This week’s playlist:
“She” & “Witch Doctor”
When I saw Harry Connick Jr live in St Louis in 1994, I knew what to expect from the music; many in the crowd did not, even though Connick himself warned everyone what was coming. “I want to let you all know that I’m not going to be playing standards. This isn’t the kind of concert I used to do. This is a funk show. Prepare to get down.” – or words to that effect. He did not disappoint. Or rather, he disappointed a lot of people expecting him to croon “I Could Write a Book” or “We Are in Love.” I, however, was blown away by him and his band. Connick has fine piano chops, and he used them to soulful form, at times playing one hand on the piano and the other on a Fender Rhodes, bringing the New Orleans funk and dispelling whatever assumptions I had made about him as a musical lightweight. Whatever he has done since then I don’t even care about (returning to that lightweight role) – She is a greatly under-appreciated album, and I’ll just pretend that a different Harry Connick Jr than this one made it. Connick hails from New Orleans, as does the band Galactic. Crazyhorse Mongoose, their first album, was a barnburning funk album not unlike She. Subsequent albums have explored a variety of New Orleans music. I keep coming back to this first one.
“Nicotine & Gravy” & “The Mall & the Misery” & “At Home He’s a Tourist”
I’ve been thinking over the past few months about Beck’s 1999 album Midnight Vultures, a disco- and funk-heavy sex album. Sandwiched between Mutations and Sea Change, it wasn’t as universally loved as those two albums and has largely been relegated to the scrap-bin of the Beck discography. But I think it’s a perfect demonstration of Beck’s musical genius (“Nicotine & Gravy”), his sense of humor and his gift of pastiche (“Debra,” a pinpoint Prince parody), and his prescience: Beck was tapping into disco grooves a decade ahead of Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and basically all pop music of the last couple years. I think JT’s career is nothing without Midnight Vultures, and it’s better than any JT record as a whole. The band Broken Bells (producer and dee-jay Brian Burton [nee Dangermouse] and The Shins’ James Mercer) this year put out their sophomore effort, After the Disco, whose title shows which trend they’re following. It doesn’t come close to their self-titled debut, from which “The Mall & the Misery” is culled. That album was easily my favorite album of 2010. I love the isolated guitar brought to the fore in the middle of each verse. The first time I heard it I thought of Gang of Four’s “At Home He’s a Tourist” – obviously a very different song musically from “The Mall & Misery,” but still the kind of guitar work that is inspired: it works, though it seems so out of left field.
“The First Taste”
After the jarring noise intrusion of the previous tracks, Fiona Apple’s “The First Taste” with its dripping sensuality and langorous pace is the perfect palate cleanser. Though it’s not bad by any means, her later stuff was not as impressive as this, her debut. It’s a shame that the songs on Tidal were used to create a rather libidinous picture of Apple – who has since proved what a intellectual artist she is and always has been.
“(I Feel Like An) Astronaut” & “Astronaut”
It’s time I got back into Fetchin’ Bones and the world discovers (or, for a small community, rediscovers) their mix of infectious punk, blues, and roots rock. A band that was at least a decade ahead of its time, Fetchin’ Bones, fronted by singer Hope Nicholls, was a part of the vibrant North Carolina music scene of the 1980s, a scene that helped develop – most notably – R.E.M. but was really spearheaded by the likes of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who both played a part in Fetchin’ Bones’ and R.E.M.’s first few albums. That Fetchin’ Bones didn’t find stratospheric success like R.E.M. probably speaks to a music that defied definition; though both bands saw airplay on college radio, R.E.M.’s sound was much friendlier for the mainstream. With where music is now, maybe it’s time to reissue these Fetchin’ Bones records and create a new buzz. Instead of taking the easy segue and following with R.E.M., “Astronaut” put me in mind of another “Astronaut,” this by the Portland band Blitzen Trapper. Eric Early and his crew are the natural descendants of the great stadium rock of the 1970s, as “Astronaut” will attest. The tempo changes in this song are impressive, and lyrically, Early shows off his mastery of the quick rhyme (taken from his love of Hip-Hop). The line, “cause I’m an astronaut on the shores of this grand illusion” and the hum of the slide guitar and mellotron make for an evocative close to the song. (Also, see this band live, to watch them rip through a blazing rendition of “Good Times, Bad Times” or “Ramble On.”)
“Hang Loose” & “Moonlight Mile”
If Blitzen Trapper are the natural descendants of a band like Led Zeppelin (or the Kinks or [insert British Invasion band name here]), then I’ve always thought Alabama Shakes were the natural descendants not of The Rolling Stones in general but certainly of The Stones’ southern rock of the late 60s and early 70s – albums like Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers. And to continue with the motif of journeying, “Hang Loose and “Moonlight Mile” were a worthy pair – thematically that is. I recognize the risk (and perhaps ignorance) in naming such a young band as Alabama Shakes as the heir to what arguably was the most creatively superior four years of any band in the history of modern music: from Beggars Banquet in 1968 to Exile on Main Street in 1972, the Rolling Stones made four albums unrivaled in their brilliance (though an argument can be made for the Beatles from 1965 to 1969 or Stevie Wonder from Talking Book to Songs in the Key of Life). But I hear in Brittany Howard’s voice the same drawling swagger that Mick Jagger had during those peak years, and I hear the same Keith Richards jangle in both Howard’s and Heath Fogg’s (the Shakes’ other guitarist) playing. So while I acknowledge “Hang Loose” is not on a par with the best of the Stones, it’s certainly a song that gets you moving and drives itself headlong through a quick two and a half minutes. Of course it doesn’t hold a candle to “Moonlight Mile,” but to be fair not much does. I am enamored with the feel of Richard’s slide guitar woven between the plunked piano and the crescendo of strings. “Moonlight Mile” achieves that rarefied air of being expertly crafted and the perfect album-ending song – which makes it the perfect song to end this playlist as well.