Touch Me” and is a classic Nashville sounding song—I tried looking it up, to see who else did it—but do you know how many people have recorded songs called “Touch Me?” When I start writing songs again, the first thing I’m going to do is write a song with that title! Then a really nice, slow, old-fashioned sounding version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the Don Gibson classic that I most associate with Ray Charles. Next is “De Grazia’s Song,” written by Sammi Smith—I don’t know who De Grazia is (a painter), but he/she wrote the brief, but glowing liner notes. The last song, then, is jaunty to the point that she refers to someone as “you little booger”—making this one of those famous, “skip first and last song records”—though that’s just the first side. What will the second side hold in store for us?

“I’ve Seen Better Days” is a good one—it’s written by Red Lane and Danny Morrison—I’m sure I’ve heard it, but I’m not sure where—a lot of big names in country music did it—but I’m going to say, hearing this version, if someone can show me a better version than this one, it might be my favorite all-time song. “Hallelujah for Beer” is a song that you probably get the idea from the title—a song that is probably playing right now on a jukebox in Milwaukee. “Days That End in ‘Y’” is another beautifully heartbreaking country song—but I’m getting tired of looking up who else did these songs. It’s another title I’m going to steal, but change it to: “The Days That End in Why” (if no one else has). “A Woman Left Lonely” is my favorite song on the record—it’s just undeniably a killer song, written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham—the most famous version, of course, being Janis Joplin’s. And I love Janis Joplin and her version of this song, but it’s an interesting comparison, her version and this one, because I’d argue that Sammi Smith’s is better, because it’s more about the song, while Janis Joplin’s is more about Janis. I don’t mean that critically, I love that about her—she could sing “Old MacDonald had a Farm” and break your heart. But I love how this version is also emotional, heartbreaking—but really, you love the song and the singer in equal parts. The last song, then, is the Tom Jans song, “Loving Arms,” and a beautiful, lovely way to end the record.

26
Feb
19

Randy Newman “Sail Away”

I first heard Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away” on a Warner Special Products box set LP called Superstars of the 70’s that came out in 1973 and was sold on TV. I heard a lot of music for the first time via that thing, but they placed “Sail Away” directly after Seals & Crofts “Summer Breeze” and The Beach Boys “Surf’s Up” so I kind of dismissed it as “Yacht Rock” (which wasn’t invented, or at least named, yet) and didn’t bother to listen closely enough to the lyrics to realize it wasn’t about… “sailing.” I’m sure I understood irony at the time, but at 12 and 13 I was (like a lot of kids) kind of a raging maniac, and it wasn’t until my first year in high school—when my English teacher Mr. Kimble used a lot of popular songs in his class—that I started to listen to song lyrics a little differently. It’s interesting how kids kind of mature at different rates—I mean it’s both different for each individual and each person has different parts of them maturing—so it’s all out of whack. I think this is fascinating, and can also be scary. Pretty much everyone is born into the pain of a raging narcissist, and you can even keep that childhood part of you vital—I think it’s really built into what’s necessary for “success”—and it’s possible to find a mate who supports it. It might even really not be a problem until you become a parent, or a boss, or the President. Other people keep other child parts vital, which can both make you happy, and suffer (often both simultaneously). I pretty much go by feelings more than intellect, to a fault, and my music listening often reflects that. Like, on that Warner collection, “Tumbling Dice” was my favorite song, and still holds me under its spell, and I still have no idea what Mick Jagger or the backup singers are singing. What’s it about? Tumbling dice, I guess, but also an unspeakable desire.

Anyway, this record is great, I love it from beginning to end. I feel like these songs will work on your computer, or MP3 player, at home, or while walking, but it’s nice the album has the lyrics inside—I think it’s one where you can eventually get more out of reading along at some point. I don’t know about you, but I never like to read lyrics when I first hear a song—I’d rather really get to know a song before I ever go to the lyrics. But it does have some value, I think, reading lyrics, to appreciate songs on different levels. You can find this one in a thrift store, too, but you might overlook it because it has one of the murkiest album covers you’ll ever see, of Randy Newman looking a lot like Ian Hunter—and it’s one of those that annoyingly folds out sideways—so no one ever knows how to put it on a shelf or in a bin. Opened up, it’s like a super closeup photo of him sitting at a piano wearing sunglasses and corduroy jacket in extremely low light, as if the photo was taken surreptitiously with a telephoto lens through door opened only a few inches without his knowledge. In the act, no doubt, of writing a song. Or maybe thinking about writing a song, which, I guess, is the same thing.

This is a record I’m still only scratching the surface of, and it could easily accompany me to my grave (I mean in a good way). A few years back I discovered the Randy Newman song “Wedding in Cherokee County” (from a different LP) and it became my favorite song for about a year, and an example of what songwriting can, could, should (and maybe never, for me, would) be. The twelve songs on this album are sitting there like the complete works of some (pick your favorite) writer, heavy on the shelf, but nothing but wallpaper until you tackle them with all the parts of you working as best as you can aspire to (at this point). What’s kind of amazing is 1972 is getting near half a century ago, and this music feels contemporary (at least to me). Also, several of these songs are under two minutes long and only one is barely over three and a half. The richness can’t be taken in all at once—I mean it can, it’s enjoyable—but to really get at it. I’ve got to go in for just a little bit, and then come back for more later. The title song is a complete experience, it’s just so beautiful on the surface and so angry and caustic just underneath. Randy Newman is an LA guy, but spent a lot of time in the South, has a kind of accent, writes a lot about the South, but it’s interesting there are a couple of songs on this record referencing Ohio. For one thing, he probably understands that southern Ohio is the South, and maybe he even knows, like I do, that so is all of Ohio. His song “Burn On” sounds like it’s in the tradition of southern river songs, but it’s about the Cuyahoga River which famously caught on fire in Cleveland (even much younger people might know about that). It kind of caught people’s attention about pollution, at the time, and provided fuel for those annoying environmentalists. Of course, now we’ve got a genius in the White House, who, if the river was to catch on fire again, would tweet that the river didn’t catch on fire, it was FAKE NEWS, and his supporters would believe him—shit, dude’s got it figured out.

25
Feb
19

Alec Templeton “Alec Templeton and his Music Boxes”

“If I were king, it would be a must that everybody have a hobby…” starts Alec Templeton’s intro, the first track of this record. And I agree, though I’d add, “but drinking and looking at pornography don’t count.” He then goes on to talk about his love for, and obsession with, collecting music boxes. I kind of like this thing of the first track being a spoken intro—kind of like an audio version of liner notes. Though you might get powerful tired of it if it’s a record you have “on repeat” (as the kids say). Though, maybe there is little danger of that here, as the remainder of this record consists of recordings of various music boxes—there are 45 tunes from 24 different ones, some of them quite grand, of course, and large, elaborate, ornate, and expensive. They all sound like music boxes. There are a few faded black and white photos of some of the boxes, but they don’t really do them justice. And some informative (written) liner notes that start out: “For the next 44 minutes, Mr. Templeton would like to take you away from the cares and tensions of today and transport you back to the gay, quiet era of not so long ago—the era of the music box…” There’s a signpost up ahead!

I could imagine (actually, I couldn’t) having a roommate who, this was his favorite record, and played it every day right after dinner. I’m afraid you’d have to kill him. I mean, this is an enjoyable record to listen to once or twice. I guess you could try to see how many tunes you can name. I have to say, that song, “A Bicycle Built for Two,” has just been forever altered for me after hearing HAL sing it while perishing in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Kubrick did that to a lot of music, actually—thanks, Stanley!) Talking about movies, if you are a filmmaker, this record might work really well into your resources—there could very likely be some scene in anyone’s movie where one of these music box songs is just the thing. The sound, the feeling of them, is far from neutral. I wonder why it is that we associate this music box music with some kind of ironic vision of the underlying tragedy inherent in our existence? Is it something leftover from past lives? Or just from other movies?

24
Feb
19

Kay Starr “Rockin’ Chair / Stroll Me”

Kay Starr (no relation to Ringo—he was a Starkey and she was a Starks) was, according to Internet, born in Oklahoma, part Native American, and used to serenade the family’s chickens in their coops, which led to recording some 200 plus records, mostly in the Fifties and Sixties, but spanning half a century. I was familiar with her, have a song here and there on cassette, but I never heard these two songs on this 1958 single, which was in my box of random 45s. It’s in that category of early rock’n’roll, I guess, when pop orchestras were trying to cash in—at least that’s my impression—with shrill horns (“Rockin’ Chair”) and kind of bizarre electric guitar (“Stroll Me”) and hip lyrics about the radio, dancing, the sock hop, etc. “Rockin’ Chair” is about “Gramps” not being a square, diggin’ the new music, and is hopelessly corny. Though there could be hidden meaning—I mean, there has to be right? But I can’t listen again. “Stroll Me” is more interesting because of the guitar, and the weird way it sounds like someone keeps manually slowing down the record. Also, it’s supposedly about a dance, but everyone knows it’s about fucking. In a way, I can’t figure out if I’d rather hear people use these really obvious metaphors or just come out and say it straight—I guess there’s good and bad either way, right? The other interesting thing is that the orchestra is Hugo Winterhalter’s, who was probably quite prominent, but who I’ve never made a note of until now. I love that name, Winterhalter—I’ve never heard that one before—and I bet it’s especially poignant to people on a day like this when the temperature is going to drop 30 degrees and the wind is going to make everyone act like they’re back in the days of hopelessly insufficient overcoats.

23
Feb
19

Skeeter Davis “The Closest Thing To Love”

Skeeter Davis probably isn’t really my favorite singer—I mean, who is?—there are so many singers I love, and who can really say their favorite anything, unless they’re making a point of it—it’s a form of hyperbole meant to make people take notice. But her singing voice just really holds some special place for me. I suppose to many people, she has a kind of corny quality, but I see (and hear) behind that. No singer doesn’t have some pain behind their singing, and many exploit that, whether consciously or not. For whatever reason, I feel like she hides the pain—it’s not anywhere near the surface—but that quality of it being so deep, so hidden, maybe that’s one of the things that appeals to me so much about her singing.

This record is a relatively late one for her, 1969, even though she kept making records for another 20 years or so. It’s more or less her 20th LP, since she put out a couple a year in the Sixties. The cover is pretty urban and sophisticated in relation to many of her early ones. She’s wearing a fur collar and hat—you kind of wonder how hot and uncomfortable that photoshoot was. Like all of her LPs, there are six songs per side, ranging from two minutes to 3:15—“Angel of the Morning”— which is the heavy one here—I mean in recognizability—you’ve heard it, no doubt, because it was a hit song for Juice Newton in 1981—though it was written by Chip Taylor in 1966, and recorded by pretty much everyone. The version here is great. The album starts with a nice song called “Keep Baltimore Beautiful” (one of many, many songs with “Baltimore” in the title). Then there is a song called “Little Arrows,” and if you want to know what kind of jauntiness really gets on my nerves, check this one out—it’s not just annoying, it’s kind of insane. I looked it up and it was hit for someone named “Leapy Lee” in 1968. At that point the rabbit-hole warning light came on, so I wisely exited the internet.

My favorite song on the record is probably “They Don’t Make Love Like They Used To,” credited to Red Lane, a Nashville songwriter—just one of those classic sounding country songs I really like. Though all the songs are really pretty good, including the couple that Skeeter Davis wrote. The other real standout is the last song on the record, the title song, “The Closest Thing to Love (I’ve Ever Seen)”—credited to Ronny Light, who also wrote the first song, and was an arranger on this record—no doubt one of those kind of amazing Nashville pros. He also wrote the liner notes on the back of the record, a kind of sweet appreciation for Skeeter Davis, signed “A Skeeter Davis Fan.” Some day maybe I’ll meet another Skeeter Davis fan—we’ll have a lot to talk about.

22
Feb
19

B.J. Thomas “Everybody’s Out Of Town”

On the cover of this record, B.J. Thomas is standing on a corner in front of a plaque in the shape of the state of Ohio—commemorating the Northwest Ordinance and the establishment of the state in which I was born—which is on the side of a building on the corner of Wall Street and Broad or Nassau, I think, in New York City, presumably very early in the morning sometime around 1970. He’s wearing a Russian gangster leather jacket, definitely concealing firearms, grey slacks, black boots, and sunglasses, even though it’s still pre-coffee and post-photoshoot breakfast before he’ll need them. He looks like a character from Mean Streets (1973), waiting for someone, for either signing papers, exchanging a large amount of money, or sex, or Jap adapters. On the back cover he’s moving on, to where the bagels might be, and on the inside cover he’s all the way up to Times Square—it has just rained, and this looks more like a scene from The Omega Man (1971), Matthias and the Family have retired for the day, and B.J. is looking for a matinee, maybe a screening of Woodstock (1970), for the 80th time.

So you might think there’s an Ohio connection, but no, B.J. is Billy Joe Thomas, from Texas (if he’d been from Ohio he’d maybe have been “Brian James Thomas”) and though some say that Texas is just Ohio with oil and cows… (no one ever said that). A quick bio: “Success, Love, Drugs, Jesus.” Though no man’s life can be summed up in four words (nor one: “Rosebud”)—(though it’s been argued that mine can be nailed down in five: “It sucks, you stole it.”) One of his earliest hits was recording a Hank Williams song, so obviously this guy knows a good song when he hears it, and that seems to have served him well. On this record we can find Fred Neil, Bacharach/David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Paul Simon, among others. Every song on this record sounds kind of inevitable, like either I’ve heard them before (likely… either these versions or someone else’s) or will be hearing them sometime soon. It’s all very pleasant, even if it doesn’t blow my mind. I suppose I could put this record on when having someone over on a first date, or at least in my normal life fantasy I like to indulge once in awhile.




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