Posted by jeff on Aug 31, 2012 in Rock
, Song Of the week
Fleet Foxes — Montezuma (studio recording)
Fleet Foxes — Montezuma / He Doesn’t Know Why (Live Video)
Fleet Foxes — Official Videos
I’ve been doubly blessed over the last few weeks. Barely had I begun to readapt to a diurnal schedul
e after The Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat when I flew off to Stockholm for The Real Group Festival, a celestial experience from which I’m still trying to not return. I’m still floating, all that great music, all those wonderful warm people, hot instrumental jazz from the far south, cool a cappella jazz from the far north. I’ve been exposed to enough new music to keep me going for months.
But strangely enough, some weeks ago, before the first festival, I restumbled upon a young band, and a particular song of theirs has wormed its way into my ears and thoughts throughout all these festivities. It’s ‘Montezuma’, by the ultra-talented Fleet Foxes.
It’s my birthday next week, one that The Beatles made famous. If my modesty needed any reinforcement, my age is certainly reminding me that I’ll probably never know all the music that there is. If people would just stop recording and performing for a few years, I might have the chance to catch up, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
I was mugged this week, verbally and musically. I admit a lapse of judgment in wandering into a neighborhood I knew less than intimately, but I was curious. You know what they say about curiosity. I made some less than fawning comments and provoked from the neighborhood vigilantes a shit-storm (that means ‘a lot of negativity on the internet’) of xenophobia. They released a jingoistic rhetoric I hadn’t been the target of since the days I was accused of anti-Americanism for protesting the Vietnam War. Well, we all know how that turned out. I’m not comparing war and music, but I can’t help thinking of Stephen Stills, who was able to direct astute irony even at his own camp: “A thousand people in the street singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’”.
Robin Pecknold smiling
So how about I don the protective suit of: I’m a doddering old Woodstockian refugee, brain addled by youthful excesses and decades of earning a living respectably; I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’ at all; I’m not hip; I don’t talk the talk and I don’t walk the walk; I’m trying to coherently string a few sentences together about music I either vaguely remember from the nether depths of my aural memory or about newer music that reminds me of the good old stuff.
Fleet Foxes are an indie band. For the baby-boomers among us, that’s a catch-all term the young ‘uns use to describe groups recording in their parents’ basements on inexpensive equipment, and self-releasing their music on small regional labels with limited commercial expectations. It includes a myriad of styles from grunge to intimate, all sharing low-tech and low-fidelity productions and an ethos of proud independence. It began in the 1980s and evolved into a scene unto itself, a plethora of local scenes worldwide, even an underground mindset.
Today the corporate music industry has co-opted the terminology, the sound, and many of the musicians. Numerous ‘indie’ artists have signed with major labels. A favorite of mine, Nataly Dawn, recently announced that she’s postponing the release of her Kickstarter-funded second album because she’s signed with a major label. I’ve been greatly enjoying her recordings and especially her videos for a couple of years now. She’s witty and wry and talented and as fetching as a fresh peach. Was it my imagination that in her postponement announcement her voice sounded a bit less innocent?
Robin Pecknold resting
I guess I’ll have to learn not to begrudge artists their pursuit of commercial success. They’re humans, they have their own needs (exposure, money, success), so who am I to tell them to stay hungry? But I will say that I could name off the top of my head half a dozen of my favorite bands and singers in recent years whose artistic achievements are in inverse proportion to their commercial reach.
Fleet Foxes, fortunately, found fame and fortune fortuitously, it would seem. Or perhaps fame and fortune found Fleet Foxes. (You can’t have too much alliteration, can you?)
The band was formed in 2006 in Seattle by Robin Pecknold (b. 1986; that’s 60 years after Chuck Berry, just for perspective). Their recorded output is LP “Fleet Foxes” and EP “Sun Giant” (both 2008) and LP “Helplessness Blues” (2011). Robin and his high-school bandmates had a good musical upbringing–their parents inspired them to listen to Hank Williams and Dylan and The Beach Boys and to practice. Pecknold was firmly anti-establishment in his approach to the music business (all the releases are on indie labels), but deeply steeped in The Tradition musically.
Respectful young Fleet Foxes
He praises Dylan and CS&N and Elliott Smith and The Zombies and Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat and Tears. It’s not only the visuals of this video of ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ that show how much he’s been influenced by “Pet Sounds”. Of the second album: “[I want to do the] vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling.”
Pecknold writes Fleet Foxes’ uniformly excellent material, plays guitar and sings lead, and his enormously talent has brought unsolicited success. The first album was Billboard’s Critic’s Choice album of the year, and the second was nominated for the Grammy as Best Folk Album of the Year. But what about that ‘earworm’ that stuck with me throughout my recent fêting? (For all you old folks, that’s what used to be called ‘a catchy tune’.)
‘Montezuma’ is one terrific song, in every aspect – The melody, the hooks, the lead vocal. The lead vocals!! What a lovely juxtaposition, Robin’s open, unadulterated lead tightly enveloped by the backing mini-choir. Good job, you whippersnapper you!
The lyrics are pretty darn evocative, too, for such a young kid. I’m not sure which Aztec king the persona is, Montezuma I (c. 1398–1469) or Montezuma II (c. 1466 – 29 June 1520), a buddy of Cortez about whom there’s a wealth of legend. What’s for sure is that he’s a really old guy, long dead and endusted. There are two Tripolis, one in Libya, one in Lebanon. They’re both really old, too.
Which is something I can identify with, as well as with Pecknold’s Montezuma’s callow bewilderment regarding The Meaning of Life. But I guess Montezuma and I are old enough to give the young artist some advice: “Robin, you’re making some really fine music, even if you are just a kid. Don’t count your money, practice your guitar, take care of your voice, and keep up the good work. In a real long time from now, like sixty or five hundred years, maybe some kid will be listening to your music. Or even writing a song about you.”
So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter,
Now what does that say about me?
Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love,
Could I wash my hands of just lookin out for me?
Oh man what I used to be
In dirth or in excess both the slave and the empress will return to the dirt I guess,
Naked as when they came.
I wonder if I’ll see any faces above me or just cracks in the ceiling, nobody else to blame.
Oh man what I used to be,
Gold teeth and gold jewelry, every piece of your dowry, throw them into the tomb with me
Bury them with my name.
Unless I have someday ran my wandering mind away
Oh man what I used to be
Montezuma to Tripoli.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
131: Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’
069: Catherine Russell, ‘New Speedway Boogie’
022: Roberta Sá and Chico Buarke, ‘Mambembe’
Posted by jeff on Jul 27, 2012 in Song Of the week
Kat Edmonson–’What Else Can I Do?’
Kat Edmonson–’(Just Like) Starting Over’
Kat Edmonson–’I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’
Kat Edmonson–’One Fine Day’
Kat Edmonson, a young singer from Austin, Texas has been monopolizing my turntable for the last month. She’s a slip of a girl, with a squeaky little Blossom Dearie set of pipes, and a mere two albums under her 21-inch belt, one of covers and one of originals. She’s gotten some critical notice, but her big commercial achievement so far is one song appearing on a network TV show (‘Lucky’ on “United States of Tara.”)
The thing is, she’s only 28 but she writes a bunch of songs that are 70 years old. You listen to her album of mostly originals, “Way Down Low” and say, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely song–must be Cole Porter.’ Or ‘Wow, that’s a real country classic; now, who did that in the original?’ Till you look at the liner notes and see that she wrote them both.
She’s so young and so just getting started that she funded her second album via Kickstarter, a very cool platform for raising money from people just like you and me for worthy projects. It’s a very appealing concept, well worth taking a look at it, folks. And while we’re on the subject, let’s all remember that young artists like Kat Edmonson are struggling to make a living, and we should all happily pay money to buy their CDs and thereby encourage them to keep creating for our listening edification.
Meanwhile, back at the music–such music for a young ‘un! Her covers are original, her originals draw impressively from fine traditions, and despite her slight, breathy, Gretchen Parlato-styled vocals, the treatments are honest and engaging, and the bare-bones arrangements just perfect, one after the next.
Her first album, “Take to the Sky” (2009) has way too many nags that have seen better days (‘Summertime’, ‘Angel Eyes’, ‘Night and Day’, ‘Charade’, ‘Just One of Those Things’). But she also dresses ‘Just Like Heaven’ (The Cure) and ‘Lovefool’ (The Cardigans) in the same fabric. No mean feat, but maybe not the battle she should be fighting, methinks. Then she does give the brilliant ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ an a cappella treatment, for which alone she deserves a bouquet of fresh daisies.
This li’l young lady also displays some heavyweight savvy. Do you remember The Chiffons? A pretty tame black chick group from the early ‘60s? Their main clame to faim is that George Harrison was found culpable of unintentionally plagiarizing their song ‘He’s So Fine’ (“Doo-wang Doo-wang”) for his ‘My Sweet Lord’. Remember their other big hit, the Goffin-King ‘One Fine Day’ (“Shooby-dooby dooby-doo-wop-wop)? Listen to what Kat does to it. Oh, my. Then listen again. And again.
John famously said that Elvis died in the army. He should know. He contracted a fatal disease on the roof of Apple Records and passed shortly afterwards in the board room dissolving The Beatles, a couple of 1970 Plastic Ono cuts notwithstanding. For the life of me, I’ll never understand why the radio plays ‘Woman’ on the anniversary of his physical death rather than ‘Norwegian Wood’. I’ve never bought a record of his after ‘Instant Karma’. For me, his solo career was a long string of embarrassing self-parodies. This would include, of course, the original ‘Starting Over’, a drossy pop throwaway which just makes me cringe and long for the good old days from ‘Not a Second Time’ to ‘Dear Prudence’. But then this impudent little Austinian Kat Edmonson comes along and shows me what I might have been missing in her glowing, loving, truthful rendition of the song. Or maybe it’s a recreation, I don’t know. But it sure is fine.
And all that’s just a warm-up for her second album, “Way Down Low”.
The album opens with ‘Lucky’, a breezy, xylophone-adorned ditty qua chanson with a cheery, Central Park video to illustrate it.
‘I Don’t Know’ is a mega-obscurity by the “Latin Funk” group Malo, a forgettable group from a best-forgotten sub-genre. It was headed by Carlos Santana’s little brother Jorge. Musically, you might call Malo the not-too-bright younger sibling of Santana. And if it’s not enough that Malo was insignificant, they were prolific while being so. They made four albums within just over a year. ‘I Don’t Know’ is from the third of them, “Evolution” (1973). It was written by guitarist Clarence “Sonny” Henry, who wrote the hit “Evil Ways” for Carlos and his buddies. The original is best forgotten. The two reworkings deserve many listenings, a task I’ve been dutifully and gladly performing.
What does Ms Edmonson do with this chunk of coal in the original rough? She puts it on her CD of originals twice—the second track (as a muscular, straightforward acoustic rocker) and the closer of the CD, ‘I Don’t Know (Reprise)’. They both have videos portraying two disparate facets of her persona, the former Kat qua manic, the second at a pace akin to a fluish nonagenarian tortoise, a veritable advertisement for suicide.
Then comes ‘What Else Can I Do?,’ a Cole Porter song written by Kat herself, and couched in a perfectly restrained bossa nova arrangement. It’s a gem, it’s a wonder. 28-year olds aren’t supposed to write 70-year old songs. But her working mom left her to in front of the TV be educated by videos of old movies. ”I would watch Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and there would always be some kind of romance happening, and there was always some scene where [they] go to a nightclub and some performer would come out. And it was always some famous performer like The Andrews Sisters or Louis Armstrong. And I actually thought that’s what it meant to get older. My idea of what adulthood looked like. At some point, I had to face the fact that it wasn’t and it was a little disappointing. And that gave me impetus to try and make life like that.”
I believe there are two kinds of people in the world—those who get “Pet Sounds” and (the poorer ones,) those who don’t. It’s Brian Wilson’s magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of our times. It has an overwhelming amount going for it–melodies, counter-melodies, arrangement, orchestration, a genius sound palette. What Kat has done for us is to take one of the many brilliant pieces from the album and strip away the orchestration, leaving us with a piano trio treatment of ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ as a song, with all its melodic beauty and lyric charm front and center. It takes a lot of courage to jettison the sonic wealth Brian invested in the song. But each element is so fine that it’s a real gift to be able to focus on ‘I Guess’ as a song. Thanks, Kat.
The album has several more songs from the early 1950s that Kat Edmonson wrote and performed in the 2010s: ‘This Was the One’, ‘I’m Not in Love’, ‘Nobody Knows’, as well as a country-swing duet with Lyle Lovett and a cover of The Ink Spots’ ‘Whispering Grass’.
Our Song of The Week? So hard to choose! But let’s go for ‘Champagne’, a witty, urbane, charmer from 1952. Except that Kat Edmonson wrote and performed it in 2012. It’s a time-tunnel wonder, a study in temporal dissonance. And a lesson in that old adage attributed to both Richard Strauss and Duke Ellington: ‘There are only two kinds of music–good and bad.’
Kat, I wish you lots of commercial success to fuel the monster talent residing in that deceptively modest container. Can’t wait for your next album.
I’m never gonna drink again
At least not with the finer men
At a celebration offering libation from the Appalachian
I couldn’t resist one little kiss.
But now the bacchic thrill is gone.
I didn’t mean to lead you on
My heart was not the one behind this amatory crime
No, champagne does it every time.
I’m singular and most off-key
When bubbles get a hold of me.
Taking the equation of the fermentation and a cool persuasion
I got no hope, I’m such a dope.
In wine historiography, you’ll find me under ‘fancy-free’.
I can’t be held accountable, my word’s not worth a dime,
When champagne does it every time.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two
080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’
108: Michael McDonald/Luciana Souza, ‘I Can Let Go Now’
Posted by jeff on Nov 11, 2011 in Rock
, Song Of the week
In the eyes and ears of many rock cognoscenti, a seminal event occurred two weeks ago – the release of The Beach Boy’s “SMiLE”, 37 years after the project was abandoned. There’s a veritable hagiography about the history, death and resurrection of “SMiLE” written by people who have spent years living the subject, so I doubt that I have much to add on that score. But some friends have been asking me my opinion, so I’m going to make a modest attempt here to provide a Dummie’s overview of the history of the legend and to express some personal opinions about the album’s actual achievement.