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Christmas Songs That You Didn’t Realize Were Totally Sexist. #9 Really Opened My Eyes.

Posted by dlockeretz on December 10, 2018

Note: this is a simulblog, posted on both Positive Music Place and D-Theory.

It’s always gratifying when karma does its job. After decades of dodging bullets, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has finally seen its day of reckoning as radio stations across the U.S. and Canada are banning this song that clearly endorses date rape. However, our work is just beginning. For every “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, “Santa Baby” or “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” that gets exposed for being the misogynistic propaganda that it is, there are dozens of other problematic holiday songs that are consumed by the sheep every November and December, at once making record company and radio execs rich and perpetuating sexist rhetoric. Here is a hand-curated list of what we hope will be the next set of Christmas songs to be held accountable for their harmful content.

1. Little Drummer Boy

In 1976, a musician known to most audiences as a singer appeared on a television special and blew everyone away with a drum solo. The performer was none other than Karen Anne Carpenter. Despite her untimely death, Karen Carpenter was a pioneer, paving the way for female drum virtuosi such as Meg White, Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz), Sheila E. and jazz luminary Terri Lyne Carrington. So why is it that “Little Drummer BOY” hasn’t been updated? If we’re not ready for “Little Drummer Girl” yet, how about at least acknowledging gender fluidity by changing the words to “Little Drummer Cis-Male?”

2. Please, Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas

Why does it have to be “Daddy” that gets drunk while “Mama” cries? Also, maybe we could update the lyrics to acknowledge the many same-sex couples that are raising children in today’s world, sober or otherwise.

3. Run Run Rudolph

Sigh: another song that models obsolete gender roles in describing kids’ Christmas gift wishes. The “boy” asks for a guitar while the girl wants…you guessed it…a doll. OK, maybe Chuck Berry’s 1950s recording gets a “different times” pass, but when Luke Bryan remade the song, he had an opportunity to update the lyrics but didn’t. Swing and a miss!

4. Christmas Wrapping

This glib song from the early ’80s insidiously presents its heroine as an independent, successful woman before showing its true agenda: the only way for her to be happy on Christmas is a random encounter with the “guy [she’s] been chasing all year.”

5. Same Auld Lang Syne

Guy bumps into Ex on Christmas Eve. Ex lets it slip that she’s not happy in her marriage. Guy buys a six-pack and drinks it with Ex in the car. Our work here is done.

6. Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire (The Christmas Song)

This song contains at least two lyrics that could be updated for the #metoo era: “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” assumes gender while “Every mother’s child is going to spy…” excludes nontraditional families. Sidebar: while it’s not sexist, per se, can we do something about the line “Folks dressed up like Eskimos”? And what’s with “Kids from one to ninety-two?” Do people aged 93 and up not count?

7. It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way

Don’t let the lyrical acoustic guitar and soothing vocals of Jim Croce fool you. This song, like “Christmas Wrapping”, is a wolf in sheep’s clothes. A man, using the trope of loneliness during the holidays, implores his ex to see him on Christmas Eve. “It’s only right,” Croce creepily sings. Stalk much?

8. Linus and Lucy

Some might argue that an instrumental song can’t be sexist. Maybe so. But why does “Linus” have to come first in the song’s title? Are we going to tell the girls who watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” each year that they will always be secondary to boys?

No, it doesn’t feel good to let go of something that is familiar, but sometimes change is simply necessary. Let’s get on the right side of history and start the conversation about smashing the Christmas patriarchy.

 

 

 

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Putting “Baby” in the corner: How understatement can be the fastest way to controversy

Posted by dlockeretz on December 6, 2018

The most controversial song of 2018 is almost three quarters of a century old.

This Christmas season, Frank (“Guys and Dolls”) Loesser’s holiday standard “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has been banned by multiple radio stations. Why? It’s about rape, of course.

Radio show host Glenn Anderson of Cleveland’s WDOK-FM wrote, “[P]eople get easily offended, but in a world where #MeToo has finally given women the voice they deserve, this song has no place.” In this L.A. Times editorial, Libby Hill writes, “The language is uncomfortably similar to that used in acquaintance rape.”

As someone whose tastes in music have always skewed toward the older, who has regularly been told to get with the times both as a player and as a listener, I can’t help but feel a little vindicated when an oldie ruffles contemporary feathers – be it “Yesterday” or “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” For most music lovers, at least those under the age of 60, the Great American Songbook has been the establishment. It has been taught, studied, listened to quietly in concert and recital halls and politely applauded. It has never been banned – at least until now. Turns out that 1940s music was edgy A.F.!

The backlash against the song’s ban notwithstanding, if those who find “Baby” problematic are to be believed – whether they are in the “This song may have been OK in its time but not today” camp or if they think that Loesser may have had darker motives in mind when he wrote the song (the male character was originally called “wolf” and the female “mouse”) – it begs the question, why this one? Granted, anything that is ubiquitous is bound to attract haters and many people are just tired of Christmas music, period, but why do some songs draw ire while others skate by? We all know that “Every Breath You Take” is a stalker song, but we accept it. We all loved Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” video. Why can’t we just leave Frank alone?

“Baby”‘s secret weapon is its understatement. No, it doesn’t take a degree in literature to decipher the meaning of the song, but judging by how much its detractors read into the lyrics, “Baby” uses the power of suggestion well. When we are told what to think, we tune out; when we are allowed to figure something out for ourselves, it usually sticks.

The song’s musical understatement works to its advantage as well. It is usually sung at a slow or moderate tempo, allowing the lyrics to be heard and sink in (if “Appetite for Destruction” hadn’t included a lyric sheet, would the album have been as controversial as it was upon its release?) The two vocal parts dance together, weaving in and out of each other in a manner that owes as much to Bach contrapuntalism* as it does to Glenn Miller and Louie Armstrong. A subtle tension and release pattern runs through the song as the two parts diverge and come together for the refrain.

For many people, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is and always will be nothing more than a fun Christmas ditty to be sung during the holidays and ignored starting on December 26th. But for musicians and songwriters, it might – just might – be a lesson in how to use understatement to strike a nerve.

Coming up next: Gender assumption and stereotyping in Meredith Willson’s “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.”

*I went to music school.

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Why it works #3: “Someone Like You”

Posted by dlockeretz on November 24, 2018

Artist: Adele

Songwriters: Adele Adkins, Dan Wilson

For this edition of  Why It Works, we jump back to the 21st century for the breakthrough hit by an artist who wasn’t born when Journey released “Don’t Stop Believin’.” There’s no denying Adele’s pipes, but is “Someone Like You” actually a good song?

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

I realize that Adele doesn’t make records for balding, middle-aged white guys. That said, I can (or at least I like to think I can) usually distinguish between what moves me personally and what works as a pop record – I get why people like “Single Ladies.” What’s to like about the dreary, dirge-like “Someone Like You?” The chord progression is predictable (in fact, although it’s in a different key, it follows the same harmonies of “Don’t Stop Believin'”, “With Or Without You” and a few hundred other songs.) Just as predictable rhymes – moon/June – can make a song feel banal, so too can a redundant chord progression. I’m not asking for Schoenberg, but a little unpredictability is nice. And speaking of predictable rhymes: “true/you”, “said/instead”, “compares/cares”, “haze/days”… The lyrics to both pre-choruses are the same; the lyrics to all choruses are the same, a pet peeve of mine. Granted, many of the classic rock songs I enjoy repeat lyrics on the chorus, but I think in this day and age doing that is kind of lazy. Yes, this song is the work of a woman in her early 20s, but I’m not judging it on that; I’m trying to get to the bottom of why people have been losing their marbles over “Someone Like You” for close to a decade. I’m sure the song has helped people who are going through breakups, but Adele isn’t the first artist who’s written about heartbreak. With all of the other songs out there that cover similar ground, what made this one big?

WHY IT WORKS

Though the subject matter has been well explored, Adele writes and sings from a place of experience; this song doesn’t have the feel of a bunch of balding middle-aged white guys sitting in a board room and deciding to write about a breakup. In this Popdust article, the author says, “When Alanis Morissette claimed [in] ‘You Oughta Know’ that she wished ‘nothing but the best for’ her ex and his new girlfriend, you could tell pretty obviously…that she wasn’t being entirely sincere. With ‘Someone Like You’…you can buy that Adele genuinely means it—or at least that she’s deluding herself into believing she genuinely means it—as she comes to complete acceptance of the fact that she and her ex are officially done for.”

As for the chorus, it turns out that repeating lyrics might be a good thing after all. This Sonic Bids article argues several advantages of doing that as a songwriter: if you are pitching your songs to other artists, a repeated chorus means they will have to learn fewer lyrics. Author Dan Reifsnyder also points out, “The job of the verses is to tell the story, and the job of the chorus is to encapsulate that story and drive the point home…[if you] need to change the chorus to further the story, it should be a red flag to you as a writer.

How about the music? According to songwriting coach David (Cat) Cohen, the song works musically because “all four song sections have well defined melodies…the mid-level verse and low-note pre-chorus set up the higher emotive chorus.” Cohen goes on to predict that “‘Someone Like You’ is so universal and classic, it could easily be a favorite for a long time to come. Its crossover appeal will undoubtedly lead to covers by country, rock and R&B artists through the years.”

WHAT I LEARNED

I often dismiss music that I don’t like, comparing the longevity of songs such as “Macarena” and “Wannabe” and their ilk to that of McDonald’s – the cheap, quick and disposable will always have a place. However, I can see that when Adele wrote “Something Like You” she was not going for cheap, quick and disposable; she was trying to transform her own experience into something relatable by everyone. People who are moved by this song aren’t mindlessly gravitating toward the trendy; they have found their voice in Adele. That I haven’t myself is a me problem, not an Adele problem.

And I should start using the same lyrics on my choruses.

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Why it works #2: “Don’t Stop Believin'”

Posted by dlockeretz on June 14, 2018

Artist: Journey

Songwriters: Steve Perry, Neil Schon, Jonathan Cain

“You just don’t like today’s music.”

Guilty as charged. However, that doesn’t mean that classic rock always gets a free pass. There are many songs that make me ask, “Haven’t people gotten tired of this?” In the case of “Don’t Stop Believin'” – the most downloaded of any song released in the 20th century – the answer is a clear “no.” To be sure, its use in “The Sopranos” and its remake by the “Glee” cast has helped it reach new audiences – but love it or hate it, “Don’t Stop Believin'” didn’t need television to get big. As this song closes in on 40, let’s take a look at what’s made it stick around.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The production is polished and the delivery is earnest – but “Don’t Stop Believin'” has the feel of a song that might have been written in five minutes on a napkin at a truck stop diner. Was Steve Perry trying to give a voice to the lonely, dispossessed working class as Springsteen did? If so, he should have dug a little deeper than rhymes such as “girl/world” and “room/perfume.” The chord progression that anchors the song has been used at least as far back as “Let It Be” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” follows it so strictly that the comedy rock group Axis of Awesome uses the song to introduce their video “Four Chords.” Sure, it’s catchy, but so is “Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goal Posts of Life” and last I checked people aren’t breaking the internet to download that one.

WHY IT WORKS

For all its commercial success, “Don’t Stop Believin'” breaks a basic songwriting rule. “Life During Wartime” and “Train in Vain” not withstanding, the title of a song should always be obvious. Yet, the actual words “Don’t Stop Believin'” first come in after the three minute mark. By holding off the de-facto chorus of the song until the end, the payoff is stronger. Author Will Byars of The Guardian says, “Over time we learn to appreciate these songs that don’t off load everything in the first minute…you have to invest some emotion in bothering to listen all the way through.” The verses and prechoruses – which can sometimes musically be disposable as songwriters often use these sections to develop the narrative rather than create ear worms – are just as hook heavy as the chorus. And so what if the song’s main selling point is that it’s catchy? If catchiness could be manufactured, everyone would have a number one hit.

Brian Rafferty, author of “Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life” writes, “In the early 90s all the cheesy 80s music got rejected and it basically disappeared. Journey were seen as the kind of overblown arena act that grunge and hip-hop were meant to obliterate.” So why is it that people who were born after the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur sing along? Everything old is new again and millennials may be finding meaning in everything from speakeasies to vinyl to Nintendo, but novelty by nostalgia alone isn’t enough to explain this song’s continued success.

WHAT I LEARNED

It’s easy to be resentful of others’ successes in the music business, but just because you can’t see the dues that were paid doesn’t mean that the success wasn’t earned. In my lifetime, Journey has never not been huge. However, they struggled for years before hitting it big in in the late 1970s peaking in 1981 with “Don’t Stop Believin'”, the first song on their multi-platinum “Escape” record. According to this Guardian article, the song’s title came from Jonathan Cain’s father, who would tell his struggling son not to stop believing, even as Cain struggled to find success in the 1970s before joining Journey.

Many songs don’t stand up to radio saturation and while for me “Don’t Stop Believin'” is one of them, there are plenty of other songs that I still enjoy as much as I did the first time – either for nostalgia’s sake or because there’s just something about it that gets me – and I’m sure some of them might make peoples’ eyes roll (or in the case of “Carry On Wayward Son”, they definitely do).

Ultimately, “Don’t Stop Belevin” is a song of contradictions. It takes itself seriously but is still relatable. The production pulls out all the stops but the composition is strategic in its revealing of information and musical material. It’s a song that you blast in your car and when you realize that people are looking at you, you reach to roll up the window. But then you say “screw it” because they’re the ones who don’t get it and it’s their loss.

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Why It Works #1: “Most People Are Good”

Posted by dlockeretz on March 6, 2018

This is the inaugural post in a series in which I will listen closely to a song that I don’t like and try to get underneath it and figure out why it’s on the radio and my music isn’t. Why am I writing about music I don’t like on a blog called “Positive Music Place?” I hope to accomplish four things: One, to attempt to understand the perspective and opinions of others – something at which I haven’t always excelled. Two, to study examples of success in the music business. It’s easy to study what I enjoy; I’m hoping that studying what I don’t enjoy will make me better rounded. Three, to at least be able to articulate what it is I don’t like about a song, to be specific about why it doesn’t move me, rather than to simply shake my fist like a grumpy old man. I’ll admit that I’ve relied on the “if it’s popular, it’s wrong” crutch far too often and I want to break away from that. Lastly, perhaps going through this process will inspire me to take my own music off the back burner.

Without further ado, let’s analyze:

“MOST PEOPLE ARE GOOD”

Artist: Luke Bryan

Songwriters: Josh Kear, David Frasier, Ed Hill

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Author Seth Godin once said, “Safe is risky.” By that measure, Messrs. Kear, Frasier and Hill have taken a gamble that has paid off. It doesn’t get much safer than “Most People Are Good.” Who wouldn’t like a song that is basically a series of quotable platitudes? “Every breath’s a gift, the first one to the last.” “Kids should be kids as long as they can/turn off the screen, go climb a tree, get dirt on their hands.” And of course, “Mamas ought to qualify for sainthood.” No, not everything has to be doom and gloom, but the feel-good of “Most People Are Good” comes too easily. It’s all telling, no showing. It’s a laundry list of Hallmark quotations with no development. The lyrics of the choruses are all the same; any of the six couplets in the first two verses are interchangeable. Even the words “I believe you love who you love/ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of” are not as risky as they seem. Sure, some Bryan Bros who are able to read between the lines will get pissed off, but with country music now more mainstream than ever, saying “See, we’re not all backwards hicks!” at the risk of pissing off a few rednecks is a reasonable gamble. Even a buddy of mine who is a die-hard country music fan has spoken dismissively of “Most People are Good.”

WHY IT WORKS

According to the “Taste of Country” website, Josh Kear wanted to create something positive following the acrimonious 2016 presidential campaign. The idea of a songwriter trying to rally the masses with an inspiring message in difficult times is not new. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” while serving during World War I and revised it before World War II. Bruce Springsteen wrote “The Rising” in response to 9/11. Will “Most People Are Good” hold up in years to come and be a beacon of light for future generations? If you ask Kyle “The Triggerman” Coroneos of Saving Country Music, it just might. Coroneos points to the “love who you love” lyric in particular: “Luke Bryan isn’t coming out for gay or interracial marriage here necessarily. He’s just simply saying, ‘Hey, if two people love each other, who gives a damn? Good for them. None of my business.’ And it’s these types of messages served in a simple, nuanced, and respectful manner that actually help cause the slow eroding of prejudices most all rational and cultured people agree should be put in humankind’s past.” Of the song’s non-combative nature, he writes, “You don’t change the world through music by singing polarizing protest songs that do nothing more than preach to a choir and push away the audience that the message is needing to reach.”

WHAT I LEARNED

Just as “you should love who you love” calls out those who would waste their own time and energy getting upset about someone else’s relationship, the same applies to getting upset over other peoples’ opinions about music. It’s easy to dismiss the music buying public as sheep who flock to whatever’s trending, but just because a particular song doesn’t speak to me doesn’t mean it can’t move someone else – such as Mrs. Bryan, who cried when she heard her son sing “Mamas ought to qualify for sainthood.” We all have unique life experiences that influence our opinions, perspectives and values.

If I got one takeaway from spending time listening more closely to “Most People Are Good” it’s that sometimes I need to give a songwriter the benefit of the doubt. Were Hill, Kear and Frasier just trying to make a quick buck? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not going to kill me to believe that they were coming from a place of honesty.

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CD Review: Felsen, “Blood Orange Moon”

Posted by dlockeretz on August 22, 2017

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In the Year of the Fidget Spinner, it’s a bold move for an inde rocker to release a slow and ambient record that requires repeated listenings. Slow and ambient is nothing new for Andrew Griffin and Felsen, whose prior output has shown the influence of Dylan, Wilco and the moodier sides of the Beatles and U2. However, the Oakland-based band’s sound is also defined by uptempo pop tunes that seamlessly fuse unpredictable chord progressions and idiosyncratic lyrics with mercilessly catchy hooks. Thus, longtime Felsen followers may be surprised that their new record (their fifth overall and first since 2013’s “I Don’t Know How To Talk Anymore”) at least on the surface, stays in the lower gears.

“Blood Orange Moon”, due for release in November on Mystery Lawn Records, offers  stealth variety; on the second and third times through these songs, subtle and not so subtle differences become obvious. The singer/songwriter finds himself by turns mourning a lost relationship (“You and I Will Meet Again”), seeking a deeper one (“Telepathic Kind”), in a dreamlike zone (“Airplane Mode”; “Private Airline”) and in a state of peaceful nostalgia (“Blood Orange Moon.”) “Unemployed in Chicago” and “Poor in a Wealthy City” delve into the socio-economic, but in both cases Griffin opts for personal narrative instead of strident commentary. Felsen’s trademark humor can still be found, too: the protagonist of “White Denim Jeans” (a self-described “Angel investor on SSI”) finds himself eating Creme Brulee in a hot tub installed by his “pot head electrician, Wernher von Braun” (a reference to the German scientist widely believed to be the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove.) Quirkiness even finds it way into the otherwise romantic “Blood Orange Moon”: “I’ll go home and type you a bold manifesto/where metaphors and adjectives freely flow.”

Musically, while the songs may occupy the same general area of the metronome dial, there is diversity as well. For their similar subject matter, “Wealthy City” and “Chicago” take different approaches, the former following a more conventional pop-rock ballad mold while the latter features a repeated chord progression that builds in volume and intensity, adding layers of instruments and effects a la Radiohead. While those looking for another “Heroin”, “BFF OMG” or “Tokyo Electric” will need to keep on looking, this record is ultimately nearly as infectious as its predecessors. After all, a hook is a hook, regardless of song tempo [see also: Jude, Hey].

Accompanying Griffin are a host of Felsen veterans including Justus Dobrin (synths), Joanne de Mars (cello) and Dara Ackerman (backup vocals). One new face is 10-year old Levi Griffin (triangle), officially ushering in the next generation of Felsen.

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Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown”

Posted by dlockeretz on April 15, 2017

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation that begat Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown” record, released in 1970. I’d imagine it might have gone something like this:

“Frank, baby, I love ya, but those record sales, they just ain’t what they used to be, dig? This new one, it’s gotta have a little hey-hey or your career, it’s bombsville!”

“Don’t worry, pallie, this new one’s gonna be a gas. Got some tunes by that gofer from the Four Seasons, what’s his name? And that cat who wrote that bluesy little number those limeys Led Zeppelin ripped off – “Confused for Days”, I think it’s called – let me tell ya, pallie, this is gonna be a barn burner!”

“Oh yeah? Tell me more, Frankie!”

“Well, you see, pallie, it’s about this bunter in upstate New York. Wife goes scramsville.”

“Oh, so he gets to take up with any ol’ broad he wants! Ring-a-ding!”

“Well, pallie, it ain’t exactly like that, see…”

When people talk about “concept albums” Frank Sinatra isn’t usually the first name that comes to mind. Ol’ Blue Eyes never sang about dystopian future societies or assassins who have been brainwashed by totalitarian governments. Yet his record “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – a 1955 album of ballads about love gone wrong – was one of the first LPs to be conceived as a whole work, rather than merely a collection of songs. Thus, it has been considered by some to be the first concept album, an ancestor of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “2112”, “The Wall”, “Kilroy Was Here” and “American Idiot.”

“Wee Small Hours” was an attempt to sell Sinatra to a more mature audience as he entered his 40s. Similarly, at the end of the 1960s, Sinatra’s sales were flagging as the British Invasion and Woodstock consigned him to the past. Many erstwhile teen idols had attempted to connect with the changing times. Dion DiMucci, known for “Runaround Sue” and “Teenager In Love” sought out weightier subject matter in  “Abraham, Martin and John.” Bobby Darin of “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash” fame waxed introspective with “If I Were A Carpenter.” Even Elvis ventured into social comment with “In the Ghetto.” The 53-year old Chairman wisely avoided jumping on the psychedelic or protest trains or trying to squeeze out another hit single with Nancy. The direction he chose instead, however, was surprising, to say the least.

Sinatra was given a complete set of songs written by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and Jake Holmes, an eclectic songwriter who is perhaps best known for “Dazed and Confused” (as well as assorted television jingles). The story: a woman leaves her husband and sons for the big city and the poor bastard’s stuck in Small Town, USA trying to figure out what happened.

“Watertown” is not a perfect record. The pop-rock rhythm section, electric bass in particular (and I say this as an electric bassist) make the thick orchestration seem more like Phil Spector lite than the swingin’ Nelson Riddle sound beloved on the Sinatra records of yore. The chord progressions perhaps excessively rely on harmonies that are known to create melodrama (music theory geeks probably know that I’m talking specifically about the IV/iv/I cadence; for people with lives, think of it as the musical equivalent of slow motion in movies: a good effect used sparingly, but one quickly gets the point). That Sinatra overdubbed his vocals for the first time on record doesn’t hurt “Watertown” per se but listen closely enough and you’ll miss the fluidity of his earlier years. And make no mistake: this record is not easy to listen to start to finish. We’ve all heard ditties about breakups and heartache before, but trust me, midway through the second side if not sooner you will feel the weight of the cumulative effect of these songs, whether or not you’ve recently been through a split. But I’m not writing about “Watertown” because it’s perfect; if I wanted to write about perfection I’d write about “The Nightfly.” I’m writing about this record because in almost four decades of listening to music, I’ve never encountered anything like it.

The title track, “Watertown”, opens the record and establishes the slow pace of life for the narrator and his world; exactly what made his wife restless: “Not much happenin’ down on Main, ‘cept a little rain”; “Everyone knows the perfect crime is killin’ time.”

“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” describes the moment of the breakup, in a coffee shop where life goes on as usual for everyone else except the doomed narrator. The song debunks the theory that the “Watertown” story is not about a divorce but about a death: “Just as I begin to say that we should make another try/she reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says goodbye.”

“For a While” begins with a lilting waltz tempo that gives the listener a sense of hope, but ultimately it just serves to set the theme of the song: it’s easy to distract oneself with work, friends or house chores, but reality cannot be escaped.

“Michael and Peter” introduces the two sons – “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing” – and also provides a clue into the dynamic of the marriage: “You know your mother’s such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can…” Some critics have found this line to be awkward, but it also suggests that the narrator’s mother-in-law sympathizes with or perhaps pities him; whatever made his wife leave, it wasn’t any kind of malice on his part. Besides the sons, the narrator also focuses on details of everyday life that may seem mundane (the house needs paint; it’s been raining; the guy who mows the lawn asked after you) but are also revealing about his character: intimidated about broaching the bigger issues of his life and marriage, he tries to find meaning in little things.

“I Would Be In Love (Anyways)” starts quietly and rises to a crescendo reminiscent of “My Way” – but while that anthem has the confidence of a man looking back on a full and rewarding life, here, Sinatra has no control of his destiny except to make peace with it.

“Elizabeth” opens side 2, giving the narrator’s ex a name and also for the first time personality traits. Here, the narrator acknowledges that “you were all much too much/out of reach, out of touch/when you came to me/I found it could never be.” Perhaps she at one point really did want him but he never felt worthy, thus making the relationship a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be)” tells us more about Elizabeth and her quirky traits that endeared her to the narrator – “always some new recipe/the kitchen always looked like World War III.” The line “We’d spend each night with company/just you, the teddy bears, the dolls and me” has stirred uncomfortable feelings among some listeners who find that it suggests a father describing his daughter, but according to Sinatra expert Ed O’Brien, Jake Holmes said, “They were probably kids together. I wanted to give the sense that they had gone to school together. They had fallen in love and married quite young.” Read that way, the song appears to echo the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” – innocent young girl becomes a jaded, distant adult – but its bittersweet tone owes more to Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” (another song that was given a great performance by Sinatra; but I digress).

“What’s Now Is Now” addresses Elizabeth’s apparent infidelity: “You should have told me when it all began…” The music becomes more dissonant and rhythmically complex than what we’ve heard so far (although it’s still not exactly Stravinsky). Despite his resentment, the narrator still wants to work things out: “I’ll forget what happened then/I know it all and we can still begin again.” As before, he clings to the past: “And if you feel at all like me/just let me know and I’ll make it like it used to be.”

“She Says” is the shortest and most musically unconventional song in the set. Sung against a static accompaniment, it has the feel of a classical recitative, serving as a prelude to “The Train.” The song appears to represents the narrator’s first communication from Elizabeth since she left, but the refrain “So she says” sung by a distant children’s chorus casts doubt, perhaps echoing the skepticism of Michael and Peter – kids are often smarter than we think.

“The Train” is the most uptempo song on the record, almost bouncing, reflecting the narrator’s optimism as he awaits Elizabeth’s return at the station. Anyone who’s counted down the minutes to a long-awaited reunion with a loved one will relate: “The crossing gate is coming down, I think I see the train…” but by now we know better. We can only stand by as the foregone conclusion plays out: “The train is slowly moving on but I can’t see you anyplace…” Earlier in the song the narrator reveals, “I wrote so many times and more/but the letters still are lying in my drawer/’cause the morning mail had left some time before.” Was the conversation with his ex-wife in “She Says” then completely imagined?

A final song, “Lady Day”, was included on reissues of the record and on the CD. The focus shifts to Elizabeth, painting a portrait that may be interpreted in different ways, none of which are optimistic: “So many empty dreams/so many bitter times…” Perhaps the harsh realities of the big city made her regret leaving her family; maybe the narrator is imagining it all, still holding out hope that she will come back to the life she knew. Those who believe that the record is about a death, not a divorce, have found support for that theory in lines such as “Her morning came to fast too soon/and died before the afternoon.”

What will become of the narrator, Elizabeth, the boys, the mother-in-law and the other denizens of Watertown? No matter how one interprets the ambiguities of the latter songs, it’s hard to imagine anything too upbeat. As this article points out, “If you listened to Wee Small Hours while you were in your 20s or 30s, you may have thought, ‘This is a great account of loss, but he shall love again.’ Watertown, on the other hand, delivers the devastatingly more realistic message that life, age and class may conspire that we will never again love or dream as we once did.” Seen in that light, does the album offer the listener any kind of hope or redemption? If so, it’s in Sinatra’s ability to find dignity and meaning in the quiet ups and downs of working class life, much as Springsteen would start doing shortly after this album was released.

What drew Sinatra to this concept and what made the Reprise Records suits think it would sell? Perhaps Sinatra wanted the challenge of assuming a role different from anything he had done before: focusing inwardly, not outwardly. As for what made Reprise think they had a hit on their hands, that’s anyone’s guess. The record was a critical and commercial disappointment. Fortunately Sinatra’s prior decades of success were enough for him to be able to easily absorb this blip on the radar of his career. More to the point, especially among connoisseurs, the reputation of “Watertown” has grown in the years since. Generations of listeners have marveled at how convincingly Sinatra steps outside of his celebrity and into Everyman. “Watertown” asks questions without providing answers. It provokes the imagination. It makes the audience appreciate what they have even while mourning what they’ve lost. For the open minded listener, “Watertown” is a unique experience.

For further reading about “Watertown” click here, here and here.

 

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Citizen Kitten at Three Clubs

Posted by dlockeretz on March 20, 2017

Jazz may have an uphill climb these days, but Citizen Kitten is willing to put in the legwork. The Los Angeles jazz quartet made their debut at Hollywood’s Three Clubs on Sunday, March 19th, 2017 and delivered a show that was as entertaining as it was musically accomplished.

Today’s jazz musicians face a bit of a catch-22: if you put in the time to study, practice and gig your way to excellence, it’s hard to not take yourself at least a little bit seriously for your efforts, but when audiences have more and more choices for entertainment – live or in home – they don’t want to spend money or time hearing someone blowing their own horn (excuse the pun). We’ve all seen the meme showing how the performance is the tip of the iceberg compared to the rehearsals, but most audiences don’t care about how much time musicians have put into their art anymore than most musicians care about how many thankless hours the average corporate drone has to log. In a nutshell, a successful jazz (or any other style, really) performer has to put in the work and still make it look fun.

How does Citizen Kitten tackle this dilemma? The “kitten” of the band is singer Amanda Achen, a twentysomething who moved effortlessly from jazz standards to Broadway to Beck to Zeppelin to Gnarls Barkley, commanding the stage at a rare level. She also managed to seem approachable in a way that not all jazz singers are. During a sultry rendition of “Misty” she couldn’t help but smirk as she sang the line “Helpless as a kitten up a tree.” Her “What Lola Wants” was, inevitably, seductive, but she didn’t overplay the temptress role; she strode up to an audience member in the front row and said, “I like your shirt” without missing a beat. Add this to a rocking version of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”, an odd-time “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and a genre-exploring rendition of “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and she put in a full night’s work.

Backing Achen was bassist Jon Lee Keenan, guitarist Matt Berger and drummer Paul Tavenner, all of whom expertly navigated the multiple changes of groove and tempo. Berger felt equally at home using dissonant chord voicings on a jazz arrangement of “Black Dog” as he did taking his microphone stand and playing slide guitar with it on a ripping solo in the same song. Keenan’s electric upright bass had the woody, full sound of an acoustic but allowed him more room to explore with both the grooves and solos than would have a traditional instrument. Tavenner provided a framework for the others from behind the kit, running the gamut from the torch songs to the rockers, giving the funkier numbers an old-school feel with brushes and pulling no punches with the cymbals when things needed to get loud.

In the midst of their innovation, some of Citizen Kitten’s standards felt a little familiar. They have shown an ability to turn songs on their head without making it seem like a gimmick; it will be interesting to see how they continue to develop tunes such as “One Note Samba”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “If I Were A Bell.” Over time, the skill and chemistry of these musicians will lead to the pace of their comic interplay between songs will tighten up while remaining organic. If it seems like I’m nit-picking a debut performance from a band that’s only been together for a few months, maybe it’s just my own envy sneaking through – I’ve been in bands that have worked for years without ever reaching this level. These guys are great and will only get better.

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Book review: “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” by Mitch Albom

Posted by dlockeretz on March 9, 2017

Mitch Albom was a musician before he was a writer. When his dreams of rock’n’roll stardom seemed destined to not come true, he switched to journalism. Even as he found success with “Tuesdays with Morrie” and a series of well-received novels, he continued to seek musical outlets by becoming a member of Rock Bottom Remainders (a part-time rock band of authors including Dave Barry, Stephen King and Amy Tan) and by writing “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”.

The narrator of “Strings” is Music. If this idea sounds a little weighty, it’s because it is. Albom, however, manages to make Music an engaging storyteller. Also helping is that Music paces its story well by allowing other characters – some real (Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Stanley) and others fictitious but based on archetypes (female Brill Building songwriter; pop music historian; Jewish manager) to share reminiscences of Frankie Presto, a virtuoso guitarist and singer whose death and memorial service frame the novel. Thus, while Music provides the ongoing thread of the story, the reader is given different perspectives about Presto by those who knew him at different stages of his life: drifting teenager, rising idol, fading star, disillusioned journeyman, reclusive but legendary teacher.

At first glance, “Strings” follows the familiar story line of the young, hungry artist who is lured by fame and fortune and loses their way. At one point, Music says, “I have been on earth since mankind’s inception and have produced sounds…that involve awakening, love, pain and the four seasons. But in my countless creations, there has never been a sound for ‘career.’ Why do you let it affect me so?” Despite this, Albom doesn’t necessarily want us to hate the music business and what it did to Frankie Presto. He understands that people lose their way and have to find themselves: Frankie makes mistakes and unlike some, he is fortunate enough to live to learn from them. A broad brush interpretation of “Strings” might conclude that with music, as with anything, one must take the bad (the business side) with the good (the art).

Indeed, taking the bad with the good sums up the reader’s experience with “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Despite a few hard-to-believe plot twists that don’t add much to the story, an excess of one-sentence paragraphs and some forced music-related similes (is it really necessary for smoke from a gun to take “the shape of a music rest?” or to refer to Frankie Presto’s lifetime love affair with the free-spirited British girl Aurora as a “symphony”?) Albom’s obvious love of music of all genres keeps the pages turning. He pays tribute to classical guitarists Francisco Tarrega and Andres Segovia to Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Elvis, Lyle Lovett, Ingrid Michaelson and almost everyone in between.

A common critique of this book is that one has to be a musician to enjoy it. To that, all I can say is that the book was given to me by a non-musician friend and came highly recommended. If you have no interest in music, this book is not for you, but even those who have never plodded through hours of scales and arpeggios or broken down a P.A. system in a dive bar at two in the morning will be able to enjoy and relate to much of the story.

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CD Review: Hilton Ruiz, “Strut”

Posted by dlockeretz on October 28, 2015

Note: This CD review is a companion to D Theory #98.

In the fall of 1990, my sophomore year in high school, I came across a CD at the library whose cover, for some strange reason, caught my attention.

Hilton Ruiz's record Figuring that if the music was one tenth as exciting as the image, I checked it out and scurried home to listen to it. It took perhaps ten seconds of the funky groove of the band’s cover of Lee Morgan’s classic, “The Sidewinder”, to get me hooked. Unlikely as it seemed, I was so enthralled by the music that I almost immediately forgot about the album cover. Not only did I love the record but it inspired me to dig further into jazz. Almost immediately I went from feeling awkward and uncomfortable with the style to a full-fledged jazz snob.

Despite the impact the record had on my life, it slowly vanished from my playlist. Over the next quarter century I started listening to music for pure enjoyment less and less, although I never fully forgot this record. Lately I found myself curious to see if it would stand up to my memory. I bought a copy on eBay (it’s also available at Amazon). Would the same record that appealed to a hormonal teenager trying to make sense of jazz resonate with a 40-year old journeyman? As the late Mr. Ruiz might have said: Sí, señor.

Powered by Ruiz’s exciting piano, a tight horn section and a rhythm section that, while sometimes busier than necessary, never lets up on the energy, this diverse collection of tunes amounts to that all-too-elusive beast: ear candy with staying power. The rocking “Sidewinder” allows each band member to introduce themselves in an hot update of Morgan’s hip ’60s track. Saxophonist Sam Rivers contributed “Bluz”, an angular be-bop melody set over a smoldering Latin groove. Two mid tempo compositions by William Allen (not a band member, perhaps a friend of Ruiz’s?) – “Soca Serenade” and “Aged in Soul” – mix up the feel, both featuring the horn section.

The two longest pieces – trombonist Dick Griffin’s “All My Love Is Yours” and the only Ruiz original, “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” at eight and almost eleven minutes respectively – wear out their welcomes. Both have fun, uptempo grooves and nice interplay between the horns but could have been trimmed to five or six minutes; one doesn’t see the development that might be expected in compositions of that length. The two ballads on the record – the short, lounge-y “Why Don’t You Steal My Blues” and dramatic solo rendition of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” – are the final two tracks, which seems an odd choice of sequencing. Even if one were to read the 2 1/2 minute “Blues” as a prelude to “Lush Life” ending a high energy record with a ballad is anti-climatic. Thus, when listening to the record start to finish (yeah, I know, I’m old) one is left with the impression that the sum of the parts are greater than the whole.

Nevertheless, reconnecting with “Strut” has been an enjoyable experience for me. The record has long been out of print and sadly, Hilton Ruiz left us far too soon in 2006, at the age of 54. Thankfully, the music lives on and will hopefully create new generations of jazz geeks in the years to come.

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