Song Radios #4: So You Know It’s Got Soul

9 07 2009

And the caravan is on it’s way
I can hear the merry gypsies play
Mama mama look at Emma Rose
She’s a-playin with the radio

And the caravan has all my friends
It will stay with me until the end
Gypsy Robin, Sweet Emma Rose
Tell me everything I need to know

And the caravan is painted red and white
That means ev’rybody’s staying overnight
Barefoot gypsy player round the campfire sing and play
And a woman tells us of her ways
La, la, la, la…

Turn up your radio and let me hear the song
Switch on your electric light
Then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight so I can feel you
Sweet lady of the night I shall reveal you
Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher, radio
Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul
Radio, radio turn it up, hum
La, la, la, la…

—The Band w/ Van Morrison, “Caravan” from The Last Waltz (Download)″

The Band - The Last WaltzA few weeks back, I called in to one of my favorite radio shows, Chicago music critics Greg Kott and Jim DeRogatis’s Sound Opinions, to talk about one of my favorite albums of all time, the Band’s farewell concert, the Last Waltz, and my quote made it on the air. Here’s what I had to say:″

Hey Jim and Greg, this is Matt from Irvine, California – just got done listening to your show on the best live albums of all time. One of your callers, reviewing the Dylan album, mentioned the band, but I’m wondering how you could make it through the entire show without saying anything about the Last Waltz – the band playing with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, the Staples, and, on my personal favorite track, Van Morrison performing this spastic version of Caravan … really just an epic concert a sort of farewell to classic rock, made into one of the best concert films of all time by Scorsese, capturing that sense really of a performance that’s kind of already nostalgic, already a thing of the past as soon as it’s happened, an essential moment in music history, and a phenomenal album, really just inexcusable to leave this album off the list. Thanks!

“Caravan” captures the spirit of The Last Waltz in a few ways. As a song about friends gathering round a campfire to dance, sing and play, “Caravan” evokes the sense of community that brings all of these great musicians together to consecrate this moment in rock history, the sense of camaraderie that is so apparent when everyone comes on stage together, arm in arm, to sing “I Shall Be Released.” In the same way, it evokes the experience of watching the film together with my high school friends while home from college one summer break and reliving all of those classic rock memories I talked about in Songs About Radios #1.

At the same time, as the usually sedate Van Morrison grunts about getting down “to what is really wrong, really wrong, really wrong,” it’s powerful to see him carried away by the experience into an almost epileptic seizure. This is the soul equivalent of speaking in tongues, testifying in a guttural, non-human language to the sacred power of music coursing through his body. Morrison’s scat improvisation and vocal tics make Caravan one of my favorite picks for karaoke – the opportunity to become possessed by Morrison’s ghost, “so you know you got soul,” is hard to resist.

Some of my friends chuckle at the moderation of that line, “Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul,” but I think they’re missing the point. Sure, this isn’t Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” (“turn it down you say / well all I got to say to you is time again I say, ‘No!'”). When Van Morrison turns up the radio, it’s not about balls-to-the-wall ecstatic excess, it’s so that you can hear the spirit of the music pass through the community. Morrison’s moderation is an instance of the sublime, the almost to big. By limiting the volume, he allows the music to delimit a finite radius around the campfire which creates a sense of intimacy and gathers the community around its light, while simultaneously pushing gently at its bounds.


Best Music of 2008, Part III (Albums 10-6)

20 01 2009

{{{ Sunset }}} - Bright Blue Dream10. {{{ Sunset }}} – Bright Blue Dream (Buy It)

Highlight: “Bright Blue Dream” (Download)″

Track 3 of Bright Blue Dream starts early: 47 seconds of a faint, rumbling bass note, and Bill Baird coughs out the first lyric, “Paper clips and…” then stops abruptly, begins the song again, and corrects his placement of the lyrics. The stutter is an outtake, an artifact of the recording process that Baird has let accumulate alongside the detritus of his waking life: paper clips, motorcars, dry-eraser stains, etc. The first half of Bright Blue Dream concerns such detritus: “diamond studded caskets that roll around on wheels,” “the only free ferry left in the states,” the tattered life of a broken friend, etc. Baird, formerly of SOUND Team, whose Movie Monster LP made my list of top albums of 2006, has been releasing pieces of these songs for years on a jumble of lo-fi cassettes, CD-R’s and mp3’s formerly available on his formerly maze-like website. Bright Blue Dream puts the pieces together into a world-weary collection of forgotten songs which, while not technically a debut, will serve for many as the first introduction to {{{ Sunset }}}. In that first half of the album, images build like a thick, sedimentary residue on the conscious mind, just as Baird’s production layers lethargic, apathetic, somewhat facetious vocals like “we will, we will,” “I love my job” and “just try to smile” on faint, vaguely psychedelic arrangements of warm electronic tones, blunted percussion and muted chimes.

Midway through, though, the album takes a turn with the title track’s exhortation, to “sleep, sleep darling…as you dive into a deep blue dream.” For the next 14 minutes, “Bright Blue Dream” jettisons the images of sleepwalking through our waking state and gently wake-walks the listener into a dream. At the end of the next track,”Moebius,” after nearly 20-minutes of lulling, ambient effects, we emerge on the other side of the dream and into the warm embrace of “Old Sandy Bull Lee”:

Sandy Lee, Sandy Lee, hold your head up high
When you die you will turn to cosmic stardust in the sky
When you were a child, running brave and free
That’s how your world will be again and that’s where you’ll find me

Our love will feel new again like when we first met
We’ll laugh at silly things and share cigarettes
So tear up my ticket, melt it in the snow
The glow of your skin supplies all I need to know

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes9. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Buy It)

Highlight: “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (Download)″

Dear shadow alive and well, how can the body die, you tell me everything, anything true…

The best description I’ve read of this album comes from an incidental comment in an Animal Collective review: “a time capsule from a great American past that no one has ever experienced but have somehow remembered upon hearing.” Fleet Foxes is a beautiful pastoral album filled with exquisite harmonies and some stunning moments, such as when the instruments drop off at the end of “Oliver James” and Robin Pecknold’s voice rings out by itself all echoey, “Oliver James, washed in the rain, nooooo lonnnnggeeerrrrr….”

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!8. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! (Buy It)

Highlight: “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (Download)″

Meanwhile Larry made up names for the ladies / Like miss Boo and miss Quick / He stockpiled weapons and took potshots in the air / He feasted on their lovely bodies like a lunatic / And wrapped himself up in their soft yellow hair

I can hear chants and incantations and some guy is mentioning me in his prayers / Well, I don’t know what it is but there’s definitely something going on upstairs

Dig!!! Lazaurs Dig!!! begins with an urban retelling of Lazarus’s resurrection, Larry reborn as a lowlife, dopefiend, womanizing hipster thug just dying to crawl back into the grave. The rest of the album follows suit, asking, “Does Jesus only love a man who loses?”, mining the language of resurrection and salvation for all the filth of original sin. Cave and his company are profane in a way that even the Stooges weren’t ever profane, slow, stewing, comfortable in their profanity, without all of that pent up aggression pulling them outside of themselves. Dig!!! Lazaurs Dig!!! wears its filth on its crusty sleeve, not only in the Howl-ish pseudo-spiritual sleaze of its lyrics, but also in every element of the sound. From Nick Cave’s voice like Neil Diamond run through a meat grinder, to the scuzzy bass lines, slick guitar bends, and hollow percussion of the Bad Seeds, this is an album that oozes filth like a syphilitic corpse in a house of ill repute, without joy or remorse, with only that smirk of the profane.

Shearwater - Rook7. Shearwater – Rook (Buy It)

Highlight: “Rooks” (Download)″

When the swallows fell from the eaves and the gulls from the spires / and starlings in the millions will feed on the ground where they lie / the ambulance men said there’s nowhere to flee for your life / so we stayed inside / and we’ll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed

Rook (n.): a slight, fragile thing, harbinger of storms, that, when surrounded by other slight, fragile things, speaks for its life, lest it be torn to pieces in a cacophonous flutter of black wings

Among the slight, fragile things on this album are a harp, a glockenspiel, a dulcimer, various woodwinds, a piano, and the trembling voice of an ornithologist who once sang with Okkervil River.

The Walkmen - You & Me6. The Walkmen – You & Me (Buy It)

Highlight: “On the Water” (Download)″

So here’s one to the pigeons / And the tugboats on the river / Here’s one to you / For walking in my shoes

You & Me is, for the Walkmen, the equivalent of what happens when you stand next to your TV antenna at the exact right angle so that the static clears and the picture finally comes in clearly. Oh, so this is what they’re supposed to sound like! Strip away the haze of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone‘s merry-go-round pianos and the bitter sting of Bows + Arrows‘s angular fuzz and it’s suddenly clear that what made those albums great wasn’t their post-punk pretensions, but the straight-up rock chops underneath. Cleaned up and allowed to resonate, the Walkmen’s guitars and organs take on a new gravity, while Hamilton Leithauser’s characteristic dry-throated howls, seething with a singular choked-back bitterness, add a road-weary resignation to lyrics of well-traveled loneliness and disillusionment. In addition, Matt Barrick once again proves himself one of rock’s best contemporary drummers as the Walkmen work waltzes into rock & roll and mine deceptively simple, plodding melodies for the weighty anticlimaxes they portend and struggle to restrain.