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061: The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’

Posted by jeff on Dec 22, 2015 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

‘What a Fool Believes’, The Doobie Brothers, from “No Nukes” (1979)

 

‘What a Fool Believes’, Neri Per Caso

 

I missed the 1970s. Musically, that is. While John Travolta was working up a Saturday night fever, I was building a new life in an obscure little Bolshevik Country Without Music, on the other side of the world from everything, where good radio meant The Tremeloes and Tom Jones. I pretty much missed Heavy Metal (an unmitigated blessing), Disco (a shame, but I shall survive), and Funk (the sacrifices one makes for one’s ideals). I did manage to smuggle across the border the Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell albums of those years, because they were worth risking one’s wellbeing for. I’ve gone back and done my homework on the important voices of the 70s, but even the Billy Joels, Elton Johns, Bruce Springsteens, Mark Knopflers and even Stevie Wonders are not as deeply hardwired into my psyche as many minor luminaries of the preceding two decades.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that The Doobie Brothers look pretty funny to me, with their sleeveless leopard-skin t-shirts. But they sound just fine. I missed them first time around, but have tried to do my homework. From 1971 to 1976 they had an impressive string of hits (‘Listen to the Music’, ‘Rockin’ Down the Highway’, ‘Long Train Running’, ‘Taking It to the Streets’), but those aren’t what I’m here to talk about. They’re roadhouse boogie/hippie-dippy fine, no objections there. But there’s one song of theirs in which they surpass themselves, a song which has given me a ridiculous amount of pleasure for these many years.

In 1976, Michael McDonald joined the band, having graduated from Steely Dan. Mr. McDonald is one of those singers whose chops are the most highly evolved organ above his shoulders.  He’s no intellectual heavyweight, no great songwriter. But, my! that boy can sing! Some of my best friends are tenors, but let’s face it, they’re not known as a group for their manliness. They’re pretty wimpy types, on the whole. Michael McDonald is an exception–a really virile, muscular, sexy tenor. This guy can get away with wearing an Aloha shirt under a white suit with flared pants! That degree of cool still holds, 30something years later. How someone can sing so high and so strong is just beyond me. But it sure is fine. And nowhere finer than on ‘What a Fool Believes’.

MM wrote the song together with Kenny Loggins (of Loggins and Messina), another simpy, country-rock pretty face from 1970s California. If you really need to hear Loggins and MM ruining their terrific song, you can listen to it here, but I recommend passing on the dubious pleasure.

The song describes an intriguing situation–not usually covered in pop songs, but admirably specific, and painfully true for many of us guys. He’s carried a torch for her for so many years that he’s invented a shared history. He tries to talk to her, and she’s polite, although she has no idea what he’s talking about. But his imagined memory is immune to reality. That never happened to me, but some friends of mine have attested that it’s a hard-wired bug in the male genome.

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see, trying hard to recreate
What had yet to be created – once in her life
She mustered a smile for his nostalgic tale,
Never coming near what he wanted to say,
Only to realize it never really was.
She had a place in his life; he never made her think twice.
As she rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know– he’s watching her go…
But what a fool believes, he sees.
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be is always better than nothing–
And nothing at all keeps sending him
Somewhere back in her long ago
Where he can still believe there’s a place in her life
Someday, somewhere, she will return.


Technically, the lyrics are pretty rough. Cole Porter need not feel threatened. The melody, at least of the verse, is about as catchy as a Stravinsky line. But it’s got a hall-of-fame hook, and a great beat, I always dance to it, and I’ll always give it a 100. The song really isn’t even good. But it’s great.

The original recording is fine enough. But it’s this performance that gets me, from the film of the early Greenie benefit concert “No Nukes” from 1979, including Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Mr James Taylor and Mrs Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Jesse Colin Young, and Bruce Springsteen, with lots of fun music in it. But the one you take home is ‘What a Fool Believes‘. I’m embarrassed to tell you how often I’ve watched the video of this performance. It engages me, bounces me, makes me grin. Every single time.

The hopeless happiness of it all, the pure enjoyment of the participants. The sappy grin on the face of lead guitarist Patrick Simmons. The come-on smile the wonderful backup singer Rosemary Butler gives MM. The equally laden ‘Oh, I really am cool and hot and couldn’t be enjoying myself more’ look Michael McDonald returns. The mind-boggling, rhythmically illogical, off-the-beat smash of the cymbal on ‘Anybody else would sure-LY know’. The intertwining lines, the right hand of the piano, the left hand of the piano, the loopy little calliope adornment, the bass line, all six percussionists – every one perfectly enmeshing to form a tapestry of fun-k.

There’s a great a cappella version of this song by a very cool 6- voice Italian vocal group (what is about this song that enables people to surpass their talent?), Neri Per Caso, which means ‘black by chance’. Well, they don’t sound very black here, but they sure do sound good. Guest lead vocalist (the low growl) is one Mario Biondi. This cut goes a long way to explaining why I find contemporary a cappella so riveting when it’s at its best. It’s faithful to the original. In a way, it’s more faithful to the original than the original is. It distills the music. It extracts the music from all the irrelevancies of the instrumental context. Listen to the interweaving lines. To the harmonies. To the fun. To the magic. This 2008 Italian a cappella version is also magic, just like the “No Nukes” version from 1979. But different.

Who cares? They’re both magic. I guess there was enough of it back in those 1970s to have some left over, to still enchant us today.

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030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’

Posted by jeff on Mar 5, 2015 in A Cappella, Other, Song Of the week

After the last 2 SoTWs, ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and “Over the Rainbow’, E.Y. wrote “What’s wrong with you, a normal song yet again?” Well, that’s an implicit challenge I can’t left unanswered, a musical gauntlet thrown at my feet.

So here you go, E.Y. and all you other unwitting readers: The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. Seriously. I realize that may sound a bit, um, obscure, but they were a big hit in San Francisco in the 1980s, they won a Grammy in 1989 and recorded with Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to them steadily since I discovered them a couple of years ago. C’mon, bear with me a bit.
The group has a murky history obfuscated by a muddy discography. From what we can gather, the group was formed in 1951 (right on, Bulgaria!), started recording in 1957, were discovered by a Swiss ethnomusicologist in 1975, and after Perestroika they hit the big time.

Their discography is even more obscure. In 1986, The Bulgarian State Television and Radio Female Vocal Choir released a CD best known as “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares”, the name by which they’re most commonly known. In 1992, the choir divided into two: the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir and a collective which now records and performs as “Angelite – The Bulgarian Voices”.

Read more…

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209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)

Posted by jeff on Dec 12, 2014 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’

Margareta Bengtson

Margareta Bengtson

I was hanging with some musical friends this week, watching an old video of theirs, relaxed and routine, when – boom! – four minutes in heaven.

The Real Group. Margareta Bengtson. Monica Zetterlund. Bill Evans. Let me explain. But I’ll probably get all historical and detailed way beyond what any normal person would care about. So unless you have the patience of a stone, feel free to listen, watch, and be transported. The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’.

In 1953, Bill Evans (1929-80) was released from the army. He’d finished a degree in classical piano at Southeastern Louisiana College and was trying to decide which direction to pursue, classical or jazz. So he took a year off, living in his parents’ home and practicing. He would visit his brother Harry (who eventually became a music professor and a suicide; here’s an mind-opening interview by Harry of Bill from 1964, very much worth studying) and his three-year old niece Debby.

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

‘Waltz for Debby’ has become a jazz classic, written mostly in ¾, not a common jazz signature. It’s charming, disarming, lovely and tender. It’s the genius that is Bill Evans at his best.

Evans included it on his first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” (1956), a solo performance. Perhaps his finest treatments of it were on his masterpiece recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961), with Paul Motion on drums and the immortal (but fated to die 10 days later) Scott LaFaro on bass. Here’s Take One and Take Two. Here’s a posting dedicated to that session, one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve encountered.

The Real Group then

The Real Group then

Evans played ‘Waltz for Debby’ throughout his career, right up to the end – here it is from 1980 (with Joe LaBarbera on drums and Marc Johnson on bass), exactly one month before his tragic but inevitable death. Well, aren’t all tragic deaths inevitable? The song is usually performed gently (1956, 1961). Here in 1980, on the edge of the abyss, he invests in it a frightening passion that I discussed at length in a blog post about another signature song of his, ‘Nardis’.

In 1963, Evans asked his friend Gene Lees to write lyrics for the song. Some people think they’re precious and wonderful, some think they’re painfully kitsch and demean a perfectly restrained song. Me? I’m so caught up in the music I don’t even hear them.

The Real Group now

The Real Group now

I’ve found no evidence of why Evans asked for lyrics. The first version I can find a recording is a respectable treatment by Dutch singer named Rita Reyes, recorded for Dutch TV in 1964. In contrast, Johnny Hartman croons it to death in the same year (the follow-up album to his legendary collaboration John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the divine Sarah Vaughn’s version from 1966. Also unfortunately, it’s easy to find the 1975 Tony Bennet/Bill Evans duet collaboration. As my friend ML put it so well: “Tony Bennet doesn’t sing on that album, he shouts.”

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Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

In the summer of 1964, Evans made his first trip to Europe, with his second trio – Chuck Israels on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. In Sweden he met a young singer named Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), who had made a recording of ‘Waltz for Debby’ with lyrics by Beppe Wolgers, ‘Monica Vals’. They cut a wonderful album together, a paragon of passionate restraint (Evans) meeting icy perfection (Zetterlund). Here’s the recording, and here’s a TV video of that visit. While we’re here, here’s a beautiful ‘Some Other Time’ video from the same program. And here they are doing a beautiful, relaxed rehearsal of ‘Monica Vals’ two years later, with Eddie Gomez on bass and a Swedish drummer.

In 1984, five Swedish friends were at studying together at the Royal Academy of Music. They felt that other friends played all the instruments and styles better than they did, so they decided to try something different – singing jazz classics a cappella. Thus was born the genre I love so well, ‘modern a cappella’. They began by listening to classic jazz such as Count Basie/Quincy Jones and replicating it vocally, each voice singing a different instrument/part, resulting in a pure, breathtaking polyphony.  A couple of their earliest efforts were arrangements by Peder Karlsson of early Evans’ tunes: ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals’. Here’s an extensive interview I had with Peder describing the riveting metamorphosis of the group.

Margareta Bengston

Margareta Bengston

And finally – our Song of The Week, our Performance of The Week, our four minutes of heaven of the week: The Real Group performing ‘Monica Vals’, live in Stockholm, 2005. The soloist is the original soprano, Margareta Bengtson, who left the group in 2006.

Scott LaFaro’s bass part written by Peder for Anders Jalkéus; the intricate, marvelous tapestry of Katarina Henryson, Anders Edenroth and Peder – this is as good as it gets. And Margareta’s solo is a simply a wonder of the world. Such precision, such love, such delicate charisma.

Here’s their reunion performance of ‘Monica Vals’ from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, 2012, which I was blessed to be present at. If you hear someone in the audience crying from utter bliss, that just might be me.

Monica Zetterlund

Monica Zetterlund

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know all the members of The Real Group to varying degrees. Some are warm acquaintances, some dear friends. It’s a unique experience for me to know people to whom I both feel close personally and also admire so profoundly as artists.

Hey, Margareta, how are you? When I heard and saw you singing ‘Monica Vals’ this week, in my mind I gave a slight bow and kissed your hand. I don’t know how else to thank you for touching my ears and my mind and my heart so wondrously.

When they say ‘The voice is the only instrument made by God’, this is what they’re referring to. I just can’t imagine anything more perfect.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
The New A Cappella
059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

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189: Choir of Young Believers, ‘Hollow Talk’ (Nordic Noir TV)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2014 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Choir of Young Believers – Hollow Talk

Everything Scandinavian is better than anything non-Scandinavian.

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Line Groth coaching in Israel.

Okay, maybe there’s a drop of hyperbole there, but I’m infatuated. I have been for a number of years now, starting with my involvement in Modern A Cappella, whose epicenter is in Den Norr/Nord. (Even the fine Australian quartet call themselves The Idea of North.)

The situation was profoundly exacerbated last week with the visit of the wonderful Line Groth Riis from Aarhus, Denmark, to workshop with the a cappella community here in Israel, especially with Vocalocity, the biggest little group in the land. Line told me there were 17 hours of sunlight in Denmark in January. There was an average high of 20°C in Tel Aviv during her visit. So how is it that we all felt that it was she who was bringing the sunlight here?

This irrational, exaggerated infatuation (aren’t those defining traits of infatuation?) began with The Real Group, spread through Rajaton and Vocal Line and a myriad of other a cappella groups; traveled through Nordic roots music; and recently taken me on out to some cutting edge pop that has me mystified and baffled and intrigued and enthralled.

Faroese-singer-Eivor-Pals-001

Eivør

Eivør is as far out musically as she is geographically. She hails from the Faroe Islands, a village named Gota actually. She’s a bona fide star in Iceland and Denmark, and is traveling the world as Marilyn Monroe in an avant-garde opera. The core of her original music is haunting, mystical, wind-swept barren Atlantic island folk/roots. She’s also beautiful, charming, and spiritual. I met her a year ago in Denmark, and felt like I was talking to a persona who’d just stepped out of a myth, or a fairy tale. Give a listen. I promise to write more about her sometime soon.

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Sigur Rós

Moving from a country of 50,000 to one of 320,000, we all thought Bjork was as bizarre as Iceland could get. Well, we were wrong. For a year now I’ve been under the spell of Sigur Rós, a “post-rock” group led by Jónsi Birgisson. (That’s a new sub-genre of often instrumental music using guitars, drums and unusual instruments in non-rock timbres and textures. Huh?) Their music is haunting, ephemeral, hazy. My favorite of their dozen CDs is “()” I thought I was the only person east of the Faroe Islands to have heard of these guys. But it turns out their spellbinding sound pallet has been drafted for projects as disparate as BBC’s natural history series “Planet Earth” and their ads for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as well as in the films “Vanilla Sky” and even “We Bought a Zoo”! What is this world coming to?

Choir of Young Believers

Choir of Young Believers

And now I’ve been listening to Jannis Noya Makrigiannis’ band Choir of Young Believers, who are legitimate stars in a real country (Denmark – I’ve been there, I can testify). Especially their song ‘Hollow Talk‘ (which just happens to be the theme song of the Danish/Swedish TV  series “Bron/Broen/The Bridge”). Let me tell you what I hear in these artists. I fully realize that I’m talking through my hat (that’s the euphemized version of the expression) about the Scandinavians. All the artists I’ve encountered from there are intelligent, refined, sophisticated, and as a group most certainly don’t need me to tell them what they’re doing. But I’m enthralled, and I want to share that, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about. What can I say in my defense? I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands

I hear the geography in their music. I hear barren islands in Eivør’s music, steaming hot springs in a frigid expanse in Sigur Rós’ music, expanses of cold Atlantic shores in Choir of Young Believers. In young American and British Indie bands, even the best of them, the context I hear is a recording studio. There’s no continuum with the world outside. Here, in these Nordic sounds, I’m hearing the wind-chill factor, ice and shivering and darkness.

Borgen

Borgen

At a music festival in Sweden I once asked someone why everyone was wearing black and grey. She scoffed and said that “That’s nonsense”. I said, “Look around. There are 600 people here. They’re all wearing black and grey.” She looked around. “You’re right,” she admitted. “I had no idea.”

Could it have something to do with national wealth, abnormal security, sunlight deprivation and the evolution of social mores akin to growing a third eye, a sort of ET of the north? A whole new species of modern society growing right before our eyes in the dark crannies of the fjords eerily illuminated by Aurora Borealis?

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

There’s a genre of crime fiction called Nordic Noir, characterized by a harsh, unadorned style with a dark, morally complex mood. Authors include Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, and Henning Mankell (the Kurt Wallander detective series). The first I tried and didn’t get caught by, the latter is waiting on my shelf. But in the meantime, I have been pursuing my concomitant obsession, Nordic Noir mini-series.

The template is an emotionally scarred Danish/Swedish female homicide detective chasing a psychopathic serial killer, one story over a season of eight 90-minute episodes. Most of the shows I describe here deviate from that format in one way or more, but they all draw from the same somber, murky, sharply observed world. The worst of them is better than anything else around. At their weakest they’re implausible. At their best, they’re dramatically precise, visually stunning, emotionally wrenching, and so scary it hurts. On occasion they transcend scary into seriously spooky.

The Fall

The Fall

A friend of mine whose taste I admire says he won’t watch any television in which all of the characters are beautiful. These Nords are humanly complex, blemishes and foibles and all, uniformly vulnerable and riveting. Alphabetically:

  • Borgen (Denmark, remade in US)
    A back-bench MK becomes PM by fluke. We watch her in the office and at home, trying to learn and cope. Many of the secondary characters are flat. Not the greatest drama, but a tasteful look at an intriguing world.
  • Bron/Broen (Sweden/Denmark, The Bridge, remade in US)
    Everyone’s favorite, including mine. Two very fine main characters – Saga (Danish, Asperger’s) and Martin (Swedish, human) – meet over a body composed of two half corpses placed on the very borderline of the bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö. A modern allegory: a virile heroine, a feminine hero. Rounded characters, rich circumstances, finely crafted. An utter delight for after the kids have gone to sleep.
  • Those Who Kill

    Those Who Kill

    The Eagle (Ørnen) (Sweden)
    Just getting started on this one. Stay tuned.

  • The Fall (N. Ireland)
    Best of Breed. Gillian Anderson as the cop who is almost as sick as the villain, who makes Norman Bates look like a choir boy. Reminiscent of Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect”, it goes way beyond scary, beyond spooky, into morally upsetting. Hitchock territory.
  • The Killing (Sweden, remade in US)
    This was the first one I encountered, unfortunately in the US version. Single mother, obsessive, neglecting her son and herself to pursue The Case. Suffers from an overly contrived plot, makes excessive demands on suspension of disbelief.
  • Top of the Lake

    Top of the Lake

    The Kingdom  (Sweden)
    Created by Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”, “Dogville”), it’s the story of a sick hospital. The building isn’t haunted, it’s diseased. Little suspense, lots of malaise.

  • Sebastian Bergman (Sweden)
    A 50-year old police consultant, damaged and scarred in every way imaginable. You don’t watch him, you accompany him, through his pain and confusion and struggles. Unfortunately, only two episodes.
  • Those Who Kill  (Denmark, remade in US)
    She’s too beautiful, her partner is misconceived and miscast. It’s not fingernail-biting – you may chew off the fingers themselves. Not for the weak of heart.
  • Wallender

    Wallander

    Top of the Lake (N. Zealand)
    Made by Jane Campion, reminiscent of her “The Piano”. Unfortunately starring Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”, “West Wing”). But the visuals of the scenery, the villain, and the commune of wacko women misfits let by guru Holly Hunter make it all worthwhile.

  • Wallander (Sweden, remade by BBC with Kenneth Branagh)
    A 50 year old everyman detective in backwater Ystad, more whodunit than most.  His daughter joins the small detective squad. She’s the scarred one here.

These series (serieses, as I like to call them) are the reason I haven’t been getting anything else done for the past half year. I’ve checked out the US versions of “The Killing” and “The Bridge”. Do yourself a favor, go for the originals – the gloomy, dark, angst-ridden, terrifying, human world of Nordic Noir.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Jeff’s posts on The Real Group

Jeff’s posts on A Cappella

Jeff’s posts on Nordic Music

 

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