Friday, September 15, 2006

Yadda Yadda Yadda, Part VI

150. Bob Dylan “Lay, Lady, Lay”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on Nashville Skyline

When you think about it, it’s not really surprising that this is the highest-charting song Dylan ever released. Although for the keepers of the Dylan mythology, it might be inconvenient: this was after the motorcycle crash, after the Big Pink recuperation, when the rock world had supposedly turned its back on Dylan entirely, when he was holed up in Nashville pretending to be Lefty Frizzell or someone, and way before the career renaissance of Blood on the Tracks (which, let’s be frank, was only a renaissance to the people who couldn’t get over being teenagers in 1965 and were feeling sentimental about their vanishing youth by 1975). But it’s an achingly beautiful country song. Like everything Dylan does, it’s not exactly straight country: the organ and the cowbell have no reference points in Nashville history, although the steel guitar is a beautiful counterpoint to what was the most beautiful singing in his career to date. He’s always been bigger and better than the myth, and despite what the pigeonholers want to say, there’s no such thing as a typical Dylan song. And this is one of them.

149. Etta James “Tell Mama”
(Clarence Carter/Marcus Daniel/Wilbur Terrell)
Available on Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions

I think the one thing (beyond sheer vocal prowess) that makes Etta James one of the legendary performers of the decade is her contrariness: for forty years, she’s refused to perform either “At Last” or “Tell Mama” live. Makes sense; after all, they were the two biggest hits of her career. But neither of them were typical Etta James, if there is such a thing: “At Last” was a huge adult-pop hit, up there with the Doris Days and Johnny Mathises, and this one is pure funky Memphis soul, with Etta forced to imitate Star-of-the-Moment Aretha Franklin. She could blow Aretha out of the water in terms of sheer lung-power, and had been around way too many blocks long before Aretha was out of choir robes. Which is what sells the song: “Mama” is clearly an experienced older woman who’s taken as well as given some lumps, not some fresh-faced, temperamental teenager. Her man’s been gone . . . but he is forgiven. (All apologies for the Who reference.)

148. The Stooges “We Will Fall”
(Dave Alexander/Ron Asheton/Scott Asheton/Iggy Pop)
Available on The Stooges

Yes, really. No, it’s not remotely the savage proto-punk the Stooges are revered for. No, it’s not even close to touching real experimental drone/raga/avant-garde music. Yes, it even rips off the Doors a little bit. But it’s about Nico, and that scores some points right there. What it is, more than anything, is star-making theater: it goes on for ten impossibly repetitive minutes, but Iggy is never less than mesmerizing, his wasted-steelworker voice containing whole worlds of anticipation, reflection, longing, and ennui even though he works hard at remaining entirely affectless. He was an amusical snot from White Trash, Michigan, and he kicked the ass of both overbearing LA mystic jazz-poet Jim Morrison and contemptuous New York junkie noise-hipster Lou Reed. Now that’s punk. (Okay, John Cale helped. A lot. Actually, that’s pretty punk too.)

147. Nina Simone “Don’t Le Me Be Misunderstood”
(Bennie Benjamin/Gloria Caldwell/Sol Marcus)
Available on The Definitive Collection

The song was written for her to sing, and it bore signs of becoming a decent hit; for an uncategorizable performer like Simone, who worked jazz, folk, blues, soul, pop and what I can’t believe we still don’t have a better term for than “world music” into a completely singular molasses-black musical persona, there could be no better way of establishing herself as a viable, autonomous artist (it’d worked for the Beatles and Dylan) than to show that she could climb the charts like anyone. Then the Animals, at the height of the British Invasion, released their copycat version and bulldozed hers right off the map. She was not particularly gracious to Eric Burdon when they met years later. This is still the superior version: what sounds like a music box (but is probably a celeste) kicks off the track with an undeniably spooky vibe, and her Delta-heavy take on pop-soul sounds like the lost child of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Robert Johnson, with a gorgeous New York sheen on top. Goddamn Animals.

146. Harry Partch “And on the Seventh Day, Petals Fell in Petaluma”
(Harry Partch)
Available on The Wayward/And on the Seventh Day, Petals Fell in Petaluma*

Hero to Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, Partch was one of the most eccentric of a field bursting with raffish eccentrics: American twentieth-century compositional music. (Don’t you dare call it classical.) All the instruments you can hear on this track he invented and built himself, then spent weeks training musicians how to play them, how to read his system of notation, and how to wrap their heads around the completely nonstandard compositions he was giving them to play. And yet . . . it’s not that strange. Sounds like detuned guitars and primitive marimbas, mostly. You’d be hard-pressed to call it funky, but there’s rhythmic interplay that owes as much to the jugbands and fiddle groups of the Depression as to anything more highfalutin’, and the cascading plucked and vibrating strings do, inevitably, recall the title. Which was actually merely a record of fact during the compositional process than anything more poetic.

*Actually, the four-minute edit on Gravikords, Whirlies, and Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments is the one I’m most familiar with; but the full 35-minute version is necessary listening too.

145. Dolly Parton “Down from Dover”
(Dolly Parton)
Available on The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in American Ballads

Her first great — and wholly original — song, buried on an LP in favor of the bland, radio-courting singles that svengali Porter Wagoner was pushing. It’s hard to imagine a less radio-friendly song for country stations at the time: the song’s about out-of-wedlock pregnancy, ends with a dead baby (explicitly, not cryptically like “Me and Billie Joe”), and is overall more Southern Gothic than Appalachian: “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors” would establish that particular legend a few years later. And the production is as much Abbey Road as Nashville, with harpsichord and a train-chugging rhythm track. It was buried, like I said, but Lee Hazelwood was sharp-eared enough to dig it out for Nancy Sinatra to cover for a fizzled-out comeback; Dolly re-recorded it for 2001’s atmospheric bluegrass album Little Sparrow, where it was upstaged by a Collective Soul cover. I mean, seriously, wtf?

144. Ella Fitzgerald “Midnight Sun”
(Sonny Burke/Lionel Hampton/Johnny Mercer)
Available on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book

The lyrics could have been written by a Sheffield band in 1968, that’s how psychedelic they are. Except, of course, that they wouldn’t be nearly so professional, with criss-crossing patterns and internal rhymes that make you start to think Mercer’s showing off. The music was written by Hamp and Burke in 1947 as a band piece; Mercer added some lyrics in 1954, and Ella cut it a decade later, with Hampton student Frank Flynn adding some mysterious vibraphone patternings to a Nelson Riddle tone-poem arrangement. But those lyrics! Just dig this: “Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice/Warmer than the summer night/The clouds were like an alabaster palace/Rising to a snowy height/Each star its own Aurora Borealis/Suddenly you held me tight/I could see the midnight sun.” Not bad for a forty-five-year-old record executive whose big hit was “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah.” Oh, and Ella doesn’t disgrace herself either, sliding into those passages like a slightly drunk trombone, poking around in them for a while, and then deciding to stick around. It’s neither jazz nor pop, but more like a street-level art-song from some alternate universe where there’s no high/low distinction. Like, oh, gee, now.

143. Scott Walker “The Seventh Seal”
(Scott Walker)
Available on Scott 4

I’m not sure you could get have gotten more pretentious in 1969 than this song, which attempts to do for Ingmar Bergman’s existentialist classic what Tex Ritter did for High Noon. Walker even weaves some cod-Morricone flourishes into his surprisingly literal rendition of the movie’s plotline, reaching a low point when he calls Bengt Ekerot’s instantly-memorable character “Mr. Death” in order to get enough syllables in the line. I know, I know: I’m saying all this like it’s a bad thing. But I’m not merely enjoying it as camp, either: pretension is totally cool when Scott Walker’s majestic baritone (instead of, say, Jon Anderson’s castrated falsetto) is the instrument delivering all the nonsense. And there should be more cod-Morricone flourishes in pop. And by the way, it’s an impossibly great movie. See it first, then listen to the song. Soundtrack songs are too-often ignored by pop critics, especially when the soundtrack song was written twelve years after the picture was released.

142. The Pretty Things “Defecting Grey”
(Phil May/Dick Taylor/Wally Allen Waller)
Available on S. F. Sorrow [Bonus Tracks]

In 1964, they were louder and nastier than the Rolling Stones; by 1967, they had become more fey than the Kinks and more structurally ambitious than the Who. And they were using those dense “Here Comes the Sun King” harmonies years before the Beatles did. This song (released as a single) is more like Side 2 of Abbey Road than anything else in pop. Bits of everything — happy-go-lucky pop, beery music-hall singalongs, backwards-guitar freakouts, spacey Barrett-Floyd travelogues, moody nightclub psychedelia, and tough hard-rock thrash — are woven into a rinky-dink Anthony Newley daydream. If anyone ever asks you for an example of psychedelic pop, forget about “I Am the Walrus,” “2000 Light Years from Home,” or “Arnold Layne.” Play them this.

141. Wilson Pickett “Land of 1,000 Dances”
(Fats Domino/Chris Kenner)
Available on The Very Best of Wilson Pickett

I know you’ve been thinking throughout this entire list, but Jonathan, where are all the dance-craze songs? Where are the Twist, the Mashed Potato, Cool Jerk, the Watusi? Here they are, every single last one of them, straight from the hypopharynx-shredding voice of that wicked, wicked Pickett yeah. “All right. Feel pretty good, y’all.” He’s copping James Brown moves, but the J. B.’s, for all their funk, never brought the noise like the Stax crew does here. And then there’s the epic, indelible chorus. There have been many na-na-na-na choruses over the years, from “Kiss Him Goodbye” to “Hey Jude,” but this was the first, and always the best. Pickett doesn’t have any message to deliver, whether political, artistic, or romantic: all he wants is for you to Get Out on the Floor and Shake Yo Ass. Yes, even you, Whitey. No excuses, now. Here we go. “One, two, three . . . . ”

Next: 140-131. >>


Anonymous said...

JB said, "...there’s no such thing as a typical Dylan song. And this is one of them."

Ahh...paradoxical perfection!

Anonymous said...

RE: "Land of 1,000 Dances"
...JB said, There have been many na-na-na-na choruses over the years, from “Kiss Him Goodbye” to “Hey Jude,” but this was the first, and always the best."

Although I'm sure you're aware of this, JB, not all who read this might be aware that the first recording of this song was first recorded (and written by) New Orleans R&B crooner Chris Kenner (in 1963, three years before Pickett recorded it).

Kenner's version--produced by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member--and fellow New Orleans musician--Allen Toussaint (who recently peformed the National Anthem with Irma Thomas in the pre-game ceremonies of the Falcons/Saints game at the newly-refurbished Superdome--barely made a dent in the Billboard charts (#77) and never cracked the R&B charts (though it was a local hit...back in the days when such things existed). Rufus Thomas heard it and covered it, and then a Chicano quartet from East Los Angeles nicked it from them.

It was this gang of thugs--known nationally as Cannibal and the Headhunters--who added the "Nah, nah nah nah nah" part in their hazy, (seemingly) drugged out recording in '65. If any of you have never heard this recording, you should definitely check it out. You know how the Swinging Medallions' "Double Shot of My Baby's Love" (and why isn't that song on this list yet?!?) sounds like it was recorded by a bunch of drunken frat boys at one of their own parties? Well, Cannibal and the Headhunter's version of "Land of 1,000 Dances" sounds like the singer was at this very same frat party...but he was singing his own tune, stoned, in one of the corner bedrooms of the frat house.

It's a completely different beast than Pickett's monster (and speaking of drugs, Pickett sounds as if might have been on speed when he recorded his), but satisfying none-the-less.