I would like to acquaint you with the beautiful music and sad story of Nick Drake, if you’ve never heard either. Let me say that Nick Drake was a talented singer and guitarist and nothing short of a brilliant songwriter. I think it is fair to say he was ahead of his time, though his music was definitely a product of its time. You have probably heard his music somewhere, since it crops up in odd soundtracks and other places, but his name may have escaped your notice.
Drake released his debut album, “Five Leaves Left” in 1969, when he was 20 years old. It wasn’t well received critically and didn’t sell many copies. He was confident his second album, “Bryter Layter,” would be a commercial success. It sold less than 3000 copies. 3000. Oof. Drake, who was throughout his life prone to depression and insomnia, didn’t take it well.
He began work on his final album, “Pink Moon,” in 1971. He was by then smoking what a college friend called “unbelievable amounts” of marijuana. Yeah, in 1971. I can’t imagine what quantities would be required to cross the “unbelievable” threshold in 1971. In any event, he strove for an even more stripped down sound on “Pink Moon.” He recorded it over just two nights in the studio with most songs featuring just Drake and his guitar. It received some good reviews, but sold even fewer copies than his first two releases.
Drake became more depressed and withdrawn. He lived frugally and simply, often with his parents. He had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for 5 weeks in 1972. In autumn of 1974 Drake succumbed to an overdose of antidepressants at age 26. Colleagues told him he was a genius, but ultimately he had a rather sad and unsuccessful life.
Nobody really talked about Drake throughout the rest of the 1970s, but in the ‘80s, he got a shout out from members of The Cure, R.E.M., and Dream Academy. People started identifying Drake as a romantic tragic figure. He got a little more attention in the ’90s, including a biography on BBC2 in 1999. In 2004, nearly 30 years after his death, two of his songs actually reached the charts in the U.K. His songs have started appearing in movie soundtracks and TV commercials. In fact, after one of his songs appeared in a Volkswagen commercial, he sold more records in a month than he had the previous 30 years (or so Wikipedia would have us believe).
Now Drake is recognized as an influential artist and has a pretty large cult following. You should pick all three of his releases because they are delightful. Some of the songs are somber and frankly depressing, but many of them are serious in tone but uplifting and gorgeous.
Here are 4 brilliant tracks from his debut.
- Time Has Told Me – An acoustic intro with a typical pensive Drake melody is joined by piano and picked electric guitar and becomes kind of uplifting, like many Drake songs. It actually sounds a bit like early Bowie – maybe something off of “Hunky Dory.”
- Three Hours – Acoustic bass and bongos back Drake skillfully playing some ornate acoustic guitar as he sings an ethereal melody. It’s a really beautiful piece and there some interesting facts about Drake to read on this YouTube video during the song.
- Cello Song – Guess what instrument accompanies Drake and his acoustic guitar. The name isn’t clever, but the song is beautiful.
- Man in a Shed – It’s a clever song with a beautiful melody. Drake’s instrument was the guitar, but the piano is particularly busy and joyful.
By all means, dig deeper. Interestingly, there are many still photos, but there is no film footage of Drake as an adult. His live shows were reportedly awkward and brief, but the sadly small catalog of music he left behind reaches out to touch us even now.
Hey, have you ever heard of The Beatles? Those kids from England were pretty good. I was on a discussion board where someone expressed the opinion that The Beatles aren’t that great and he doesn’t even like their songs. I don’t usually engage in such discussions, especially since he was probably a troll. However, in that case I was moved to respond that I guessed he was a twenty-something who has no idea how every band he likes is standing on their shoulders. He didn’t respond but I got a chorus of agreement from other readers.
Of course, they were arguably the most influential pop act of the 20th century. They were great singers (except Ringo), gifted songwriters (except Ringo), talented players (INCLUDING Ringo), and strong personalities. John had a huge impact on popular culture, obviously, and Paul has been knighted. Today, I’m actually writing up an album by the quiet one, George Harrison.
George left behind a fantastic body of work both musical and charitable. I enjoyed the Traveling Wilburys and lots of his later work, but my favorite Harrison album remains 1970’s “All Things Must Pass.” This was the first album he released after the breakup of The Beatles and it is a treasure trove of wonderful songs. There might have only ever been 1 band where a songwriting genius like George Harrison couldn’t get songs onto a record. With the potent writing combination of Lennon/McCartney populating albums, George was often frustrated that there wasn’t room for some of his great work. When ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ didn’t make the cut, Harrison considered offering it to Frank Sinatra. Instead, it and other gems were released on this triple album.
“All Things Must Pass” was a breakout album by a recently frustrated musical genius in his prime. A lot of Harrison’s more famous Beatles songs were on the mellow side, but if you’re familiar with ‘I Me Mine,’ ‘I Want to Tell You,’ ‘Savoy Truffle,’ and ‘Taxman,’ you know Harrison rocked as well. He did plenty of both on this album. All the songs are good, but these are my favorites.
- I’d Have You Anytime – The album kicks off with this gorgeous love song. It still makes me sigh every time he lays down that lick. He doesn’t let up either, and plays fantastic accompaniment throughout.
- My Sweet Lord – This song is about the Hindu god Krishna and though he originally wrote it for Billy Preston, Harrison released it himself. Harrison was famously sued over similarities between this song and The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine.” He was found to have “subconsciously copied” the song and was forced to surrender some royalties for that song and his entire album.
- Wah-Wah – Harrison said “Wah Wah” was Liverpool slang for a headache in his book I Me Mine. Probably. It was certainly written after he and Paul had a fight during the “Let It Be” sessions. In the song, he says “you made me such a big star,” and “I don’t need no wah-wah. And I know how sweet life can be if I keep myself free from the wah-wah.” Could be a headache from the business of music.
- All Things Must Pass – A little melancholy, a little hopeful, but very wise. This has always been an uplifting song for me.
- Let It Down – Do you know this song? If not, you’re welcome. This is one of the best songs you’ve never heard. The intro and chorus is as big as the guitar end of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ but the verses are beautiful. The whole thing is brilliantly constructed and I have never heard it on the radio.
- Apple Scruffs – This song is so much fun I put it on my daughter’s mix on my iPod. Sunny harmonica, a happy melody, and goofy lyrics make this a wonderful love song.
- I Dig Love – Ringo played on this album and his percussion makes this weird little groove really roll. Love this song.
If you’ve never heard this album, definitely pick it up. If you haven’t listened to it in a while, dust it off. It really has staying power.
I had heard good things about the debut album from The Magic Numbers. The band is two pairs of siblings (Romeo and Michele Stodart and Sean and Angela Gannon) all from England who apparently play friendly, sunny pop. I don’t usually go in for music that is described that way, but I kept reading that it was good so I decided to check it out.
The Magic Numbers debut album, “The Magic Numbers,” is indeed full of sunny, playful pop that is nearly cute. The thing is, the hooks are irresistible, the instrumental arrangements are interesting, and the vocals, while occasionally almost saccharin, are unlayered and give the album the feel of seeing a show in a small venue. It is undeniably good, though some of it is just too sweet for me. Still, I recommend you give at least these 4 a listen.
- Long Legs – Energetic percussion and girlish harmony vocals back this tale of a guy who as near as I can tell has two girls and doesn’t want to lose either of them. This sounds like a demo version or something. It’s not the album version, but it is studio and it is the whole song so I’m linking you to it.
- Love Me Like You – This has an old-fashioned pop feel to it, particularly with the backing vocals again. The guitar and bass both do good work on this track.
- Don’t Give Up the Fight – Still straight-ahead pop, but it’s a little more complicated than the first two. It’s an emotional little song about a girl who wants to keep trying to make a relationship work.
- Love’s a Game – This is my favorite song on this album. I think it’s because the catchy verses give way to dark and sad choruses. Even with the soulful guitar work it still sounds like a couples’ skate song.
Interestingly, their second album sounded a lot like this one but in June of 2010 they released “The Runaway,” which premiers the band’s “new sound.” They seem to have grown up a bit – at least from the few samples I heard. I’ve ordered the album and I’m certainly going to give it a spin. As usual, I’ll let you know.
Every now and then I dip back into my collection and pull out an old favorite, rather than write up something I’ve recently discovered. I started doing that today because I haven’t had a lot of time this week to listen to my new stuff. I was surprised to discover I have never written up a favorite from the late 1990s, “Villains” by Verve Pipe. You may remember ‘The Freshmen’ from this album. It was a wildly successful single and it’s pretty and evocative. I actually haven’t had this song on my iPod though I do have 5 others from “Villains.” I think radio kind of killed this song for me, but after hearing it again today, I think I’m going to put it back in rotation. Anyway, “Villains” hit #24 and went platinum after its release in 1996. I think it’s one of my favorite sophomore albums, certainly among bands that aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Verve Pipe came out of East Lansing Michigan. As I researched them, I kind of expected there to be a link to The Jellyfish or some of their alumni because Verve Pipe reminds me a little of the Jason Falkner/Roger Joseph Manning Jr./Jon Brion group of bands that produced ear-friendly power pop throughout the 1990s. There was no such link in terms of shared members or co-touring that I could find. Still, the sound is there. Pop music was still reeling from the body blows grunge threw at it and songs that might have been sunnier pop a few years earlier or later were tinged with slightly darker themes and heavy guitar.
“Villains” struck my ear just right. along with a lot of other people, obviously. If you never heard it, you should give these a listen. It was a strong album full of deep and catchy songs. If you remember it only vaguely, dig it out again. I still like hearing these come up in rotation.
- Drive You Mild – Some of these songs, like this one, are heavy post-grunge tracks. Donny Brown is positively bruising his drum kit on this track.
- Myself – The pace is halting and the percussion plods through it but the guitar work is cool and the vocals are edgy.
- Photograph – The keyboards, bass, and drums lay down a head bobbing groove and I’m not sure which I like more, the odd lyrics or their smooth delivery.
- Ominous Man – OK, so the title and subject are a little ham-fisted. The catchy guitar hook and the pretty vocal melody win me over.
- Penny Is Poison – This is one of the mellower tracks on the disc. It’s a beautiful, dark love song and I really like it.
I found today that The Verve Pipe got back together and released an album in 2009 called “A Family Album.” I was psyched. Then I discovered it’s… wait for it… a children’s album. I listened to the samples on Amazon. I’ll give them the nod. They’re certainly children’s songs and it ain’t Raffi. Some of them kind of rock. Then there’s stuff like this: “Why do you call it bacon? You ain’t bakin’ it. That French toast isn’t French and you ain’t toastin’ it. Why do you call it a milkshake? You ain’t shakin’ it.” I have to say I did not see that one coming.
I tried to get a mix posted today. Picked out songs and everything but just ran out of time. I might finish it later this weekend, but it’s hard to say. Either way, I hope all of you have the holiday you are hoping for. Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it. Or even if you don’t, I suppose. I’ll be back soon with more music.
★Merry ★ 。 • ˚ ˚ ˛ ˚ ˛ •
•。★Christmas ★ 。* 。
° 。 ° ˚* _Π_____*。*˚
˚ ˛ •˛•*/______/~＼。˚ ˚ ˛
˚ ˛ •˛• ｜ 田田｜門｜ ˚
My iPod reached back and spun me a little vintage Chris Isaak today and I decided to write him up. Isaak is an interesting fellow. He has released 14 albums, acted in many movies (including The Informers, Married to the Mob, and Silence of the Lambs), appeared in many TV shows (including Friends, Wiseguy, and Ed), and had two different shows of his own. I honestly can’t tell if he’s insanely good looking or not. I know he has great hair. Judging from the amount of acting he’s done, I think he must be. I’ve seen his show, too. It was engaging and funny. Anyway, he’s talented, funny, good-looking, rich… I hate him.
Kidding! I’m kidding. Well, maybe I hate him a little. However, that doesn’t keep me from liking his 1993 release, “San Francisco Days.” If you’re familiar with any of his music, there’s a good chance it’s either ‘Wicked Game’ (from “Heart Shaped World”), the video for which featured a smoking hot Helena Christensen, or ‘Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” (from “Forever Blue”), which Stanley Kubrick picked for inclusion in the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack. Personally, I like “San Francisco Days” better than either of those albums.
Like his 50s greaser hair, Isaak’s music has a throwback feel to it. Mixed rockabilly and country guitar is scattered through songs of lust and breakups. His crooning generally sounds like he’s channeling Roy Orbison, though he sometimes descends into a throaty growl or a husky whisper. “San Francisco Days” was his first album in 4 years when it was released and he spent the time writing some good songs and updating his sound a little bit with some occasional rhythm machine and production effects. I remember the disc stayed in my player for several weeks when I got it and I still like to hear songs from the disc come up in rotation. Check out some winners and go get it if you don’t already have it.
- San Francisco Days – This track kicks off the disc and it’s a great, high-energy pop tune. I linked you to a live performance but it’s in a studio so they come very close to the album version.
- Round N’ Round – It’s too bad this whole song isn’t on YouTube because it’s great. The rhythm machine rears its head in this one while Isaak lays down a dirty guitar riff and moaning vocals.
- Can’t Do a Thing (To Stop Me) – This track is simply gorgeous. The clean guitar is so gentle and the backing vocals caress the chorus. The highlight of the song, though, is Isaak’s voice, which is as sweet and smooth as caramel.
- I Want Your Love – The guitar vamps a full on rockabilly groove while Isaak does his wailing-with-longing thing. I love the energy.
If you’re just dipping your toes in Isaak’s collection, his 2006 release, “The Best of Chris Isaak” is a rare best-of collection I would actually recommend.
Today I hope to turn you on to a kind of supergroup. The Menahan Street Band is an 11-piece instrumental ensemble featuring an absolutely sick lineup with members of Antibalas, El Michels Affair, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and the Budos Band. Yeah, go back and read that list again. It’s crazy. In 2007, Thomas Brenneck of the Dap Kings pulled the guys together for this project, which released their debut album, “Make the Road by Walking,” in 2008.
If you are familiar with the bands these guys come from, you can imagine the sound they achieve. They pretty much meet at the dead center of the Dap Kings’ new soul, Budos Band’s funk, and Antibalas’ afrobeat sound. They sometimes lean one way or the other and even stray into jazz occasionally, but by and large it is an interesting exploration of the intersection of those three sounds. Fellow Brooklynite Jay-Z sampled the title track for his hit “Roc Boys (and the Winner is…).” Oddly, Rolling Stone Magazine declared the Jay-Z song the #1 single of 2007, but “Make the Road by Walking” was released in October of 2008 so I’m not sure how that happened. Apparently, the single was released before the rest of the album or something.
Anyway, the music is unpolished but accomplished, funky, and beautiful. Check out my 4 favorites.
- Make the Road by Walking – Flanged guitar and glockenspiel create an oozy groove for the horns to play around in. After a mellow intro, it jumps up into an energetic passage that you would expect from Antibalas.
- Home Again! – This features a pleasing horns melody and percussion that reminds me of ‘Groovin’’ by The Young Rascals.
- Karina – The Band gets a little more jazz-oriented on this track and the result is wonderful. Clearly, these guys are all monsters on their instruments, but they all lay back in service of the song, trying not to be too flashy.
- Birds – Delicate keyboards back up fat (or maybe even phat) and ambitious horns. You can occasionally hear the trumpet miss a note, but they’ve left it in to keep the spontaneous, first-take feel of the sessions.
All of these guys have their own other things going on. I hope they had enough fun and success with this project to do another one.
I’m sitting in the front window of a coffee shop writing this post. I have a hot mocha and I’m watching the snow fall outside. Seems like a perfect week to compile a mix of Christmas music. I have a Christmas mix on my iPod with 167 songs totaling 8 ½ hours of music. I like Christmas jazz because you get fresh and interesting takes on some standards, but I often have trouble finding links to the versions I love. Also, nothing is quite as Christmasy as the classic versions.
With that in mind, today I’m posting a mix of my favorite old school Christmas songs (except for Diana Krall, but she kind of leans old school anyway). I thought I had posted a version of this mix another year, but I went through my records and it looks like I never have. I think I always run out of time Christmas weekend.
Many of these songs have been covered well multiple times, but these are my very favorite versions. I hope you like them.
- White Christmas – Bing Crosby
One story says that when Irving Berlin wrote this song, he told his secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” Bing nails this song and this particular arrangement is my favorite.
- Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Mambo – Billy May
This was always my least favorite Christmas carol, but May’s 1958 version is hip and energetic, even now. This is a cleverly edited video, too.
- Baby It’s Cold Outside – Dean Martin
This is such a cute song and Martin is exactly the mischievous type to deliver it. Incidentally, there is a fantastic remix of this song on a great album called “Merry Mixmas” on which they regroove the classic vocal track. This is the original, though.
- The Christmas Blues – Dean Martin
Why not a double shot of Dean Martin? He never shied away from a double shot.
- Christmas Everyday – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
Smokey’s voice is classic and the great Motown sound is wonderful. The best thing about this song, though, is I haven’t heard it 1000 times.
- The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole
EVERYONE has done this song. I think my version is out there on YouTube somewhere. No one has done it as beautifully as Nat King Cole, though. This arrangement is gorgeous and Cole’s voice is as warm and gentle as a down comforter.
- Christmas Time Is Here – Diana Krall
You should already have the original Vince Guaraldi version of this song. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the best Christmas album ever made bar none. Krall’s version of this song is lovely, though.
- Christmas Waltz – Peggy Lee
A lot of people have covered this song too, but Peggy Lee’s 1960 version of this great Sammy Cahn tune makes me feel like a kid when I hear it.
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Lou Rawls
I love the way Rawls swings this song and every note the horns drop is gold.
- Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives
I know this isn’t a great song but, God help me, I still like it. I watched the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every year as a kid and this is the closer.
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Frank Sinatra
Bing Crosby and Perry Como both had hits with this song first, but I like Frank’s version. The lyrics were written by Buck Ram when he was a homesick college student, but they came to symbolize the wishes of American soldiers in both World Wars.
- Jingle Bells – Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sistes
Here is another song I don’t often like to hear at Christmas, but this zippy version with Bing and the Andrews Sisters is so much fun.
- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Vaughn Monroe
Monroe himself recorded this song multiple times, but this is his best rendition. It’s the one they usually use in movies, too (Die Hard, for example).
- Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth – Bing Crosby & David Bowie
Best. Christmas. Song. Evah. The “Peace On Earth” counterpoint was added for this TV special, which was recorded just a month before Bing’s death, because Bowie hates “Little Drummer Boy” and wanted to sing something else. The music starts about 1:45 in.
- The Holly She Bears a Berry – The Chieftains
This is from The Chieftains’ pretty good Christmas album, “The Bells of Dublin.” Traditional Irish music is kind of Christmasy anyway, in my opinion.
- Please Come Home for Christmas – Charles Brown
More blues for your Christmas mix. We’ve all had a sad Christmas or two and this one might make you feel better.
- Winter Wonderland – Lena Horne
Another standard that has been covered over and over. I like Lena Horne’s version, if we’re talking old school.
Enjoy this mix with – what else? – egg nog with nutmeg and a generous shot of rum. Have a great week and a Merry Christmas.