January 27, 2009

When McCartney Rocked the Record Shop

The first time I saw Paul McCartney in concert was in 1993 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. I was 16 and, despite my youth, I considered myself as much of a Beatles fan as anyone else in that packed, cavernous stadium. Seldom am I starstruck, but when McCartney took the stage, Hofner in hand, a flood of iconography and lore—British Invasion… Abbey Road… Ed Sullivan… Shea Stadium... Sgt. Pepper… Lennon… Liverpool… A Hard Day’s Night—crystallized in my mind in that one moment, represented by that one man. “There he is!” I yelled to no one in particular, utterly gobsmacked.

I can only imagine the euphoria felt by those crammed inside Amoeba Records in L.A. on June 27, 2007, rocking out as McCartney played within spitting distance of his own back catalog. Issued on CD and limited edition 12” vinyl, Amoeba’s Secret is this gig’s only officially available document. Sure, only four tracks appear on it—the set comprised 21 songs overall—but for fans who didn’t witness the performance firsthand (or snag a bootleg thereafter), this recording makes for a modest keepsake of rock ‘n’ roll’s ultimate in-store appearance. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Album Review: Dar Williams - Promised Land

I’ve always had a soft spot for descriptive lyrics, especially the kind that yield esoteric insights or observations yet resonate in universal and often strikingly personal ways. Considering this, I really should’ve caught on to Dar Williams a long time ago.

It’s not like I’d been unaware of the singer/songwriter’s music altogether. I’d heard bits and pieces over the years, but mostly on tracks written by other artists. Her cosmic, quirky cover of David Bowie’s “Starman,” for instance, initially piqued my interest, much like her duet with Ani DiFranco on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” did a few years later.

Yet it was her rendition of “You Won’t See Me,” from This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute To The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which intrigued me the most, with her unassuming vocal and loyalty to the lyric’s point of view belying any trace of irony or artifice.

And so it was a burgeoning curiosity that invariably led me to Williams’ most recent album, Promised Land. Invested with picturesque and pensive narratives on the human condition, it’s a beautifully stirring work. Moreover, Williams doesn’t forsake a good (memorable) melody to tell a story here, but rather she crafts a balance between her words and music. From the feisty opener, “It’s Alright,” through more tempered (though no less engaging) tracks like “The Easy Way” and “Troubled Times,” she reflects a storyteller’s perceptions, enriching tales of emotional hurdles and lessons with empathy in her voice.

Williams is at her most affecting, though, when she leans toward introspection. As in “You Are Everyone,” which finds her remembering an old flame who still weighs heavy on her heart, conceding as if in a soliloquy, “You are everyone I ever trusted/ Who never made a fool out of me.” As well, on “The Business of Things,” she achingly resists the apathy (if not the cruelty) she sees others purveying—“It’s the way things are done,” she concludes in dismay—by the strength and will of her own compassion. In both cases, Williams taps into such unguarded, unnervingly honest thoughts and feelings—and marries them to equally poignant music—in such a way that makes the listener feel viscerally connected.

Perhaps such is the hallmark of all great songwriters, but Dar Williams has nonetheless made that kind of impression on me with Promised Land, making me now want to work my way backwards through her catalog to discover more of what I’ve been missing.

January 11, 2009

Do It Again: Top 10 Covers of 2008

Something intriguing occurs when an artist or band takes on someone else’s song. The interpreter may cover that song by adhering to hallmarks of the original version, but hopefully enough distinctiveness shines through to make it a worthwhile performance and not merely a facsimile. That said, here are ten of the best cover songs from 2008.

10) “See Emily Play” – Martha Wainwright
Album: I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too
Despite (or perhaps because of) his eccentricities and psychedelic excursions, Syd Barrett betrayed a childlike purity in his music. Putting her own quirky yet endearing spin on this Pink Floyd classic, Ms. Wainwright draws on that innocence in such a way that, if he were here, would likely elicit a smile from its cosmic source.

9) “Toxic” – Portland Cello Project
Album: Portland Cello Project

For those with discriminating tastes who have pondered what a Britney Spears song would sound like as rendered in perhaps a more sophisticated medium, look no further than the Portland Cello Project’s cover of “Toxic,” which features a bevy of, well, cellos. The ensemble plays the arrangement close to the vest (and the vocals actually sound a bit like Spears), but its enthusiasm and unorthodox approach is irresistibly satisfying.

8) “Temptation” – Southside Johnny & The LaBamba Big Band
Album: Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits
Soaked in the faded glitz of late-night burlesque and the blue-collar grime of a Jersey shore bar, Southside Johnny bejewels this Tom Waits gem with a big brass band (or is it a brass big band?) and swagger to spare. It’s a nocturnal lament, ladies and gentlemen, rife with carnal delights and callings. It’s Southside Johnny for one night only, every night of the week: He sings! He swings! ‘Til the money runs out, he’ll tango ‘til you pour.

7) “Breaking The Girl” – Anna Nalick
Album: Shine [EP]
Already somewhat peculiar in its original form, Nalick envisages this Red Hot Chili Peppers track into an even starker enigma, stripping it down to its sonic bare bones while sustaining the cryptic bent of its narrative. It’s a riveting, ambitious interpretation, one which says something about Nalick’s creative depth and potential.

6) “All I Want Is You” – Glen Campbell
Album: Meet Glen Campbell
From one of last year’s unexpectedly rewarding albums, Campbell’s earnest rendition of this U2 love song recalls the mood of his most timeless performances. Four decades after pleading, “I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time,” the proverbial lineman for the county sounds inspired, pining, and ever still on the line.

5) “Make You Feel My Love” – Neil Diamond
Album: Home After Dark [Deluxe Edition]
In his recent collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, the Solitary Man has boldly tapped back into the dark consciousness that inhabits his most resonant works. It’s with comparable sentience that Diamond enriches this modern Bob Dylan classic, his intimate and somber expression poignantly suiting the directness of the lyrics.

4) “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” – Lucinda Williams
Album: Little Honey
Ornery and defiant, Williams manhandles this AC/DC rocker into a mantra, serving as much as an affirmation of her life as her art. An incidental note to all aspiring artists: If your idea of paying dues is to camp out on the pavement before your American Idol audition, turn this track up loud and let Ms. Williams put you wise.

3) “Aretha, Sing One For Me” – Cat Power
Album: Jukebox
On this obscure gem by singer/songwriter George Jackson, Cat Power stretches out the groove, sinking deep into the song’s yearning plea for some end-of-romance solace. The Queen of Soul has seldom received a more forsaken request.

2) “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” – Soweto Gospel Choir
Album: In The Name Of Love – Africa Celebrates U2
A standout performance among an album of exceptional music, U2’s anthemic homage to MLK assumes an altogether distinct and urgent resonance here. Rich with indigenous expression and rhythms, the Soweto Gospel Choir enliven the song with the resolve, hope, and triumphant spirit of its native land and, in so doing, make an inspiring statement.

1) “Time” – Heidi Talbot
Album: In Love And Light
In a flawless marriage of songwriting brilliance and vocal elegance, Irish songstress Heidi Talbot summons a stunning rendition of this Tom Waits masterpiece, drawing out subtleties within the narrative through her delicate phrasings and inflections. It’s this kind of performance that makes songwriters want to slave over a piano or guitar in the pursuits of their craft.