Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Forgotten Music Thursday: John Gorka

The prolific John Gorka has released fifteen albums beginning in 1987 but like many highly regarded singer-songwriters he's barely known outside the realm of folk music.

I've written before that I'm not a big fan of solo acoustic guitars accompanied only by a voice (I mostly find the format boring) but Gorka is one of the rare exceptions. He's so good that it is arguably the best way to listen to him because you don't want or need a band to divert your attention away from the stories he has to tell.

The singer-songwriter's golden baritone is a perfect framework for his songs and, it doesn't matter if he's singing a ballad or an uptempo tune, his vocal chords never have to struggle to reach for the correct notes.

The folkie's shows are also enhanced by his easy rapport with the audience, a necessary performance element for someone not prone to onstage theatrics.

Gorka is from New Jersey (a subject he discussed in one of his more famous and humorous pieces) but he gained and cemented his reputation playing clubs and coffee houses in and around Bethlehem, PA in the '80s where he attended school as a philosophy and history major at Moravian College. Since then he has also appeared on CNN, Austin City Limits, and Mountain Stage.

The easygoing and introspective troubadour can write seriously or with an excellent, self-deprecating sense of humor.  Either way, his clever wordplay is always apparent.

On "Grand Larceny," from Temporary Road (1992), he wrote about feeling sorry for himself when his car was broken into in Pittsburgh. He sang: "Pittsburgh has the Steelers and the Pirates and the thieves."

Another example shows his serious side. On "When I Lost My Faith," from 2001's The Company You Keep, Gorka says, "When I lost my faith in people, I put my trust in things to avoid the disappointment trusting people brings."

The folk veteran seldom strays from the sparse, mostly acoustic arrangements he's played and recorded for years but within that framework he always manages to be eclectic, smart, and possess an instinctive sense of what makes a song listenable.

If you're interested in attending one of Gorka's many concerts he's easy to catch, especially in Summer when he plays a lot of outdoor music festivals. Often you can see him for free or at very reasonable prices.  As a result I've probably seen him in concert more than any other musical act. You can find his upcoming performance schedule at his website.

We'll close with a sample of Gorka's humorous side.  On "I'm from New Jersey," from Jack's Crows (1991), possibly his best known album, he captures what it's like to be from that much maligned state as well as Bruce Springsteen always has without taking himself as seriously.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Great Cover Versions: The Mamas & The Papas - I Call Your Name (1965)

In their very early days The Beatles were known as a great covers band. The quartet not only played many of the more famous early rock 'n roll hits they were also admirers of a lot of obscure records they wanted to share with the World. But, after they achieved global fame, it wasn't long before other artists wanted to cover Lennon and McCartney.

"I Call Your Name" was a song John Lennon wrote before the famed quartet even existed. It eventually appeared on an EP in England and on The Beatles Second Album here in America.

In 1966 John Phillips, another artist with impeccable taste in cover songs and leader of one of the all-time great vocal groups, The Mamas & The Papas, recorded "I Call Your Name" for their first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.

Phillips took a rocking song and turned it into an uptempo ballad. His arrangement featured his quartet's beautiful vocal harmonies and outstanding lead vocals by Mama Cass Elliott and Denny Doherty. It was well known that Elliott had a huge crush on Lennon and she whispered his name in the instrumental break.

"I Call Your Name" was among the first covers of a Beatles' track to receive extensive radio airplay and on Philadelphia's top 40 radio station, WIBG, it was played in heavy rotation just like all of the hit singles of the day.

The Californians' version is a total reimagination of their English contemporaries' original. It's also one of the very few covers of a Beatles' song that is superior to their own.

Below are The Mamas & The Papas with a live performance of the song from The Monterey Pop Festival. This take is without Elliot's passionate pleas to the song's composer.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

British Sea Power - Open Season (2005)

I found another good CD recently while rummaging through a used music store. It's the second album by a band I previously never heard of: British Sea Power, a six piece outfit base in Brighton, East Sussex, England.

The quirky band sounds distinctly English. Neither of the lead singers, brothers Yan and Hamilton Wilkinson, reveal any sort of British accent in their vocals but Americans never sound quite so cute while showing off eccentric songs filled with appealing, offbeat lyrics. Sonically, the album, Open Season, is full of loud, riff-filled, but melodic, modern rock with shimmering electric guitars.

The disc opens with "It Ended On An Oily Stage," a song previously called "Elegiac Stanzas." When the band decided that radio personalities may have trouble pronouncing the title they renamed it. Titles such as this one and the lyrics that go along with it prove their music is not the stuff top forty songs are made of.
"Everything you said was true
Everything you did was you
Everything I started with her
Ended on an oily stage where
I wrote elegiac stanzas for you
I hope and pray that they come true.

He found God in a parking lot, and you did not
I, I headed for the coastalry regions of mind to see what I'd find."
Another eyebrow raising title, "Oh Larsen B" is about a peninsula in Antarctica that collapsed several years before the song was recorded.

The album went to number 13 in the UK and it peaked at 38 on the American Heat Seeker's chart.

British Sea Power's sound has been described as a cross between The Pixies, Arcade Fire, and The Cure but to my ears they sound more like Squeeze or The Posies.

Find out more on the band's website.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Paul Revere (1938 - 2014)

Freddie Mercury sang "Another one bites the dust" and unfortunately his words continue to ring true when it comes to rock stars of the 1960s.

This morning news broke that Paul Revere (no, not the colonial patriot) has died. The late keyboard player was the founder and leader of the mid-60s phenomenon, Paul Revere and The Raiders.

Because they included a lot of slapstick in their live shows and wore campy revolutionary war uniforms on stage many critics and rock music fans refused to take The Raiders seriously. Yet Paul Revere Dick (yes, that was his real name) and the band he led were a loud, hard rocking outfit that could blow many other rock acts of the era right off the stage. Unfortunately, their carefully cultivated image virtually obliterated the fact they weren't Herman's Hermits or The Monkees.

The Raiders were a favorite of Dick Clark and they appeared regularly on Where The Action Is, his TV show of the era.

Listen below as Revere, lead singer Mark Lindsay (another 60s pop star who made young girls swoon), and the rest of the band rock out on "Good Thing" and "Let Me."

Also, be sure to read this tribute to Revere posted by another cool music blog I just discovered, Iron Leg.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Philippe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon - All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release (2013)

All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release is a thoroughly entertaining coffee table book that is a chronological reference guide about their recording career. It's a massive volume that is chock full of information that needn't be read as a cohesive whole. The five pound, 653 page, encyclopedia covers all of The Beatles' songs.

The inspiration behind every track is discussed, along with details of how each one was constructed and recorded in the studio, which Beatle played what instrument, and what support outside musicians contributed during their guest appearances. We also learn a lot of background and biographical information because quite often the quartet's personal lives fueled a song's creation. Also included are many photographs that you've probably never seen before.

The book begins in Hamburg where the band, recording under the name "The Beat Brothers" and with Pete Best still on board, served as a backup group for Tony Sheridan in 1961. It continues on, discussing the demos that led producer George Martin and Parlophone to offer The Beatles a one year recording deal. From there the book takes us on a tour of all 213 songs they released during their career, ending in 1970 with "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," the B-side to "Let It Be."

Author Philippe Margotin is the author of several books about music including biographies on The Rolling Stones, U2, and Radiohead. His co-author, Jean-Michel Guesdon, is both a producer and musician who owns a large collection of information about The Beatles that he amassed over the last thirty years.

The preface is by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Patti Smith, an unlikely Beatles fan if there ever was one but, as we quickly discover, even the "Godmother of Punk" succumbed to the charms of the ultra-famous Liverpudlians.

All the Songs is both very interesting and well researched but it's appeal is strictly for hardcore fans. Casual fans will view it as information overload.