Monday, June 23, 2008

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" / Diana Ross / Hitsville USA

You know, I really do like Motown. I think it's become a little bit cooler these days among musicophiles to say you were really into the Atlantic artists or maybe the Stax / Volt crew, but you have to give it up for Motown, too. I love how Berry Gordy built an autonomous, top to bottom, minority owned and operated juggernaut. Word was he was an asshole, but he had an ear for a pop tune and could sniff out talent from miles away.

I also have some nostalgic feelings whenever I hear a Motown record, which of course makes no sense because they were recorded while my parents were negotiating middle school. I guess when I hear those songs, I imagine how someone that age (baby boomers, I mean) must feel when they hear them. And much of that comes from the incredible Funk Brothers, the instrumentalists who are more or less responsible for that Motown sound. As I said earlier, I love the idea of taking ubertalented artists and plugging them into the songwriting / performance machine you've set up and reeling off hit after hit after hit. You can hear that same sound in every song, but adding a David Ruffin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or in this case, a Diana Ross over it just makes it unfair.

I did a little bit of digging on this song, and I found out an interesting fact - it was written by none other than Ashford & Simpson


Of course, it was recorded originally by Marvin Gaye, then Diana Ross covered it in this version. I like this version better - it's slower, a bit more dramatic, and I love the intro, with the horn flares and the lovely melody. But you what's really cool about this version? The talking. Ross doesn't sing this song, save for the chorus - she speaks it. Why doesn't anyone do that any longer? In this case, it makes the song more intimate, and makes that awesome chorus more dramatic and effective by comparison. In fact, the structure of this song reminds me a lot of my favorite Supremes' song "Someday We'll Be Together". Listen to them one after the other and see what I mean.

The other secret weapon in this song and in the whole Motown arsenal is the bassist, James Jamerson. I know people make fun of the bass / tuba player always pimping the bass guy, but Jamerson is ridiculous. His lines are so clean on the Motown tracks, they pop right up out of the mix (no accident, I'm sure) and they are so rhythmic and innovative. Just try to imagine "I Want You Back" without him. Listen to this song and concentrate on the bass part. Just watch this white boy do it (he's doing the six minute version, too. And, no, that's not me)

Oh, and here's the song for you:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"This Hard Land" / Bruce Springsteen / Tracks

Bruuuuce! The Boss! The American Bryan Adams!

Well, it's about bleedin' time. Fifty posts into this blog, and it's my first Springsteen post. I have a full 160 Springsteen songs on itunes, but for some reason the 'ol random button never seems to pick them (but it loves it some Black Sheep - go figure). Give it credit for picking a great song for his first, though. Well done, random!

I'm sitting here trying to pinpoint the beginnings of my Springsteen fandom, and it's hard to do. My first brush with him was, probably like most people my age, through the Born in the USA hype in the mid eighties. I really had no context for him then, as far as I knew at the time, he was the dude fighting it out for Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna for 80's pop supremacy. Of course I bought that tape, and of course I loved it, and yes, of course (like Ronald Reagan) I famously misread the subtle irony of the "Born in the USA" song.

I remember there being huge hype for the subsequent Live 75-85 record set, but that included alot of his classic tunes that I wasn't familiar with at the time (though I loved his cover of Edwin Starr's "War"). By the time Tunnel of Love came out, I just casually listened to the singles and moved on. Of course, how could a fifteen year old really grasp the subtle genius of a track like "Brilliant Disguise" or "One Step Up"? It's impossible).

I think I started paying attention again through Bizarro Wuxtry, of all places. In the late 90's, I ventured into that venerable Athens store and availed myself of the famous "records by the pound" offer. One I happened to buy was Darkness on the Edge of Town. When I took that bad boy home, placed the needle on the record and heard the first beats of "Badlands" blast out, I was thinking, "Holy shit. How did I never hear about this before? Why wasn't I told?!" And they kept coming off of that album - "Adam Raised a Cain", "Candy's Room", "Racing in the Street", "The Promised Land", "Prove it all Night", "Darkness on the Edge of Town"...are you kidding me?

Again, are you kidding me?

As soon as possible I went back and bought the other albums from the pile - The River...Greetings From Asbury Park...finally got into Tunnel of Love...and, lord Jesus, Nebraska. I was a convert. Then to seal the deal, my wife bought me Tracks, the four CD set of rarities and B Sides from which this song comes. It all lead up to seeing him play at Philips arena on the next Live CD tour, and that was that. Shoot, my wife and I's first dance at our wedding was to "Happy", another unreleased song from Tracks. Since then, I've gobbled up everything he's released, read tons of books on the dude, and am just as pleased and excited with last year's "Magic". Bruce Springsteen IS Rock & Roll, and screw all you haters.

"This Hard Land" was one that he wrote back in the mid eighties, and he's said that it's probably the best song that he's never released. It's hard to believe he didn't, as it would have been a sure-fire hit back then. Although, I see his point if he didn't want to include it on the Tunnel of Love album, as it's not really about the disillusion of a marriage or the artifice of love. Yikes.

He starts off with a Dylanesque harmonica riff, then goes almost acapella for the first verse, with only a stummed guitar for accompaniment. By the time he hits us with the melodic hook "They've just blown around / From town to town / Back onto these fields" at :32, he's given us two classic Springsteen moments - a "Sir" and a "Mister". Do you know how many "Sirs", "Misters" (or "Mary"s) he has sung to over his career? It's quite a bit.The rest of the song is just that straightforward - verse, chorus, repeat. For all intents and purposes, it ends at 3:43, but he rocks another fuckin' harmonica solo until the song fades out. It keeps going live, as you might imagine. I love the dissonance of this tight, upbeat song against the depressing subtext of the lyrics - the struggle of the main characters to maintain hope in the face of adversity. It's not unlike the "Born in the USA" phenomenon that I mentioned earlier that had all of America fooled.

One other thing I've liked about Springsteen's songs is that they are a steel pedal and twangy dilevery from being kick ass country songs. Those core themes in his songs of family, perseverence, nostalgia, dreams, drudgery, maturity, hope, friendship and loss are universal to all genres of music and to all Americans. That's why a suburban kid from a southern town can count a New Jesey / rustbelt singer as maybe his favorite artist. Ever.

Here's a live video for "This Hard Land", but I actually like the recorded song better...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Break On Through" / The Doors / The Doors

OK, I'm gonna admit to liking the Doors, and I know that they're one of those love / hate bands for a lot of folks. I guess I'd fall on the "love" side, although that's a pretty stong word to use for me with the Doors.

I know that Morrison is the epitome of the pretentious rock star, and Ray Manzerick is pretty much a douche, and normally I'd hate a band with those qualities, but dammit, Morrison was so earnest that I kind of can't help but admire him a little bit for his Lizard King / drunk poet / tribal chief schtick. (By the way, I mentioned Morrison in passing when discussing this curious tendancy of some lead singers to inexplicably reinvent themselves as Native American, made even stranger by the fact that fellow pseudo-Indian Ian Astbury of The Cult toured with the remainder of the Doors recently)

"Break On Through" is the first song on thier first album, but the first time I heard it was on that red double CD "Best of the Doors", which I think came pretty much standard issue in any white kid's music collection (along with probably Bob Marley's "Legend" and later, Pearl Jam's "Ten"). Back then in ninth grade, I only knew The Doors from a few radio hits, like "Light My Fire", "Touch Me" and "Riders on the Storm", although I remember MTV sometimes playing "Unknown Soldier" and "Wild Child" videos in the 80's for some odd reason.

Someone you knew had this

In this song I like the quiet beginning leading up to the loud chourus (that quiet verse / loud chorus dynamic would be populaized by many an alternative act in the 1990s too). My favorite part (and it's a really short song, so there's not much from which to choose) is the last verse where Morrison gets really rolling around the 2:00 mark ("day to day / week to week / hour to hour") - that's good right there, and he's really selling it. Say what you will about the guy, but he really had a hell of a great voice, and one of the greatest howls in rock & roll history (check about 1:50 in)