Friday, December 12, 2008

Not Blogging: Nilsson Sings Newman

I haven't lately had the time or the inclination to write anything here, but my friend Mauricio, who insists that the e-mail he sent to a handful of friends earlier in the week isn't blog-like, has written a nice little essay on what is I suppose as "lost" an album as one can find in this day and age, where everything seems a mere click away. Enjoy!

Hi kids - this will only hurt a bit...

Couple of days ago, after weeks of listening to nothing but Post Punk records by Gang of Four and Adam Ant, I desperately found myself in a singer/songwriter mood. But not for any of that precious Bon Iver/Jose Gonzalez stuff.... yes, They Are Great. Yes, this decade's crop of SSWs is quite lush. But I've been craving something that doesn't have the word Hip sewn on it's sleeve; I'm craving a singer that doesn't deliver his lines in a wispy-willow whisper (or a wimpy James Taylor whine) that says "I'm sensitive and sad but it's ok cause soon I'll be almost famous in Brooklyn."

I was looking for something that my dad would have listened to when HE was wearing hip on HIS sleeve, wherever Brooklyn was in those days.

So I started pecking around the Warren Zevon catalog. I had a few tracks, just the standards. Lawyers Guns and Money has been a long-time favorite; and if you haven't seen his appearance on the Larry Sanders Show, you just aren't living. But I've always hated the way his records sound - that glossy West Coast pro-production that's ruined so many decent records. But I had a suspicion that under all that shitty, dated LA trash, there were some gems to be found. I did manage to find some stripped-down demo recordings that lets his unique brand of sleazy pathos come alive without being buried alive by the Rock Jock Avalanche. (That shit should stay where it belongs. On Steely Dan records, where it's not just tolerable. It's fucking joyous).

But I digress....

After pilfering all the Zevon I could handle, I moved on to Kris Kristoffersson. If Johnny Cash is the Stones, then Kris must be the Beatles. I'd always liked his stuff when someone else was singing it (there's a couple of great KK tributes records out there) so I figured it was time to pony up $29.99 for the Essential Kris Kristofferson and hear the man deliver his own songs. It now sits proudly on my shelf with other artists in that series: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond (thank you Matt, for that last one).

But wait. That's not why I'm writing this either. I suppose I should get on with it before you send me the electronic equivalent of a spit in the eye. So, our story is propelled forward by the magic of internet consumer algorithms – through them I was led divinely through Zevon to Kristofferson, to finally land softly on the catalog of crazy old Harry Nilsson.

We've all heard Everybody's Talkin' and Coconut. You may know he's the original composer of the song "One", made famous in the 60's by Three Dog Night and most recently covered by Aimee Mann on the Magnolia soundtrack. And you may even have heard his own deliciously cheesy cover of Badfinger's "Without You" (I've been driving Yula crazy singing it around the Ithaca house at the top of my lungs, clutching my hands to my breast, channelling Bonnie Tyler and Bono. That's how I roll when left stranded upstate. Since quitting smoking, I don't even have to leave the house for cigarettes.)

Shit. Stay on track. Ok. Here we go.

But gimmicky little songs and the title track to Midnight Cowboy aside... it seems that Nilsson did indeed record one of the true lost gems of the 1970's.

The recording is not available on iTunes or Emusic, and it seems to be out of print on vinyl and CD. But there was quite a bit of chatter about if on the Internets, so I bought a copy from some little in shop in California, courtesy of amazon z-shops (who says mom and pop is dead. Knight, there's hope for Book Bin yet). I think this might be the first record in 5 years I've purchased sight unseen (sound unheard?). Turns out this chatter was no mere static.

Now, I've never been a fan of Randy Newman. He's always impressed me as the musical equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting. And he looks strangely like a Jewish owl. Don't get me wrong - I love owls. And you all know I not-so-secretly hope to become a true New York Jew someday when I'm old(er). But Newman's performances were always too vaudevillian at best and downright douchy at worst.

But hand his songs over over to the John Lennon-obsessed Nilsson, with his creepy-crazy Brian Wilson production and drug-addled delivery and these songs take on a new light. Some of them remind me of Bill Fay (another semi-obscure British folkie from the 60's recently brought to light by Wilco's take of his "How To Fight Loneliness." But that's another story. See, I'm on task).

I'm on my third listening of NSN, and dare I say, a gem it is. It's anachronistic and weird; tinkling and soothing and baroque. I'm pretty sure Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Elliot Smith were fans of this record. The production is intimate, the arrangements uncluttered. There's classic Lennon/McCartney-style double-tracking all over it. Some of it sounds like something you might hear at a carnival in the 40's. And you can hear how Wilco might have arrived at their Beach Boys take on Americana.

Matt, something tells me you'll like this record; it's definitely no Walkmen ;-) It's delicate and nostalgic; familiar and strange and ultimately pretty easy listening for a Sunday morning or a bleary, boozy 3AM after many glasses of Malbec. Plus, there's a song about Dayton, OH on it, so you Midwestern kids can relate.

Knight, seeing how you're the senior member of the group, I'm guessing you must have come across this record before? Sorry, was that ageist?
And Steve, as the only officially sanctioned musicologist in the group (my credentials are trumped up and highly suspect), have you had this record spinning along on your old Victrola all this time? Please send your thoughts, gentlemen.

Ok, I'm done, sorry to put you through all this. Thanks for reading, kids. No. I am NOT high. Just nicotine-deprived (It's kind of like being high without any of the, you know, pleasure).

Now, go listen. You may hate it and think I'm a wanker. I am, but that's not news...

Point your browser here:

(actually, don't; if you have any questions, contact Mauricio at

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I always thought this was by Bruce Springsteen. . . .

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

PURE/The Lightning Seeds

While cruising my hometown mall on a recent respite from NYC, in search of a rubber raft to float down the Coles River, I heard “Pure” come over the PA system. It still weirds me out to hear “alternative” music in settings where it would literally have been unheard of back in the so-called day, but if the Fall can lend their music to sell Mitsubishi SUVs on TV then I guess anything is possible. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though. I mean this song is the definition of inoffensive, which may be why I don't think I thought much of it or the Lightning Seeds in the early ‘90s – despite Ian Broudie having been the producer of one of my favorite records, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupines. But I’ve got to hand it to him now; he wrote the perfect song for a Saturday afternoon at Sears. This little pop confection was muzak to my ears.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Like so many Christmas songs, they'll get to you when you least expect it, even in July.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Every morning when I prepare to feed the cat, she stands there in the middle of the kitchen floor staring at me in anticipation. Imagine my horror today when the chorus of this truly awful song began playing over and over in my head. To remedy the situation I began thinking about the Red House Painters’ bizarre paean to one lucky feline, “Wop-a-din-din,” on my way to work, which got me to thinking of other songs about cats. (Commuting on the subway can sometimes be a bit mind-numbing.) I came up with two (it's a short commute), both by the Cure: “All Cats are Grey” and “The Love Cats,” the latter of which mercifully kicked Eric Carmen back into the depths of my musical memory, at least until feeding time tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

DRIVER'S SEAT/Sniff 'n' the Tears

You know how some songwriters supposedly use dummy lyrics as a placeholder until they write something for real? I don't think these guys ever made it that far. Oh, by the way, which one’s Sniff?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I recall seeing Wolf Parade on New York Noise in that video where some guy’s wandering around a slummy city setting with several heads all sort of balanced on his shoulders. Whatever. But apparently they’re all the rage, with two spinoff bands (one’s called Sunset Rubdown, which is pretty good as far as band names go) and legions of fans all swearing by the stuff and writing ecstatic reviews of it in freebie handouts like The L Magazine. It’s kind of okay rock music I guess, but I’ve already lived through the whole “math rock” thing. These days I’m more excited by a good ol' Robyn Hitchcock song or something new and unique like Fleet Foxes and their baroque, vocally folkily (vocal folkal? volck?) pop. Nevertheless, it just goes to prove once again that it’s not always the best songs that get stuck on brain repeat, as this carnivalesque riff has been going through my head for the past couple of hours, a sure sign that I need to engage in a conversation or at the very least turn on the radio. . . .

P.S. I think if I’d been at this show I would have been annoyed by the audience. But as the band Sloan once sang, presumably referring to the Grateful Dead, "It’s not the band I hate; it’s their fans.” Although in this case I think I might hate the band, too. The backlash starts here.

Monday, June 30, 2008

THE DEVIL, YOU + ME/The Notwist

I suppose it’s apropos that I have a sad German song stuck in my head on the day after Die Mannschaft lost to Spain, 1-0, in the 2008 European Championship, leaving at least the older of my two nephews -- the younger went to bed at the half -- feeling sad and groggy at school today. (German schools in Saxony were told they could open two hours late this morning, as most of their young students would have been up way past their bedtimes watching the final and getting acquainted with the common disappointments of sports fandom. In true German fashion, all schools opted to open on time as usual.)

At any rate, “sad and groggy” is also an apt description for the music of the Notwist, a German band that began its existence making a sort of Intelligent Death Metal (the other I.D.M.), only to release an acclaimed album of smart, melodic, digitally enhanced, Radiohead-inspired songs on their 2002 album “Neon Golden.” I first heard the record at Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place not long after it was released. I walked in looking for something else, happened to hear it on the store’s stereo, and listened to it pretty much from start to finish. The clerk told me what it was that I’d been so immediately enamored by, and I plunked down some ridiculous amount of money for what was at the time only available as a pricey import.

The band took six years to put out another record, having been involved with various side projects, none of which were as interesting as “Neon Golden.” And so, after half a dozen years, one couldn’t have been faulted for hoping for something commensurately brilliant with their next album proper. What the Notwist have instead produced is a record with limited highlights: two or three songs that could have been okay singles, with the rest sounding like material from the last record that didn’t make the cut. Among the few very nice moments is title track, “The Devil, You + Me” (a full version of which I can’t find anywhere online, I’m sorry to say). Imagine Nick Drake with access to Pro Tools and a drum machine and you kind of get the picture. As German defender Christoph Metzelder said after yesterday’s loss, “I think we have much more quality to show and we have to improve.” Hear that, Notwist?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

BRET, YOU GOT IT GOING ON/Flight of the Conchords

I first heard Flight of the Conchords at a listening station in the Union Square Virgin MegaStore, where I often go to kill time and find out what’s new, good, and selling. They’ve got a not bad book department, too. And a DVD section with all of the Criterion Collection stuff in its own separate bin. I feel a little guilty that I don’t actually buy stuff there, but rather use the place as a resource to find out what I want and then either download it for free or get it cheaper at an independent store where I don’t so much mind spending my vast sums of disposable income, not to mention saving myself from feeling stupid (or envious) about funding some ultra-rich lunatic’s round-the-world balloon trips.

Anyway, Flight of the Conchords didn’t make much of an impression. They seemed to me, and likely many others, a Tenacious D knock-off with Kiwi accents and no Jack Black. But having been to New Zealand, and having loved all of the Flying Nun stuff of the late ’80s and early ‘90s (The Verlaines, The Chills, The Clean, etc.), I’m pretty sure I’ll always be interested in the country’s unique cultural mix of Pacific/Maori influences and the veddy, veddy British. If its music scene is any indication, New Zealand's ties to Mother England are far stronger than those between the UK and Australia, although I can’t say that’s a firsthand opinion, having foolishly, in retrospect, not bothered when I was down there to take the short flight from NZ to Oz, despite having already traveled 23 hours to the South Pacific: NY to LA to Auckland (north island) to Christchurch (south island). (The upside of such a long journey is that there’s virtually no jet lag, as you pretty much go, time machine-like, smack into the next day. The downside is that I took the trip when smoking was still permitted on airplanes, which, even as a smoker at the time, was quite disgusting.) New Zealand is also, as anyone who's watched the LOTR trilogy can attest, more-or-less the most beautiful place one could ever hope to find themselves. And the national beer, Steinlager, isn’t bad either. In short, the place has everything anyone could ever want or need (except for maybe a job).

But back to Flight of the Conchords. I think they’re kind of lame. Nevertheless, my friend Mauricio sent me this link earlier today, and I defy anyone to not let this goofy little ditty get stuck in their head.

Monday, June 23, 2008

YOU'VE LOST THAT LOVIN' FEELIN'/The Righteous Brothers

There seems to be a tiny but ongoing trend of bands taking older songs and reinterpreting them in such a way that their meaning, if that’s the right word, becomes either changed or enhanced. I’m thinking mainly of Mark Kozelek’s AC/DC covers, but it applies all the way back, in my mind at least, to Aztec Camera’s remake of Van Halen’s “Jump.”

My friends in the Go-Kartel and I had the idea that rather than trying to cover a song in this way we should instead try to remake something note for note. More or less impossible, for sure, but a fun thing to try. The song we’ve chosen is “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall & Oates. Why? Well, because it’s kind of a good song. Looking to download it off the web I came across another Hall & Oates classic from the ‘80s, a song that I always used to love hearing on the radio back in the day, and one I’d always try to sing along and harmonize with, albeit only when no one was within earshot.

“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” was of a course a remake of the Righteous Brothers’ classic (supposedly it's been played on the air over eight million times, a number which seems low considering that the YouTube video has already been viewed by more than a million people), and today’s post was going to be all about how the Hall & Oates version blows it out of the water. But in fact it doesn’t. Not at all. I’d forgotten about the “wall of sound” production of the original, courtesy of Phil Spector. Granted, Spector's trademark often sounds like nothing more than tambourine dropped down an empty well, but here it totally puts the song over the top. Hall & Oates had balls to even try to reproduce the effect, and while I still love the H&O breakdown, with its sort of call and response build of intensity, The Righteous Bros. do it so much better, and with an emotional quality that seems way more subtle and real. (Supposedly Sonny & Cher sing background vocals, apparently from the bottom of the same well into which the percussionist has fallen.)

As a final aside, when you’re lip-syncing a song for a video, as do Daryl and John, would it really be such a bad idea to plug in your guitars to at least make it look like you’re actually playing? And what do you do about the drums? Stuff them with pillows? Because otherwise you’ve got one guy making a racket while everyone else is trying to sing along with the studio recording.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


I used to have this friend who said that whenever she saw the sign that reads MARBURGER SURGICAL over on Irving Place she couldn’t help but think it said HAMBURGER SPECIAL. Now of course whenever I see the sign, which seems somehow to have resisted the overall gentrification of the East Village, I think the very same thing. This has been going on for about fifteen years.

Likewise, a lot of the music that gets stuck in my head comes from visual cues. When I clear my work computer of the web sites I’ve visited, the command reads “Clear Private Data.” This inevitably leads me to start humming Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.” Whenever I glance at shelves in my office that contain multiple copies of Lebanese author Elias Khoury’s Yalo, Coldplay’s “Yellow” starts playing between my ears. (It doesn't help that it's also the color of the dust jacket.)

I once had a colleague called Dana, and every time I saw her in the halls I seriously had to stop myself from belting out the Big Star song of the same name. I could go on, but I won’t. I’m sure this happens to everyone. At least I hope it does. I’d hate to think it means I have a brain lesion or something.

Anyway, I heard this band in Other Music today. They’re from Philadelphia, where everyone seems to love Bruce Springsteen. The War on Drugs have been likened to a ’66-era Bob Dylan fronting the Jesus and Mary Chain. I don’t know about that, but I kind of dig this song.

P.S. I'm looking at this post 10+ years after I originally wrote it, and the link I provided way back then is kaputt. So here's a new one.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Today is the thinking man's (as opposed to the drinking man's) St. Patrick's Day, commemorating the 24-hour period in which the events in James Joyce's Ulysses take place. June 16 was also the day that Joyce and Nora, his wife-to-be, had their first date strolling around Dublin. The book is filled with musical references. Maybe this will be the year I finally get through the entire thing cover to cover.

THAT'S THAT/Cass McCombs

I credit my friend E. J. Van Lanen with turning me on to Cass McCombs, whose music not too many people seem to know, a shame considering the way it just keeps getting better and better. My affection for Mr. McCombs and his unique brand of indie-rock -- sometimes near-ambient, sometimes folk-inflected, and sometimes, as here, just good old-fashioned pop, complete with what sound suspiciously like doo-wops -- doesn't suffer from the fact that my wife and I had our first date at a concert of his in Brooklyn back in 2005 in support of the excellent record "Prefection." (I won the tickets online from Other Music in Manhattan!)

Anyway, just for fun, compare "That's That," the first single from "Dropping the Writ," (released late 2007) with "Dragging the Line" by Tommy James and the Shondells. There are certainly worse time signatures to ape. . . .'s%20That.mp3

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I used to think I had good taste: unique, individual taste. But round about the time the Cure started getting popular and Robert Smith began appearing in standing silhouette on posters covering the bedroom walls of artsy high school girls everywhere, I guess I felt a little betrayed. I don't know why it mattered that I had to at least think that I’d heard “it” first – “it” being whatever it was that everyone else was only starting to get years later – but it did. My alternative musical discoveries were the one thing that made me feel cool and smart. The fact that nobody else liked what I liked was proof that I was different. But I wasn’t.

When I first met my wife I was amazed to find out that she and I were listening to the same music at roughly the same time, early Fall and Jesus and Mary Chain, despite the fact that at that time I was living in suburban Massachusetts, getting worked up about the Red Sox or something, while she was living under communism in the former East Germany, and her bootlegged copy of “Boys Don’t Cry” had to be bought in Poland for roughly the equivalent of a month’s rent and smuggled back into Karl-Marx-Stadt

I’m sure there’s stuff out there that only a handful of people are listening to at any given time (Thurston Moore’s new coffee-table book about New York No Wave would seem to give proof of that), but whatever it is, it’s not pop music.

This is all a prelude before saying that I really like this song by Journey, although the only other people I’ve heard admit to such a thing happened to be wearing tight denim on denim and had feathered roach clips in their hair.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I'm sort of breaking my own unwritten rule right off the bat with this first entry, as "Rubber Ring" didn’t really get stuck in my head today, but its sentiment seems apropos to what I hope will be the spirit of the stuff I want to write about here, and it's one that I've always felt to be true, presciently and precociously if I do say so myself, ever since first hearing the song probably on the very day "Louder Than Bombs," the record (which is and will remain my preferred term for a music release; not CD, not cassette) upon which it appeared, came out in the U.S. on July 7, 1987.

Anyway, I've chosen this particular number to kick things off as a way of explaining my motives, straightforward as they may be. Songs are always getting stuck in my head for reasons I would need a neurologist to fully explain, but might be simply understood by saying that they live there; that for whatever reason certain songs, thousands upon thousands of them probably, have embedded themselves in my memory and from time to time, upon seeing a certain something, or hearing a phrase or a snippet of conversation, or sometimes for no reason at all, like an acid flashback for people to whom music is a kind of drug causing, as Merriam-Webster defines the word, "a marked change in consciousness," will pop up out of the blue and into my noggin, as if my brain were on subconscious shuffle. It's a way of remembering. It's almost like inspiration. It's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it.

A sad fact widely known

The most impassionate song to a lonely soul is so easily outgrown

But don’t forget the songs that made you smile and the songs that made you cry

When you lay in awe on the bedroom floor and said "Oh, oh, smother me Mother"

No, oh, Rubber ring, rubber ring, rubber ring, rubber ring

The passing of time and all of its crimes is making me sad again

The passing of time and all of its sickening crimes is making me sad again

But don't forget the songs that made you cry and the songs that saved your life

Yes you're older now and you’re a clever swine, but they were the only ones who ever stood by you

The passing of time leaves empty lives waiting to be filled

The passing of time leaves empty lives waiting to be filled

I'm here with the cause, I'm holding the torch, in the corner of your room can you hear me?

And when you're dancing and laughing and finally living, hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly

No, oh, Rubber ring, rubber ring, rubber ring, rubber ring

No, oh, Rubber ring, rubber ring, rubber ring, rubber ring

Do you love me like you used to?

Fun facts: With the advent of the blog, it would seem that indeed, "Everybody's clever nowadays." The sample of those words at the end of "Rubber Ring" is from an EMI "Music for Pleasure" audio recording of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." The actor speaking is Sir John Gielgud. "You are sleeping, you do not want to believe" is the voice of an interpreter on a record called "Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead."