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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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: Stay With Me, The Faces

Click Here to Listen to “Stay With Me,” by The Faces

By the time you read this, I will have probably finished Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, an agreeably meandering book about rock & roll, love, and death. In it, he claims that Rod Stewart has “the single greatest male singing voice of the rock era.” He may have gone off the rails since then, recording the American songbook and a Christmas album—the death rattle of anyone’s creative career—but I agree with Klosterman whole-heartedly. While I can’t claim to have held this opinion before Klosterman—he is, after all, 20 years older than me—I certainly held it before I read his book. And I hold that opinion mostly because of this song.

In terms of texture and character, Stewart’s voice is remarkable. He sounds like his vocal chords were hung to dry in a tobacco barn before being briefly marinated in Jack Daniels and then stuffed back down his throat. His voice could smooth blocks of wood.

Like Mick Jagger, he’s charismatic even through a record, but unlike the Stones frontman, Stewart can actually sing. I never really thought Stewart sounded that good on “Maggie May,” which is basically a folk song, but nestled amongst overdriven guitars and electric piano on this track, his voice comes into its own.

The guitar part is also going to get special mention, partly because it captures Ronnie Wood before he joined the Rolling Stones, but mostly because the brittle, crunchy, open-E tuning sounds good no matter who the guitarist is. It’s fuzzy without losing definition, rude but somehow charming. Ian McLagan’s Wurlitzer plays nice counterpoint, and it’s refreshing to hear that particular instrument brought up front rather than relegated to the back of the mix.

Without Stewart, this still would have been a pretty good tune. With Stewart, it approaches the purest essence of what rock & roll is.

Album of the Week: On the Track, Leon Redbone

Let me be clear about something: I am a Yankee. I have not spent very much time south of the Mason-Dixon line, and certainly not in summer. I therefore have no great experience with the kind of syrupy, incapacitating heat that forces you to stay on your front porch, immobile and slowly sweating as the sun rises and falls.

However, if I was in that position, this is the album I would play.

If the name Leon Redbone isn’t familiar, you will recognize him either from his appearances very early on as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, or from his duet with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the movie Elf. The fact that the same man appears in two radically different generational touchstones—you just dated yourself, Dear Reader—is a testament to his quirky but enduring appeal.

In this, our post-Mumfordian era, a man who consciously dresses like he’s from the 1920s and reinterprets the Great American songbook isn’t that strange, but when On the Track came out in 1975, I imagine it was a bit shocking. The entire album featured music written 40 years ago—music that the average Saturday Night Live viewer’s parents listened to when they were kids. And though Redbone was hardly very old himself in ‘75, his renditions of these songs evoke genuine comfort with his material.

Redbone’s voice is undoubtedly the first thing you notice. He sings the way a gentle grandfather might, if this grandfather marinated his vocal chords in tobacco and had a potato permanently down his throat. For all its bizarre timbre it is a supremely likable voice, warm and full of character. Nowhere is this clearer then when he does a sort of scat singing midway between trumpet and human voice on songs like “Marie.” Redbone dubs this “instrument” the throat tromnet, and it’s the kind of affectation that a lesser talent, or a more self-conscious one, wouldn’t be able to carry off.

His voice is so mesmerizing that it quickly overshadows his guitar playing, but it too is a marvel of idiosyncrasy. He frames chords rather than playing their full voicings, and his fingerpicked approach coupled with the small-bodied guitar he favors provide a nice mid-heavy counterpoint to his voice. The double-time section in “Some of These Days” has much in common with ragtime piano—no accident I’m sure—and showcases Redbone’s deft fingering.

The arrangements are purposely low-tech and a little scattershot, again presaging the low-fi approach favored by another generation of revivalists (looking at you, Jack White). They feel intimate and warm, but it’s not an album that embraces so much as it refreshes you. If you’re sitting on that sticky, humid front porch, On the Track is a tall drink full of ice.

And that is the true beauty of Redbone’s approach. By scaling everything down and treating the material in his own humble way, Redbone removes these songs from the flash and dazzle of the stage or the concert hall, and puts them back where they belong: in people’s homes.

Song of the Week: It’s Different for Girls, Joe Jackson

Click Here to Listen to “It’s Different for Girls,” by Joe Jackson

Right before I moved away from my hometown, I switched barbers. This is not something a man does lightly, and I do not think it is possible to do it gracefully, either. I essentially dumped my reliable, traditional barber for a cooler, more expensive one. I felt bad about this.

But if I hadn’t done it, I never would have heard this song. Because, you see, this new barber, in addition to having a very esthetically pleasing barbershop and a fridge full of beer (I always declined—nothing worse than hair in your beer), sent you home with a mix CD. “It’s Different for Girls” was on the first CD the barber gave me, and I’ve loved the song since.

You know Joe Jackson’s stuff, even if you didn’t know it was him—he was the man behind the omnipresent “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” He occupies a musical space somewhere between the snotty angst of The Clash and the sharp New Wave sounds of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Sonically, it’s in the same family with the treble-heavy but warm production on the first Dire Straits album as well.

I like this song for how herky-jerky it is. The rhythmic shift between the verses and the chorus is refreshing each time it occurs, capitalizing on the space in between beats to surprise listeners. And for a song that doesn’t sound particularly complex, the chords fit together very cleverly. Musically, Jackson is a clear-headed and thoughtful songwriter. Lyrically, he’s at least thinking outside of the box, attempting to make a statement about gender roles by flipping pronouns throughout his song’s plot (the girl is the one just looking for sex; the boy, romance). But he never really capitalizes on his lyrics’ potential—you get the point after the first chorus.

That’s nowhere near enough to ruin the song for me, though. Spitting out the first lines of the chorus when you’re along to in the car is far too satisfying, and the whole song is too redolent with late-70’s Britishness to resist. And on top of that, I got a story and a haircut to go along with it.

Song of the Week: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” The Rolling Stones

 Click Here to Listen to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” by The Rolling Stones

If you knew me in high school, you would have known that for years I was a middling saxophone player in the school band. I was actually first chair of my section for a while—but only because I was the only tenor sax player in the band.

I picked up saxophone in fourth grade because I thought it was undisputedly the coolest of the band instruments. That was due, in large part, to the fact that I heard it on the oldies station much more than any other instrument available to me at the time. When I was still learning the instrument, I looked up to big names like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, who dazzled me with their chromatic runs and effortless command of their horns. As I got older and realized that level of playing was beyond me, I found myself a little discouraged. Did I have to be able to play like those guys to be good?

I found my answer by listening to different players in different sub-genres of jazz (Stan Getz, of course), but also by remembering the type of saxophone that got me interested in the first place. And given my growing infatuation with The Rolling Stones, that increasingly meant I was listening to one player: Bobby Keys.

He was a fixture on the Stones’ best albums, providing a sound that kept the band rooted in the jump blues that birthed rock & roll. While other groups moved towards increasingly longer guitar solos, the Stones realized that letting Bobby blat to his heart’s content was a hip move.

His best work was arguably on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. The solo on “Brown Sugar” would have been enough to cement his place on the rock & roll saxophone podium, but I never thought it was his best. That honor goes to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which may provide the longest Bobby Keys solo in the Stones catalogue—approximately 1:40 in length.

It’s here that a listener gets a clear idea of what kind of player Keys really was. This solo marks Keys as a true musician and integral member of the band rather than a sideman brought it for bits of sonic texture. He doesn’t play anything over-the-moon in terms of technique, but he plays with a great feel (the opening trills at 2:59-3:07), and makes some good harmonic choices to add tension, rather than the relatively straightforward licks in “Brown Sugar.”

For what it’s worth, he also once threw a TV out of a hotel window with Keith. The video’s on Youtube.

No matter what he plays, Keys always retains that signature raunchy tone. That’s what I thought saxophone was supposed to sound like as a kid—and it took me years to figure out that mine didn’t sound that way partly because I wasn’t using the right mouthpiece.

That ragged tone is so important to the composition because it ties the overdriven, distorted first half of the song to the much mellower jam in the song’s jazz-tinged second half. I don’t think anyone realized it at the time, but it’s because the saxophone had a foot in both worlds, the rock and the jazz, that allowed it to bridge that sonic gap. The second half of the song, you see, was never supposed to be kept or even recorded—it was a spontaneous studio jam (or so legend has it). It might be a bit much to say that Bobby Keys’ sax solo is what made the second half of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” work, but I don’t think it’s far off.

Ultimately, I haven’t played much sax in the last five years—guitar is a much more economical instrument and a more enjoyable one to play by yourself—but news of Keys’ death was still a bit of a blow. For me, he represented the same thing that punk-pop bands meant to me when I started playing guitar: that you didn’t have to be the best to sound the best.

Song of the Week: Use Me, Bill Withers

Click Here to listen to “Use Me,” by Bill Withers

“Soul” can be a tricky genre to nail down. You know what it isn’t—the Bee Gees, any band that wears studs—but it can be just as tough to define what it is. Aretha and James Brown have soul, of course, but what is that exactly? Bill Withers’ song “Use Me” helps get at the answer.

First and foremost, soul has to have a certain rhythmic sensibility. It doesn’t have to be fast, but it does have to be syncopated in a complex way (reggae’s straightforward emphasis on 2 and 4 doesn’t quite cut it). So tune into the drumbeat here. Drummer James Gadson puts rimshots in unexpected places, and though there’s a pattern, it requires careful attention to pick up on. It’s deep in the pocket, but sounds fluid rather than studied.

Though the groove is paramount, there’s also a vocal sensibility operating here. Withers has a really unique delivery, half-spoken and half-yowled. “My brother” gets yelled, but the rest of the line (“sat me right down and he talked to me”) is recited in a conversational tone. This phrasing is almost as unexpected as the groove, which makes the whole song seem hyper-organic and spontaneous. That kind of direct expression sounds like it’s not being moderated by a musical sensibility, but rather flowing right from the inside and onto the tape.

Maybe that’s why they call it soul.