Song of the Week: Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries, Blaze Foley

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Scroll down to listen to “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries,” by Blaze Foley (Opens in Spotify)

People don’t seem to write many songs about omelettes, or beef carpaccio, but cheeseburgers and French fries have inspired more than their fair share of songs. Maybe this is a leftover from rock & roll’s early obsession with cars and thus drive-ins, or maybe it’s because touring musicians have consumed many a lukewarm Big Mac on the road at 1am. I actually listened to this song enough times on Tuesday that I physically craved a hamburger for lunch.

The kicker is, of course, that this song is only tangentially about cheeseburgers (or French fries, for that matter). Blaze Foley pens an ode to individuality and carefree living, two things he certainly knew a lot about. He was a quintessentially creative and self-destructive songwriter who operated on the fringes of the outlaw country scene in the 1970s, and briefly lived in both a tree house and his station wagon.

What impresses here is not only his deft picking, but how easily he conveys his charisma with his deep voice (shadings of Sean Rowe). This full-band arrangement is irrepressible, and seems custom-made for a morning summer drive. The lyrics dispense most of their wisdom in couplets rather than verses, and all of that wisdom has tongue firmly in cheek. “Don’t go skiing cause I can’t ski/but that kind of thing never did bother me/so it shouldn’t be botherin’ you” is my favorite.

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Top Ten Songs of 2015: #5-1

Welcome back. Below you’ll find my top 5 picks for this year. No one has ever asked me how I evaluate these things, but I’ll tell you anyway. For the top 5, a song has to impress me both lyrically and musically–although the proportions are not always 50/50. I’m looking for durable songs that I can take with me into the new year and beyond.

This year, though, I’m also including a Guilty Pleasure of the Year, which is a song that I enjoyed very much every time I heard it this year, but will happily leave behind me. Will this be a permanent category in Vintage Voltage Year End lists from now on? Great question. I’ll let you know.

Building on last week’s entry, these songs are available as a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page. This playlist now includes all of the songs on both this week’s post and last week’s (again, with the exception of Adele), for uninterrupted listening pleasure. Yee-haw!

 

  1. Whiskey and You, Chris Stapleton

Tim McGraw, the human personification of Miller Lite, recorded agruably the best-known version of this song, but Chris Stapleton, a professional Nashville songwriter, penned it—and dozens of other modern country hits. Stapleton’s album garnered a lot of praise this year, maybe because the idea of a Nashville insider finally recording his own material is a perennially popular story. The album didn’t do much for me, as much as I tried to like it, but Stapleton’s reading of this song is untouchable.
He handles the material as only the songwriter can, starting with a big, seemingly obvious choice: it’s a song about being lonely, so Stapleton recorded it with his voice and his guitar. That’s the entire arrangement. Gone are the background vocals, steel guitar, and all the other noise on McGraw’s version. Streamlining the song makes it far more impactful. Lines like “And I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor/But I’ll be over it by noon/That’s the difference between whiskey and you” should evoke a rueful nod from almost anyone with emotions. Because it has been distilled to its essence, Stapleton’s recording is universal and powerful. I guess that’s the difference between whiskey and Miller Lite.

 

  1. Doin it Right, STS x RJD2

A few months ago I was raving about STS’s lyrical creativity, humor, and narrative skill, and he refined all these qualities on this year’s collaborative album with producer RJD2. “Doin’ It Right” is the most accessible track on the record, and hit everything I like in a hip-hop song. It’s bouncy, hook-filled, and boasts not only a whistle hook but also a brass section. STS pulls off some excellent lyrical contortions: “It’s in the can/sugar man/Leonard, Shane or Ray Robinson/well Goddamn/like Cassius Clay/what’d he say?/shook up the world I’m a bad bad man.” The profane and awkward into, in which the narrator tries unsuccessfully to pick up a girl at his own concert, is quintessential STS. In my (very limited) experience, he’s one of the warmest, most human MCs out there right now—keep an eye on him. Actually, don’t just watch him—go out and buy his record.

 

  1. Crosseyed Heart, Keith Richards

This is probably the least surprising pick on here for anyone who reads the blog, but I couldn’t let Keith’s latest solo album go by without saying something about it. At 1:53, “Crosseyed Heart,” the shortest song on this list, but it feels to me like a complete portrait of the man at this time in his life. There’s a wonderful intimacy to the performance—it’s as if he made this song up for you while you were sitting in his library. For a man whom millions of people have experienced at a remove, this sonic distance is intoxicating. The track also signals, in a way, the final stage of the Apotheosis of Keith. Both he and the Stones have always drawn from American delta and country blues, but rarely have they created something so true. At this point in his career, Keith no longer has to sound authentic. He is the blues god that he looked up to 50 years ago.

 

  1. Sugar, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

I don’t have any Doppler radar to back up this forecast, but I think we should expect a big soul revival moving through in 2016. Between Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (remember last week?), St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and several other bands that follow the “Singer Name and the Noun” formula, a soul storm seems all but imminent. The problem with these revivals, of course, is that so many of the bands sound the same or are too consciously retro-cute. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds—though adhering to naming conventions—put out one of the freshest soul songs this year with “Sugar.” Lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe has great presence and magnetism and reminds me of Nocturnals-era Grace Potter with her delivery. The song’s chorus is easy enough that you can sing it the second time you hear it, and everything is so infectious you can’t help but join. These guys are worthy of a much larger audience than some of their more-popular contemporaries.

 

  1. Young Moses, Josh Ritter

I’ve known about Josh Ritter for some time, but his hushed, contemplative songs never really spoke to me. This year’s album Sermon on The Rocks, however, has turned up the volume loud enough for me to hear him. It sounds like a John Cougar Mellencamp album written by a man with an MFA, and I mean both of those descriptors in their most positive sense. “Young Moses” tells a metaphorical story of a man breaking free of his bonds. In the lyrics, Ritter blends Christian scripture, peyote, and Johnny Appleseed, a mix of religion and folklore that renders the song uniquely American, and I think, timeless. With a different arrangement, I think this song would be equally at home in a New Mexico border town or an Appalachian roots jam.

 

 

GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR: twenty one pilots, Tear in My Heart

Everything about twenty one pilots is ten years too late: their stylized nomenclature, their dyed hair/all black look, and their incredibly infectious punky dance pop. “Tear in My Heart” has a simple hook that velcros itself to your cerebellum and stays there, the way Fall Out Boy’s hits used to. Little wonder that twenty one pilots is currently signed to Fueled By Ramen, the label that at one point housed Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World and still is home to Fun. and Panic! At the Disco. (see what I mean about the stylized names?)

I am also a sucker for audacious songs, and Tyler Joseph is unafraid to write some of the goofiest lyrics I heard all year. He rhymes “armor” with “carver” and “farther,” rages against the DOT, and reveals what perhaps may be the line of the year: “My taste in music is YOUR FACE.”

And none of it matters. It’s still catchy. Just goes to prove, as Joseph accurately observes, “the songs on the radio are OK.”

 

Alright kids, that’s it. Playlist is below (the first four songs are from last week’s post). Thanks for reading this year, and best wishes for a kickin’ 2016. And may I suggest a New Year’s Resolution? Buy more music.

Song of the Week: You Can Have the Crown, Sturgill Simpson

Scroll Down to Listen to “You Can Have the Crown,” by Sturgill Simpson (Opens in Spotify)

Sturgill Simpson writes a lot of songs about drugs. This is unsurprising, because his music is addictive—once you get a little taste, you want to plunge back in for as long as your body can stand.

Simpson’s music recalls the golden era of mid-70s outlaw country, and I think that comparisons to the big names, most notably Waylon Jennings, are warranted. Simpson’s talented band retains a pure country sound, and the lyrics certainly deal with the appropriate range of problems (in this case, lack of money), but everything is suffused with a rock and roll attitude. The attack is fast, technically complex, and heavy on the guitars; Simpson’s vocal is filled with vinegar and gunpowder. Most importantly, the chip on Simpson’s shoulder coupled with his frankly profane writing could come out of a punk rock song: “Well they call me King Turd up here on Shit Mountain/If you want it you can have the crown.”

It’s perhaps not palatable to the mainstream country audience, who seems to be currently more concerned with Coors Light and swimmin’ holes (google “bro-country” for a string of jeremiads), but I don’t think Simpson gives two figs. He’s pushing high-quality product to a limited market, and he knows they’ll keep coming back for more.

Song of the Week: It Ought to Be Easier, Lyle Lovett

Scroll down to listen to “It Ought to be Easier” by Lyle Lovett (plays in Spotify)

“Country music is three chords and the truth.”—Harlan Howard

I hope I’m not alone when I say that I have a break-up song associated with almost every relationship I’ve been in. If you’re currently in the market for such a song, I might point you to country music. Clichés aside, country music has some of the finest songwriters going, and they’re particularly good with relationships and heartbreak. Bad country writers stick to the same tropes, but the good ones find a more nuanced view of what is almost never a straightforward situation.

Lyle Lovett is a good one.

“It Ought to Be Easier,” is a track buried in his 1996 album The Road to Ensenada, and it’s written from the point of view of someone who realizes that they need to end their relationship, but just can’t push themselves over the brink.

Neil Sedaka observed that “breaking up is hard to do,” but didn’t really talk much more about it. Lovett tackles this observation head-on, particularly in the second pre-chorus:

“And you tell me I’m the one you’re not to blame

And you tell me I make you feel the same way

And we talk in circles but we never say

It’s just out of weakness that both of us stay”

Sedaka is so vague he becomes clinical, but Lovett’s specificity seems to extend an arm around you and tell you that he (or perhaps more accurately his character) has been there too.

That’s the other beautiful thing about music, particularly in times of great emotional stress. It provides you with the knowledge that someone else has experienced and survived what you are going through. Even more than that, there is something undeniably cathartic in raising your voice together with someone who has suffered as you have. That’s the reason, I think, why song is a part of so many religions, particularly in times of need.

Those are some heavy thoughts to hang on Lovett’s songwriting, but luckily it’s solid enough to bear the weight.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 10-6

There’s nothing I love more than year-end Top 10 lists. Someone at Pitchfork is probably declaring the Top 10 list dead even as I write this, but for the rest of us they’re a great way to catch up on all the music you might have missed this year while you were brushing your teeth or whatever. And because every person will build a different list, they’re also a great opportunity for polite, thought-provoking discussion, or more accurately, a good excuse to defriend someone because FKA twigs’ album didn’t even crack their top 5.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see some familiar names on here, but there’s also plenty of new faces (spoiler alert: no FKA twigs. Sorry.) We’ll do numbers 10 through 6 tonight, and then return with the final five next week.

10. Back to the Shack, Weezer

I can’t pretend to be more than a casual Weezer fan, and I was introduced to the band at kind of a weird time—right in the “Beverly Hills” era. So “Back to the Shack” doesn’t really succeed in making me nostalgic for 1994, especially because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t sound a hell of a lot like Golden Era Weezer (“Buddy Holly,” “Undone,” etc.). The lyrics are a little cringe-worthy; I think if you have to write a song about how you’re rocking again, you’re likely not.

But damn it if this isn’t a catchy, bouncy tune from the Weez. It’s actually probably most like “Beverly Hills” in that it’s big on pop fun and relatively low on angst. For me, it’s always good to hear a new Weezer song on the radio, because it proves that the power-chord punk-pop that I grew up with is still alive out there somewhere, and Rivers Cuomo et al. are the guardians of the flame.

9. I’m Not the Only One, Sam Smith

Is it too easy to call Sam Smith the male Adele and be done with it? Both Brits sing modern pop that is a distant descendent of Dusty Springfield, and both have heart-stopping, jaw-dropping voices. “I’m Not the Only One” is Smith’s “Rumour Has It,” slightly more up-tempo than the first big single, and similarly about cheating on someone. As Smith hits the chorus, the effortless transition to falsetto along with the word “crazy” calls to mind Cee Lo Green circa Gnarls Barkley. If you don’t like this song, you must be some kind of monster. Which is ok, I guess.

8. Sins of My Youth, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, of all people, deserved a number one album this year. Not necessarily because Hypnotic Eye was the best album of 2014, but because they are an American institution, and in my opinion, kept rock & roll alive when everyone else had left it to rot. “Sins of My Youth” is the quietest moment on the record, a meditation on mistakes made and left forgotten. Texturally, it’s a sonic treat, with beautifully rich tremolo guitars and Steve Ferrone’s dry, close-mic’d drums. It’s a little reminiscent of “Riders on the Storm” in some stray moments but it’s much more accessible, and nowhere near as bloated.

7. My Wrecking Ball, Ryan Adams

I spent a lot of this summer and fall trying to explain to people that I wasn’t talking about 80’s hitmaker Bryan Adams. This is the solid-gold truth, and not a lame attempt at the least creative joke in history.

Ryan Adams has been around for a good long while and is wildly prolific (equal emphasis on “wild” and “prolific”), but there was a three-year gap between his last album and his release this year. “My Wrecking Ball” is one of the songs I liked best off of it, and it’s served as my entry point to the rest of Adams’ catalogue. It’s an alt-country ballad in the best tradition about the death of his grandmother. The first verse, with its implicit comparison between a beat-up car and the narrator is beautifully and starkly heartbreaking.

Also, Adams’ set at Newport Folk this year convinced me that it would be a blast to see him live—it not only rocks super hard, but is also funny and genuine. Listen to it here.

6. Drive-In Movies, Ray LaMontagne

This song finally sold me on Ray LaMontange. His typically powerful voice is turned down here, creating a dusty, breathy sound rather than the full bellow he summons most of the time. Musically, the track is a slick slice of Americana, with steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and an easy-rocking tempo. There’s some definite Byrds-like sparkle to the production as well. Lyrically, it’s a nice vignette of a slightly wayward youth spent sneaking cigarettes and blowing pocket money at the drive-ins. I’m not sure how many drive-ins there are left in the country now, but there was at least two within an hour of where I grew up, and LaMontagne captures them perfectly. I miss those drive-in movies too, Ray.

Album of the Week: Too Much Fun, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

There’s a school of thinking that says in order to find out if you like an artist, or to develop an appreciation for one, you need to pick an album, any album, and jump right in.

But what happens if you start learning about Van Morrison by listening to Astral Weeks? What if, God forbid, you try to develop a taste for the Rolling Stones by starting with Their Satanic Majesty’s Request? You’ll get a false reading: Astral Weeks is a hard album to wrap your head around, even for diehard fans, and Satanic Majesty’s is just plain bad.

Enter the greatest hits album. They’re the perfect gateway into a band’s back catalog, (and I’m sure the 2 or 3 record label executives left on the planet are vigorously nodding), and allow you to get a feel for an artist’s entire career rather than just one moment. But with some bands, I find you don’t need much more than the greatest hits album. And that’s not a criticism–sometimes you just hit gold on the first try. I love this album, and I can’t imagine I’ll find another one by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen that I’ll ever like more. In fact, I listened to this on a car ride to Connecticut last week, and I sang along with every word. Every last one.

Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967, and enjoyed decent popularity for the next 10 years or so. Michigan might seem like a weird place for a country band, but then Commander Cody was definitely a weird country band. Rather than straightforward outlaw country or the polished Nashville sound, the band was rooted much more in Western swing, boogie-woogie, and early rock & roll, and they delivered it all with manic energy and giant ‘70s mutton chops. There’s definitely a dose of hippie sensibility mixed up in there too, from their infamously wacky cover art to their country laments about running out of weed (“Down to Seeds and Stems Again”).

Most of the songs on the disc are covers of songs by artists that I’ve never heard of. Say whatever else you will, but the band had a fantastic ear for a forgotten gem, and they were adept at taking old songs and reinvigorating them for a new audience.

The obvious place to point you is track three, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which was the band’s biggest hit. If you like Cake and John McCrea, George Frayne’s spoken delivery won’t bother you a bit. Even if it does, there’s so much to keep you entertained here that you won’t focus on it for long. Apart from the explosive riff, which is so hard that even the great Bill Kirchen doesn’t even play it clean every time (check the sour note at 0:54), there is some truly innovative playing from fiddle player Andy Stein and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper. Between the two of them, they produce all the sound effects on the track—squealing tires, police sirens, horns.

Yep, that’s a country band alright.

The band’s version of Eddie Cochran’s “20 Flight Rock” is another keeper, propelled by Andy Stein’s bleating baritone sax and Bill Kirchen’s glassy-toned solo, which keeps the rockabilly spirit of Cochran’s version but amps it up with a full-band sound. For me, it’s the definitive reading of this song—the one I heard first and the one I keep coming back to.

“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)” probably sounds much more outré today than it did when Tex Williams and Merle Travis first recorded it in 1947. Lyrically, it’s not particularly pro- or anti-smoking, but instead makes the point that it’s an awfully inconvenient habit: “them nicotine slaves they’re all the same/at a pettin’ party or a poker game/everything’s gotta stop when you smoke that cigarette.” This is Commander Cody and the Airmen at their best: a tight, full-band sound, layered instrumentation that veers off into jazz (the tricky interval leaps around the 3:00 mark), and a slightly naughty sense of humor.

Speaking of, the next track, “Everybody’s Doin’ It” features the f-word twenty-four times throughout the track—not something you’re used to hearing in an otherwise-forgotten, rather racist country song from 1937, but the band hits it with gusto (though they thankfully leave the racist bits out). The real star, though, is Andy Stein’s perfect intro solo, which, when combined with the steel guitar backing him, sums up the strange musical fusion that is Western swing—part country, part jazz.

To be fair, these songs are about the most clichéd country tropes out there. There’s plenty about women, a few about various vices, and a few about trucks. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to brush these songs off as not particularly inspired, and some are downright cringe-worthy if you go into them with the wrong attitude. “Mama Hated Diesels,” for example, reveals a tragic tale about a broken family and the hard existence of the long-haul trucker. There’s crying, a spoken interlude, and a dead mother. But the song is so over the top, so tawdry, that you can’t help but set the music snob hat aside for a minute and just weep in your Miller High Life. It’s true country cornball, and you can either brush it off or bask in its full B-movie glow.

Cornball or not, ironic or not, I take a real pleasure in these songs and the way this band plays them. I don’t know if I’d call the album “Too Much Fun” per say, but it’s certainly close.

 

 

PS–If you’re jonesing for more, head on over to Medium.com, where another Commander Cody fan (don’t worry, he’s from Texas, so he’s legit) and I wax philosophic about Commander Cody & co.

 

Song of the Week: Texas 1947, Guy Clark

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Click Here to listen to “Texas 1947” by Guy Clark

If you know your country singer-songwriters, Guy Clark is probably old news to you. You already know that he was close personal friends with Townes Van Zandt and has mentored dozens of the most successful names in alt-country, like Lyle Lovett. But if you’ve never dug deep into 1970s outlaw country, please believe me when I tell you Guy Clark is one of the best songwriters of the past 40 years.

“Texas 1947” shows you why. The plot of the song: train isn’t there, train is, train isn’t. That’s probably as simple as you can get, narrative-wise, but Clark describes this vignette with such color, such a vivid sense of detail and ability to describe old things in new ways that the song is hardly about the train at all. That’s why, I suspect, it’s called “Texas 1947” and not something trite about trains.

Take the opening verse: “Bein six years old I had seen some trains before/so it’s hard to figure out what I’m at the depot for/trains are big and black and smoke and steam, screamin’ at the wheels/bigger than anything, at least that’s the way she feels/Trains are big and black and smokin’, louder than July 4/but everybody’s actin’ like this might be somethin’ more.”

Right away, the narrator gets established. Know-it-all six year old, avid train fan. You get an impression for how the kid feels about the trains—giant, loud machines, but with an inexplicable allure (the feminine pronoun is very much intentional, I think). But despite our narrator’s jaded view, there’s something new going on here, something that’s captivated the whole town.

Or as Clark puts it (again in the voice of this six-year-old Texan): “you’da thought that Jesus Christ hisself was a-rollin’ down the line.” This is actually the real theme of this song—never mind trains and six year olds. It’s called Texas 1947 because there’s a feeling throughout the song that this modern new train has irrevocably changed this town. It has brought the future speeding through the lives of everyone in town: “Texas 1947” thus denotes both a beginning and an end.

When the train finally passes, the words get percussive and rhythmic, mirroring the chug of the train—lots of repeated “s” and “sh” sounds. The train itself only gets outlined in the barest terms (colors, speed), and then it’s gone. It’s another shrewd narrative choice: how do you describe something that’s so fast you never really see it? Like in every other type of writing, Clark shows that less is always more.

If there’s one knock on Clark’s songs, it’s that musically a lot of them sound the same, but “Texas 1947” is a bit of an exception. There’s that great descending riff to open that generates momentum immediately—it sounds like the ending to an overture that you just missed because you walked in the theater late, and bonus points for the sheer nuttiness of sticking a bass clarinet in the mix.