Song of the Week: I Misunderstood, Richard Thompson

71mffl2kntl-_sx355_Scroll Down to Listen to “I Misunderstood” (Opens in Spotify)

Breakups are what keep songwriters in business. It’s a universal theme that can be mined for pathos, empathy, and sometimes dark humor. But most musical breakups are stereotypical, abstracted events—it’s hard to imagine them happening to real people. Of course, a certain amount of generality permits a variety of different listeners to see themselves in a song, but many breakup songs are so vague as to squash any emotional resonance whatsoever.

Part of the problem may be that songwriters are reluctant to place themselves too squarely under the microscope. Richard Thompson, luckily, is not. “I Misunderstood” is a breakup song about real people, who send mixed messages and change their minds. It carries the uncomfortable weight of real experience, and sounds like a human being wrote it, rather than an anodyne hit machine.

For me, the emotional crux comes at the end of the first verse into the first chorus:

“She was laughing as she brushed my cheek/ ‘why don’t you call me, angel, maybe next week/Promise now cross your heart and hope to die//But I misunderstood/I thought she was saying good luck/she was saying goodbye.” As Thompson repeats the refrain, you can feel the protagonist reeling from the shock of this new revelation.

Writing good material is only half the battle—you have to be able to interpret it well too. Thompson’s rich voice carries shock and a rueful smile, and his guitar playing is unusually understated but always harmonically interesting, from the main hook (a play on the so-called “Asian riff”) to the thumping, dark chord progression. Would that every breakup song was this good—but not every breakup.

 

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.

Top Ten Songs of 2015: #10-6

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the deluge of year-end “Best Of” lists is upon us, and Vintage Voltage is no different. What follows is the first batch of new music that I loved this year. All of these songs are 100% grass-fed, organic, Grade A rock & roll. We’ll be back next week with the final five, so don’t touch that dial.

This year, rather than the typical YouTube links, I’ve made a Spotify Playlist of these songs. You can find that at the bottom of the page.

  1. Don’t Wanna Fight No More, Alabama Shakes

Four out of five dentists agree: the second album is tough to crush. But according to almost everyone, Alabama Shakes did it. They tastefully updated their neo-soul sound without straying too far from the power of Brittany Howard’s voice or the solid grounding of the band’s rhythm section. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a great example—the whole track is drenched in spectral, haunting echo, but Howard’s painful squeal at the beginning of the song reminds you that however ethereal the band may get, they’ll remain grounded in the world of flesh and blood. And thank God, because we need them here.

 

  1. I’ve Been Failing, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Although it can’t touch “S.O.B” for sheer popularity, this is probably the second strongest cut on the album. It’s a mid-tempo track, but it swings hard on the back of an uncluttered piano figure and some great handclaps. It reminds me of “Soothe Me,” by Sam and Dave, and as a result I dance like a bad Motown* backup singer whenever this song comes on. Rateliff’s vocal is less frantic than in “S.O.B.,” but that actually allows his voice’s character to shine through better. Lyrically, Rateliff is really cornering the market on catchy tunes with emotionally ambiguous lyrics, and it’s difficult to say if this song’s protagonist is happy with where he is. Again, this hints at Rateliff’s depth as a songwriter, and I think will mean that the band weathers the incoming Soul Storm 2016 (of which more next week).

*For the three or four people who just sniffed at my “error,” rest assured I realize Sam and Dave recorded most of their big hits for Stax, not Motown. Now step away from the comment box.

 

  1. Send My Love (To Your New Lover), Adele*

Is anyone immune to Adele? She’s for sure your mom’s favorite, and you can’t blame her. She’s (Adele, not your mom) not the most musically inventive in the world, but Adele enjoys a sort of fan consensus not available to many musical acts these days. As many other critics have pointed out, another act that commands the same mass appeal is Taylor Swift, so it’s no surprise that Adele’s co-writers and producers on this track (Max Martin and Shellback), have penned a bunch of hits for Swift, including “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

I, however, prefer to think of this song as Adele’s own take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Like that song, “Send My Love” starts with a syncopated, funky hook, and builds to a great anthemic chorus with excellent sing-along potential. This should probably be the next single from 25, so liking this song may partly be a self-defense mechanism—because soon no one will be able to escape it.

*You’ll have to imagine this one, because it’s not on Spotify. Sorry about that.

  1. Blacka, Blackalicious

Although Blackalicious’ first album in ten years wasn’t meant to be a sweeping look at the state of American Blackness in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or D’Angelo’s Messiah was, Gift of Gab still makes his own statement of solidarity on this track. It’s a theme he’s addressed before (“Shallow Days,” off Nia leaps to mind), but he shows on “Blacka” that he’s lost none of his creativity. On this track, he compares the positive and negative connotations of blackness, broadly writ, insisting that he is both “darker than the random check of passengers” and “blacker than the President/well, half of him.” Chief Xcel’s production provides a nicely insistent syncopated underpinning, and his work really shines elsewhere on the album (“The Blowup” and others). Gab remains my favorite MC, and it was a treat to hear from him again this year. Fittingly, the track begins and ends with a Lee “Scratch” Perry sample that states, “I am the only man that can cure the world by speaking words.”

 

  1. Strangers, Langhorne Slim

On their new album, Langhorne Slim and the Law manage to capture some of the raucousness of their live show in a more polished, thoughtful package than their previous album, The Way We Move. “Strangers” in particular finds them with a slick, almost over-produced sound that should expose the band to a wider audience. Slim’s voice is still a treat to listen to, crackly and yelpy, while the band has managed to find a place for their banjo rock that doesn’t sound like they’re trying to fit in with a now-expired trend. This single represents a big step forward for the group, not least because at 3:36 it’s one of their longer songs. Even if the vocal hook sounds to me like it’s going to appear on an anti-depressant commercial any day now, it’s still a great tune. Go see these guys live if you can—they’re the real deal.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably saw a lot of these coming, but there’s a couple surprises on tap next week–including a new category: Guilty Pleasure of the Year. See you in a week!

Song of the Week: It Won’t Be Long, The Beatles

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Click Here to Listen to “It Won’t Be Long,” by the Beatles

 

It’s been a while since a song has moved me to spontaneous blogging, but I’ve listened to “It Won’t Be Long” like eight times today and enough is enough.

I think the modern listener tends to forget how scandalous the Beatles were, especially early in their career. Of course, this had a lot to do with the way they looked, but it’s undeniable that many thought the music just a little too raunchy for polite listening. And with a song like “It Won’t Be Long,” you can’t blame them. Hormones explode off this track. It’s jumpy and insistent, with those “yeahs” driving the tension higher and higher. Even the tempo is a bit unseemly—so fast!

Even now, the track crackles with energy. The more I listened to it today, and I mean this in all sincerity, the more I imagined the Sex Pistols covering it. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, and it’s rhythmically insistent. Although the Beatles will always run circles around Johnny Rotten and co. for sheer musicianship, there’s a certain brash, borderline annoying quality to this song that’s very punk.

Yet as simple as it is, the key to the song nevertheless reveals that the Beatles showed a shrewd understanding of songcraft from the beginning. The song owes most of its endorphin rush to the repeated shift between the calmer verses and the raved-up chorus, which gives the listener a chance to catch their breath while providing enough interest to hold attention, even if the song is barely a hair longer than two minutes. Compare it with something like the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which gets a little boring after the initial two-chord excitement.

This particular track was apparently mostly a John Lennon composition, even though it was credited Lennon/McCartney. When I learned this (scant minutes ago!), it didn’t shock me. It seems to me that early on Lennon drove most of the band’s harder, faster numbers. His early vocals far outstrip McCartney’s for sheer grit, and he absolutely howls through this one, with the double tracking making it particularly effective. The entire band responds to this, but Ringo does particularly well at managing the shift in energy between the verses and the chorus—listen to those fills!

Album of the Week: Damn the Torpedos, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

If there’s one artist that dances around the fringes of this blog without ever getting his full due, it is unquestionably Tom Petty. He makes an appearance every now and then, but has never gotten his own blog post.

And that’s just not right, because he’s one of the musicians I admire the most. He succeeds at the most difficult part of rock & roll, which is making the same six chords sound completely different every time he plays them. He is relentlessly innovative within fairly tight harmonic constraints, but has been churning out hits since the mid-70s. Stop to consider for a moment that “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” one of his most iconic songs, came out in 1993.

Damn the Torpedos is a masterclass in Petty’s sand-blasted style. There is almost no fat anywhere on this album, from the boldly spare cover on through.

“Refugee” is so embedded in the cultural consciousness that it’s tough to get any critical distance on it, but it is perhaps the quintessential introduction to the band’s style. Petty and the Heartbreakers, especially on this song, are a very treble-heavy band, and I think that makes Benmont Trench’s organ all the more important. It provides a more expansive, meaty sound that prevents the band from sounding brittle, especially as Petty squawks out the chorus.

“Here Comes My Girl” wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. The narration gives it this great girl-group feel—like a less-tragic “Leader of the Pack”—and I love how much sonic space there is on the track. To help understand what I mean by that, listen to this song and then listen to “Down to the Waterline,” by Dire Straits, which was released a year earlier. Both songs have this really dry, trebly sound, but “Here Comes My Girl” sounds expansive while “Down to the Waterline” is quietly but insistently in your face.

There is one major gripe I have with this album, which is that it falls victim to the gimmick of putting bits of nonsense in between tracks. It’s nice in that it gives every song a little room to breathe, but I always wish I could cut out the first twenty or so seconds of tracks like “Even the Losers.” Band mythology has it that they went in to record this song without a chorus, and Petty wrote it on the spot.

“Shadow of A Doubt (Complex Kid),” is my favorite track on the album. This song has such incredible energy, which is interesting because it’s not particularly fast. The guitar figure that prominently features in the first fifteen seconds is a Keith Richards signature lick, but he always plays it about twice as fast (listen to “Brown Sugar”). So the fact that Mike Campbell plays it more slowly suspends the listener’s ear—you keep waiting for the second part of the figure to come, driving the song forward. The tension derives more from the rhythm than from the notes, and I think that might be part of Petty’s secret. He doesn’t need to use more chords because he knows other ways to create the tension a good song needs. Subtle, but effective.

I’ve always loved the back-alley feel of the intro to “You Tell Me” (just like the video for “Refugee!”). The descending piano figure coupled with the yowling slide guitar give it a great cinematic feel. It’s one of the Heartbreaker’s finest moments on the album, and they sustain this menace throughout. It’s a needed change to the palate at this point in the album and all the more effective because of it.

The album’s closer, “Louisiana Rain,” is its only misstep. This country ballad might have worked fine with a more finessed vocal delivery than Petty can muster, but it would also be hard to overcome the clunky lyrical image of rain pouring out of the narrator’s ears. The whole thing is just a little bit self-indulgent, which no song on an album like this can afford to be.

Just like the titular torpedo, this album works best when it delivers a quick, concentrated, and devastatingly efficient blast of rock & roll—something that was increasingly difficult to find in the late 70s. There are no terribly elaborate intros, no overly lengthy guitar solos. It’s more refined than a punk record, but still pulses with the same vitality, and it’s understandable why Petty and the Heartbreakers were first grouped in with the New Wave movement. But at its base, the music Petty was making here evolved out of the early 60s rather than the late 70s. Nevertheless, it’s solid, timeless music. Like sharks, crocodiles, and the Rolling Stones, Petty and the Heartbreakers have survived because they’ve remained simple and deadly. Can’t ask for much more.

Song of the Week: Cry to Me, Solomon Burke

Scroll Down to Listen to “Cry to Me,” by Solomon Burke (plays in Spotify)

Now I can’t pretend to any music nerd cred on this one—though the song was originally released on Atlantic, I heard it when I went to go see Guy Ritchie’s remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (It was also, Wikipedia tells me, in Dirty Dancing). I knew of Solomon Burke beforehand, but hand’t explored much of his catalogue. For the average listener, he’s frankly a second-tier star, and maybe with good reason. Well, apart from this song.

It’s everything you could want from an early ‘60s song. It hits that ideal spot between Motown pop, rock & roll, and the Muscle Shoals sound. That glorious space in the recording and luscious reverb date the track without making it sound kitschy. It’s been called “proto-soul,” which is accurate but misleading because it implies that it’s not a fully-fledged musical statement in its own right.

Of course the standout is Burke’s voice, which is a lovely instrument—it incites while the music soothes, keeping that hint of internal tension you need to keep a song compelling. It’s the give-and-take that makes the song so strong, and Burke avoids the tendency of Otis Redding and other “shouters” to overwhelm the band.

Spin it at your next swingin’ get-together, hepcat.

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.