Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Works Progress Administration

Last week a nasty thunderstorm flooded out my only chance to see a free outdoor performance of Works Progress Administration, a cool new band loaded with veteran rockers who have histories with some of music's most respected artists. WPA can be described as a country-folk band with a rock 'n roll attitude.

WPA describes the group as an "expandable collective," meaning there are three core members and five non-permanent members who frequently join the big three as often as their lives and careers allow. The permanent members are Luke Bulla who played with Lyle Lovett, Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, and Glen Phillips formerly of the alt-rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket.

They explain the term "expandable collective" on their website as follows: "We recorded our record with additional members Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Greg Leisz (Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell), Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Imposters), and Davey Faragher (Cracker, the Imposters). While we would love to have that complete community be present all the time, the logistics of getting all of us in the same place at the same time are fairly mind boggling, so we will usually appear as a 4 or 5 piece (listed as Core Band on the tour page), but whenever possible we will have 7 or 8 people (Expanded Band). All configurations will kick ass."

WPA is:
Glen Phillips – vocals, guitar
Sean Watkins – guitar, vocals
Luke Bulla – fiddle, vocals, guitar

Sara Watkins – fiddle, vocals
Benmont Tench – piano, organ
Greg Leisz – pedal steel
Pete Thomas – drums
Davey Faragher – bass

The original WPA was a government program created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. The agency provided millions of jobs for the unemployed. Artwork remembering the WPA is a central theme of the band's website.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

John Fogerty - Revival (2007)

Creedence Clearwater Revival is definitely one of America’s all time great rock 'n roll bands. Today, John Fogerty continues to make CDs that sound just like CCR and that is fine with his fans because his loud, bluesy, swamp rock sound has always been an undeniable treat. The only difference between the music Fogerty currently makes and a typical Creedence album is that his latter day solo works lack the knockout singles that CCR issued with astounding regularity back in their heyday. That said, Fogerty’s music is still high quality work worthy of your attention.

Revival, Fogerty’s latest, is louder than his more country influenced comeback of 1997, Blue Moon Swamp, and more intense than 2004’s Deja Vu All Over Again, although it lacks the killer signature radio song that was its predecessor’s title track.

Politics is a major theme on Revival, and at times the subject is too pointed, as Fogerty’s screaming and ranting at George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney prove on "Long Dark Night." Calling them all out by name is a bit over the top. The song is just too angry to work well. Better is "Gunslinger," a far more subtle, more intelligent, and therefore more successful, attempt at making the same points. When it was recorded most of the world had never heard of Barack Obama, yet listening to the song today it’s easy to interpret the current President to be the intended gunslinger that Fogerty wishes would arrive in town to save the day.

Then there is "Creedence Song," a track that can be seen as Fogerty's tribute to himself and his band. It’s a little out of character for a man who for decades tried to bury his CCR past. It can also be seen as bragging. "Summer of Love" celebrates an event that suffered through its fortieth anniversary at the time this CD was recorded. Upon reflection, the summer of ’67 turned out to be mostly about sex and drugs. The "love" discussed so much back then has long since disappeared from a scene that is no longer so groovy.

Revival is a fine effort marred only by Fogerty’s too many attempts to relive his glory days, celebrate a period in time that doesn’t really need reliving, or rail against the government. Musically it’s great although lyrically the disc won’t win him any young converts. However, I don’t think the rocker cares. He is targeting his music at his original fans and mostly succeeds.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why Do 45 RPM Records Have Big Holes?

Tomorrow is Vinyl Record Day so, for the third year in a row, Bloggerhythms will help celebrate and reminisce about our old friend, the phonograph record. This year we're going to find out why 45 RPM records have much larger holes than 78s and 33s. Believe it or not I often wondered about this burning question when I was collecting hundreds of these little seven inch gems back the 1960s.

According to several websites, including Answerbag, the reason for the large hole used by 45s was simple. It was difficult for the old 78s, with their smaller holes, to find their way onto jukebox spindles. The large hole effectively eliminated that problem.

Strangely, seven inch 45s were often pressed with the smaller holes used for LPs in many countries outside the United States, especially in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Overseas the inserts (commonly know as spiders) were manufactured into the large holes at the factories but they could be punched out if desired. The Beatles' British single of "Love Me Do," pictured here, is a typical example. Why were the spiders built into English 45s? I was unable to find the answer yet I'm certain that other countries who used this practice had jukeboxes too.

The Straight Dope offers another reason behind the larger hole size of the 45, one much less obvious to the public. In 1931 RCA's chance to market a 33 1/3 RPM turntable and record ended in disaster. However, in 1948, Columbia managed to do just that with Capitol and Decca quickly following their lead a year later. RCA, still smarting that Columbia pulled off what they weren't able to do almost a generation earlier, was understandably shy about trying the fledgling format again so their engineers were told to come up with an entirely different system that would be totally incompatible with Columbia's long players. So, in addition to producing records with a different speed, RCA decided their 45s would have a big hole to further guarantee the two systems would be completely different.

At the time there were record players that played only 45 or 33 RPM records but not both, so a format war ensued. Anyone who remembers the VHS - Betamax war of not so long ago will appreciate the Columbia - RCA tussle. Apparently it never occurred to RCA that multi-speed turntables, spiders, and 45 RPM adapters that enabled listeners to stack multiple 45s on record changers, would soon be available. Industry insiders thought RCA had another boondoggle on its hands but the public ended up embracing both technologies.

The Straight Dope never mentions the jukebox as a reason for the big holes and the only other source I found that briefly wrote about what became known as the "War of the Speeds" was Wikipedia. As with most things in history I'm sure there are elements of truth in both stories.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

10 Great Beatles Songs You May Have Never Heard

I recently paid a visit to a blog that I read regularly published by my British cyber-buddy, Martin Warminger. At his site, Music Obsessive, he just listed what are, in his opinion, the worst Beatles songs of all time. It's an idea I wanted to steal, and I could come up with a short but bad list, but for the sake of originality I decided to do something completely different instead. So, here is a list of ten songs by my all-time favorite band that deserve a better place in the annals of Beatles history. Most of them are only known by their hardcore fans. Here they are in chronological order.

1. I'll Be On My Way
The only known recorded version of this very early, 1963, Lennon-McCartney ditty appears on Live at The BBC. The Beatles never put it on vinyl. Yes, it's simplistic and the lyrics even have the audacity to rhyme the word "moon" with "June." However, the song has one of those undeniably catchy melodies that the Beatles were so superb at composing. It's quite unfortunate that once I play this song I can't get it out of my head for a week. The Beatles gave it to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas who used it as a "B" side to one of their singles.

2. Soldier Of Love
This is another song that only appears on Live at The BBC. It's not a Beatles song in the truest sense because it's a cover version. The composing credits read Cason - Moon and the Beatles found it on a record by R & B singer - songwriter, Arthur Alexander, who wrote "Anna," a song The Beatles recorded for their first album. The quartet played a lot of covers of American R & B in their early years and this song may actually be their finest cover of them all. It's mystifying why they never recorded it for an album. John Lennon's lead vocal is excellent.

3. No Reply
This very good tune was considered as a single until John brought in "I Feel Fine." It's good enough to have been a radio hit but instead it languishes in semi-obscurity on the band's last album from their "Beatlemania" days, Beatles for Sale. Help! followed, and that LP began their transition away from being cute mop tops into something the music world would have to take far more seriously.

4. I Don't Want to Spoil The Party
This is another song from Beatles for Sale and it also served as the "B" side of "Eight Days A Week." This mostly acoustic track, sung by John Lennon, was The Beatles' first foray into real country music. It's far removed from the happy go lucky rock of their early years. It is one of those dark, moody pieces that only the group's leader could have written. There is no way the song could have been a hit for the band in those early fab four years but if John had held it and put it on one of their later albums this intelligent confessional may have received the accolades it deserves. The pop world just wasn't quite ready for something as introspective and serious as this in 1964 and early 1965. Rosanne Cash turned it into a hit many years later.

5. Yes It Is
For years the only way to obtain "Yes It Is" was as the "B" side to the 1965 single "Ticket to Ride." It's a moving, slow, sad ballad that features some weird electric guitar sounds from George Harrison and some wonderful three part harmonies. This is some of the best singing John, Paul, and George recorded as a trio. The superb and little known rock guitarist, Johnny A, did an excellent, instrumental cover of the song on his first solo CD.

6. For No One
Like "No Reply," this song, from Revolver, is not really a rarity but due to a lack of radio airplay it's not as well known to casual fans as it should be. Everything about this McCartney tune, from the lyrics, to the melody, to the arrangement, are perfect. To me it's the unheralded gem from this classic Beatles album.

7. Not Guilty
This George Harrison rocker closes with a rousing electric guitar solo. The complete, fully formed, band version of this song was left off of the The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) at the last minute. Why is a mystery, because George's stuff was just as good as most Lennon-McCartney works in 1968. "Revolution 9" did make the album so it's no wonder that George believed he was not being treated fairly. "Not Guilty" was released in a much different version on a Harrison solo album in the 70s and The Beatles version finally made it to CD on Anthology 3.

8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Solo Acoustic)
This is the original demo Harrison played to introduce the song to everyone in the studio during sessions for The White Album. It's almost totally his acoustic guitar and voice. Paul McCartney added some barely audible organ in the background. Wildly different than the famous and magnificent version with Eric Clapton that did make it to the album, this slowed down original appears only on Anthology 3 and is a thrill in it's own right. We were treated to two versions of Lennon's "Revolution" and there should have been two released versions of this song, one of the finest in The Beatles catalog.

9. Old Brown Shoe
Here is another rocker by George that originally appeared as the "B" side to "The Ballad of John and Yoko." It's a rollicking example of George's excellent songwriting and unique guitar playing during the last two years of The Beatles. At the time, the "A" side received virtually no radio airplay due to John's usage of the word "Christ." Since the "hit" didn't get the same attention that almost all other Beatle singles received "Old Brown Shoe" got completely lost in the controversy.

10. Real Love
Is it mere coincidence that this list is full of Lennon and Harrison songs? "Real Love" is the second of two songs written by John that Yoko Ono gave to Paul, George, and Ringo to complete for the anthology series. This one appears on Anthology 2. ("Free as a Bird" released on Anthology 1 was the first). Around 1979 John recorded the song at his piano with just his voice, double tracked, and a drum machine. The other three Beatles finished the song in 1995 and it was released as the opening track to Anthology 2. Lennon always complained about Paul's "silly love songs" yet John wrote his share. This song proves it. Another perfect, catchy melody saves the day.