Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nick Lowe's "Quality Street" Offers Seasonal Fun for All

Quick! Who's that handsome devil pictured to the left? Believe it or not, that's Nick Lowe, the talented British singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer who burst on the scene in the late 1970s with such clever and catchy songs as "What's So Funny (About Peace Love and Understanding)," which became a hit for Elvis Costello; "Cruel to Be Kind," which made it to #12 on Billboard's Hot 100 in the Summer of 1979; "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass"; "So It Goes," and, one of my favorites, "Switchboard Susan," which I played to death in my college radio days. Unfortunately, Lowe seemed to disappear almost as quickly as he arrived, and while he's released a steady stream of well-reviewed records over the past three decades, he's never again enjoyed the same level of popularity as he did when he first helped bring new wave and power pop to the States way back in the Jimmy Carter era. Fast forward 30+ years to 2013, and to our collective good fortune, Lowe's just released a new holiday album called Quality Street (A Seasonal Selection for All the Family) on Yep Roc Records. It's a rich mix of well-crafted pop tunes -- some familiar, others original. From the Memphis rave-up sound of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" to the deliciously sentimental Roger Miller classic "Old Toy Trains," Quality Street has a little something for everyone. Well, nostrike that, for as Lowe himself emphasizes, this one's a "sleigh-bell free zone," meaning you won't find any of your typical saccharin-laced holiday fare here. But whether you think of Nick Lowe as the cutting edge artist who makes pure pop for now people or some old fool from your grandfather's distant past, you'll undoubtedly find something wonderful among this seasonal selection.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy Halloween, Pumpkins

Halloween has never been one of my favorite holidays, although most people I know tend to really get into it. As a result, I find myself imbued with just a little more Halloween spirit with each passing year. I started Halloween costume contests at two of my previous law firms and they seemed to be among the most popular workplace events of the year. Lately, I've been filing away whatever interesting Halloween-related songs and audio I run across in anticipation of putting together a special Halloween mix one of these days. Until then, here's a sampling of Halloween music to help celebrate this most ghoulish of holidays tomorrow:

Listen to a Selection of Halloween Songs from the Jazz Age

Listen to a Selection of Halloween Songs from the 1950s and '60s

Listen to a Selection of Halloween Songs from the 1970s

Here are two versions of an especially moving song from Lou Reed's 1989 album New York called "Halloween Parade." It's about the festivities held in New York's Greenwich Village each Halloween, which regularly attract a large contingent of gay revelers, among others. Written at a time when gay men were falling ill to HIV at an unbearable pace, the song is an homage to some of the regular parade participants Reed knew from previous years who, although unable to attend the parade, are nonetheless not forgotten.

Listen to the studio version of Lou Reed's Halloween Parade
Lou Reed performing Halloween Parade with his wife, Laurie Anderson, in Paris:

Finally, here's a Halloween music playlist posted recently by Roger Wilkerson, who bills himself as "The Suburban Legend." His tumblr blog offers a most amazing blend of pictures, music and ephemera from the 1950s and '60s, and he adds delightful new stuff pretty much every day. Roger's Halloween mix is posted on PodOmatic, a service I'm not familiar with that claims to feature "millions of free mixes from the planet's best independent podcasters." If Roger's posting his stuff there, that's good enough for me! But you can listen to his mix from this very site by pressing PLAY on the app that appears below. (Thanks, Roger!) Enjoy yourselves tomorrow, and please don't eat all of your children's candy.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed, 1942-2013

The news of Lou Reed's passing, though not surprising, was a terrible blow nonetheless. Reed was a survivor. In fact, he was my favorite kind of survivor the type of guy who not only kept on doing his thing, but was also continuously evolving and breaking new ground. He was fearless and he remained vital and involved in the world around him. He owned what he was and what he'd done, but he refused to be limited or confined by the past, including his own previous experiences. His style was refreshingly direct, and he used clear, unambiguous language to communicate. He had little time for nonsense, but one sensed an abounding capacity for compassion as well – the genuine and heartfelt compassion that is seemingly available only from those who have suffered themselves. As a songwriter, he left his mark early by pushing the boundaries of rock music until there was room for virtually any subject within the human experience  including, believe it or not, Christmas! Yes, for while it's true that Reed was never known for his holly, jolly outlook, there's a certain amount of holiday fare in the in the Lou Reed oeuvre, as the following examples clearly establish:

1. "Perfect Day" (1972), originally from Transformer
This beautiful song has a long and colorful history, and while it's not a Christmas song per se, it's come to be seen as one over time. It first appeared on Lou Reed's second post-Velvet Underground album, Transformer, which was released in 1972. In 1996, the song was featured in the controversial film Trainspotting. In 1997, it was used as the centerpiece of a major promotional and fundraising campaign by the BBC, and later that same year, it was released as a charity single in Great Britain to raise money for Children in Need. A video was released that featured contributions from an impressive array of performers including Bono, Elton John, Emmylou Harris, David Bowie, and Robert Cray, along with Laurie Anderson, who later became Reed's wife.  The song topped the British music charts for weeks, and raised over
£2 million for charity. As Reed himself noted, "I have never been more impressed with a performance of one of my songs." Here it is:

"Perfect Day" has also been covered by a variety of performers, including Duran Duran, who took the song up the British charts again in 1995, and Susan Boyle, who included it on her bestselling holiday album The Gift in 2010 and sang it for Prince Charles and his second wife during one of those command performances they always seem to be demanding. Ms. Boyle also performed the song for a crowd of plain old regular Americans at a show in Rockefeller Center in 2010:

Boyle was scheduled to perform the song on live TV for the America's Got Talent show that same year, but she was forced to drop out of the program at the last minute due to licensing problems. When he learned what had happened, Reed took pains to emphasize that he had nothing to do with the decision, and after arranging to get Boyle permission to perform the song, he volunteered to produce her music video version of it. I'm not that keen on any of Boyle's renditions of the song myself, but I like the atmosphere of the video, which was shot on the banks of Loch Lomond in Boyle's native Scotland:


2. "White Christmas," performed live with Rufus Wainwright
I can't tell you for certain where or when, but Reed performed "White Christmas" with Rufus Wainwright on some stage somewhere, at one time or another, and here's the proof:

3. "The Cry of a Tiny Babe," performed live with Bruce Cockburn and Roseanne Cash
Canadian singer/songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle used to host a semiannual show called The McGarrigle Christmas Hour that brought together a wide range of performers to share stories and songs of the holidays. Much to the surprise of many in the audience, Reed showed up for one of the shows in 2008 where he joined Bruce Cockburn and Roseanne Cash for a wonderful version of Cockburn's beautiful song "The Cry of a Tiny Babe." Unlike most Christmas songs, this one looks at Jesus's birth through the eyes of his earthly parents:

4. "Xmas in February" (1989), from New York
New York is one of my favorite Lou Reed albums. Released in 1989, it paints a gritty and lifelike picture of our nation's biggest city just before the economic boom of the 1990s and Manhattan's subsequent Disneyfication. Reed's not shy about naming names in this one. The album effectively fingers a sizable group of co-conspirators whom Reed considers responsible for some of his city's ills. The song "Xmas in February" is a little different, however. It simply tells the bleak and bitter story of Sam, a short-order cook who returns home after being seriously injured in Vietnam only to lose nearly everything else in quick succession. It's an unrelentingly grim story that really doesn't have a whole lot to do with Christmas as such, but then again Reed never was much for touching reality up to make it look prettier. You can hear the song HERE, but Reed himself advised listeners to experience the entire record from start to finish, like a movie or a play, and that really does give you a richer picture. Try this link for that, or, better yet, buy the CD.

5.  "All Through the Night" (1979), from The Bells
Finally, one of Reed's most overlooked albums – The Bells, from 1979 – contains this odd number, which sounds like it was recorded on a hidden tape recorder at someone's cocktail party. The foreground conversation offers little of interest and effectively overpowers Reed's slow-moving narrative and, at times, even the music itself.  In this instance, nothing much is lost. The lyrics aren't particularly artful and the music sounds uninspired, too, but there are these lyrics: 
If Christmas comes only once a year
why can't anybody shed just one tear
for things that don't happen all through the night
Ooohhh mama, all through the night.

Not too much holiday spirit there, but the song itself is another piece of Lou Reed's reality. We've lost a great deal with him no longer sharing ours. He'll truly be missed.

Christmas Is on the Horizon!

With Halloween a mere three days away and a most exciting World Series more than half-way through, it's obvious even to me that another Christmas is on the horizon. Greetings from Los Angeles, and here's hoping you've had a wonderful year since we last touched base on January 3. That little nip in the air is our signal that it's time to put out the welcome map and get ready for the 2013 holiday season.

My plan for this year is similar to the one we've used in previous years. I'll post some occasional thoughts between now and Thanksgiving Day, which is when I plan to post this year's holiday mix on my holiday music website at www.MarksHolidayMixCDs.net. From that day on, I'll use this blog to share some background, history and general thoughts about each of the individual tracks on my latest mix. I could start earlier, I suppose, because this year's mix is already done (my hand to God) – but let that be our little secret. If that news were to ever get around, it could destroy that carefully crafted image I've cultivated as a disorganized slacker, and there's no percentage in doing that. In fact, not only is my annual mix complete, but I've got another special bonus mix finished, too, which I'm planning to share sometime within the next week or two. Details to follow here. So, Happy Halloween to one and all. I'm looking forward to spending some time together over the upcoming holiday season!