Thursday, July 30, 2015

Forgotten Music: The Supremes - When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes (1963)

The Supremes roared out of Detroit in 1963 with the classic Motown sound that young people all over America craved making them, for many years, the most successful (in terms of record sales) female group of all time.

Signed by Berry Gordy in 1961, the trio made seven earlier attempts to have a hit, but until "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" reached the Top 40 (number 23, Billboard Hot 100) near the end of 1963, just a few weeks ahead of the British Invasion, they had little success.  After that, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross were off to the races.

"Lovelight" had the vibrant accessibility that Motown became famous for during their early years served up by the labels' famous singers and house band, The Funk Brothers.  It isn't as instantly recognizable, nor quite as compelling, as many of The Supremes' later chartbusters but you can hear that their platinum selling formula was already in place.  What's mostly missing is the sexiness in Ross's voice. Despite that, it's an oldie that deserves to be heard more than it is.

A bit of trivia: at 1:48 into the song you'll hear all Four Tops and Holland-Dozier-Holland, the song's composers, shout out in unison just as the instrumental break begins.

The single was the first one of many H-D-H wrote for the ladies, almost all of them huge sellers.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Bucket List: The Grateful Dead - American Beauty (1970)

I was never one to be turned on by interminable jamming but I have nothing against inspired improvisation. The problem arises when bands sound like they're jamming to satisfy their own egos (hey, look what I can do!) and turn what starts out as an inventive solo into a half hour of tedium. (Please, at least have the restraint to do it only once per show). Now that I've got that off my chest I'm about to commit rock 'n roll blasphemy: one of the most boring live albums I ever heard is The Grateful Dead's three LP set, Europe '72. It's the album that never ends.

I do like the Dead but they were always better as a studio outfit. When the country-rock pioneers were tuneful and concise, as a recording studio forced them to be, they were usually quite satisfying. Proof lies with the record that has always been considered their studio masterpiece, the stunning American Beauty.

This outstanding set of ten tunes gave birth to five FM radio staples, all of them worthy of airplay, all of them still heard today. The opener, "Box of Rain," with Phil Lesh on vocals, is a standout and it's followed by the best thing they ever laid down on tape, the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia/John Dawson story song, "Friend of the Devil." It's about an outlaw who makes a deal with the devil and featured David Grisman guesting on mandolin with the Dead for the very first time. The last of the three perfect ways to open an album is Bob Weir's "Sugar Magnolia." Side two on the original vinyl LP begins with the mighty fine "Ripple," again starring Garcia and Grisman.

The Dead closed the album out with "Truckin'," a rocker that became their biggest single for the next seventeen years. The shortened radio version only reached #64 on the Billboard pop singles chart even though the legendary San Franciscans were one of the most popular bands in the world at the time. It took them until 1987 to top it when "Touch of Gray" went to #9.

The rest of the classic record doesn't measure up to those five songs but that statement isn't a criticism of songs like "Brokedown Palace" and "Attics of My Life." On any other Grateful Dead album they would be considered standouts.

The elegant vocal harmonies, Grisman's mandolin, and Garcia's steel guitar push the disc firmly into the Americana category. Only a few other examples of the genre have scaled the artistic heights American Beauty reached. If you don't like these ten songs you just don't like country-rock or you have a problem with the whole hippie scene from which it came. If only the Grateful Dead's live sets were as focused as this album.

The first video below is not The Grateful Dead. Instead, it's a Garcia/Grisman performance of "Friend of the Devil" from David Letterman's show in 1993. It's followed by Bob Weir and John Mayer on The Late Show.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Eilen Jewell - Sundown Over Ghost Town (2015)

If you're listening casually Eilen Jewell's seventh full length album, Sundown Over Ghost Town, exhibits a quiet sameness to many of the tracks. So, in order to fully appreciate her work you need to pay attention. If you do the rewards are plentiful and the subtle differences in her arrangements become readily apparent. That's because the native of Boise, ID has several assets working for her: strong but very feminine vocal chords, the ability to write lyrics that mean something, and a highly professional band.

Jewell's songs reveal an awareness of her surroundings and other people's lives. She lives on the folk side of country and has a little bit of Woodie Guthrie in her soul so she's not interested in the traditional, more commercial subjects of the genre. Instead of bars and trucks she sings about untamed horses and farmers who are about to lose everything.

On "Half Broke Horse" Jewell sings, "No bridled horse can stand him / Or any of his kind / Their hidden laws condemn him / They’re so rigid and refined". Later she compares the sad animal to a rancher who is also a victim of a higher social order, "And we just got our notice / This whole place is going under / The bank’s whip is on us / We won't last another summer."

On "Needle and Thread" the protagonist tells us about a place that's "just one horse shy of a one-horse town" but it's not necessarily where Jewell's own roots were cultivated because on "My Hometown" she sings, "It would sound like my hometown / If sweetness had a sound." On both tunes you can see how deeply the singer-songwriter identifies with the common man and how those feelings inform her music.

Having seen Jewell in concert a couple of years ago I can assure you she's not a depressed woman. She's just a thinker with complex thoughts.

Jewell's band includes her husband and drummer Jason Beek, stand up bassist Johnny Sciascia, and guitarist Jerry Miller who also doubles on mandolin. The singer-songwriter strums acoustic guitar and plays harmonica.

Visit Eilen Jewell's website.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Pete Best Live On An American TV Game Show - 1964

Are you old enough to remember the game show I've Got A Secret? It was a TV program I watched a lot as a kid. For those of you who aren't familiar with it the premise was simple. A panel of four celebrities asked a series of mostly "yes" or "no" questions to a guest with the goal of uncovering his or her secret. In a lot of ways the show was nothing more than a TV adaptation of twenty questions, a game many of us have played at home.

The original series was hosted for most of its run by the late Garry Moore who also had his own variety show that was instrumental in giving Carol Burnett's career a huge boost.

The panelists during the years I watched were former Miss America Bess Myerson, game show host Bill Cullen, comedian Henry Morgan, and actress Betsy Palmer.

The original and most famous version of I've Got A Secret aired on CBS from 1952 to 1967. The show was briefly revived in the 70s and there was even a cable version of it on Oxygen in 2000 - 2001. Until now I hadn't thought about it in many, many years.

In this episode from March 30, 1964 former Beatle Pete Best is one of the guests. There are some things you should notice while viewing his brief appearance. Moore feigns surprise when Pete tells him his secret. A bigger lie comes from Best when the host asked him why he left The Beatles. The drummer's explanation is total fabrication. He was devastated when The Beatles fired him. Also, I was totally surprised when Moore announced that Best still had a social relationship with the Fab Four. In these very early days of Beatlemania in America I'm guessing the real story wasn't common knowledge yet.

Also, in what is typical of the day, notice how quickly the conversation turned to The Beatles' hairstyles. Both Myerson and the crew-cutted Cullen bring the topic up immediately during their turns and later Moore, whose hair is the twin brother of Cullen's, does the same. Before they became permanently embedded as musical and cultural icons it was the group's carefully coiffed hair that was often the most discussed thing about them.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy is indeed a very good movie and based on what I've read about about both Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys (which is a lot) what we see on the screen is very accurate. It's also extremely well acted and directed, a definite thumbs up as Siskel and Ebert would have said. Praise for the film has been nearly unanimous.

I agree with most observers that Paul Dano was better than John Cusack at playing Wilson, Elizabeth Banks as his future wife (Melinda Ledbetter) was drop dead gorgeous, and Paul Giamatti was perfectly evil as Dr. Eugene Landy.

The movie has been discussed endlessly in the entertainment press and on music blogs everywhere so for me to write a proper movie review at this juncture would just be redundant. Instead, it's time to look at this film biography from a slightly different angle and address a glaring omission director Bill Pohlad should have included.

This post offers no defense of Landy's treatment of Wilson during the time period depicted in the movie because it's a certainty that the caregiver totally controlled his victim/patient to the point he should have been considered a hostage. What isn't shown is that the crazy psychiatrist saved the life of the man who was the heart and soul of The Beach Boys.

How bad off was Brian? By the mid 70s his weight was out of control. He was well over 300 pounds. His intake of cocaine, alcohol, and heroin had become life threatening. He heard voices. His liver was failing and at one point he was found living as a vagrant in San Diego.

Dr. Landy first came into Brian's world in 1975 at the request of his first wife, Marilyn. His unorthodox treatment of Wilson worked for awhile but he was fired the following year because he attempted to double his fee. In 1982 Landy was asked to return because the star's physical and mental condition worsened and this time he was able to bring the troubled Californian back from the abyss. The doctor got him off drugs, put him on a major diet, and revived his health. No one, including the musician himself, ever disputes that. So, despite the horribly unfortunate truths of the film, it should have been mentioned that were it not for Landy it is likely Wilson would have died from his mental illness and addictions over thirty years ago.

Much of what happened to Wilson during the decade or so immediately prior to Landy's 1982 involvement was never fully developed in the film. Pohlad, by leaving so much out of the screenplay, never explained how the Landy-Wilson relationship was born or how the doctor came to control his patient so completely. Both are necessary components of the story.