Song of the Week: Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, The Allman Brothers Band

Click here to listen to “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” by the Allman Brothers Band

Brotherhood has always been at the heart of the Allman Brothers Band. This is stupidly self-evident (it’s in the band’s name, for God’s sake), but I think it’s important to pay tribute to it now, soon after the band’s last concert, which they played on October 28th.

The Allmans formed around brother Gregg and Duane, and it was their interplay that fueled the band. They’re both right here at the beginning of “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” off of 1972’s Eat a Peach. Gregg’s piano is quickly answered by Duane’s slide guitar, and the two remain in lockstep for the rest of the track, splitting time in the spotlight more or less 50/50. Gregg naturally sings lead, but Duane’s solos from 1:57-2:25 and from 3:08-3:35 function as his voice, and he expresses himself with as much sentiment and subtlety as his brother.

Both men are able to summon different tones from their instruments throughout the song—Duane alternates between the mid-heavy, gluey tone that you hear at his entrance at 0:06 and a more pure, glassy tone, which you hear best at 1:18 to 1:25. In his phrasing and note choice too there is a duality: some of the licks are straight out of Elmore James’ playbook, while others exhibit modal characteristics indebted to Indian music.

Gregg, for his part, manipulates volume and range to get his different tones. His powerful delivery on the first part of the line “We’ll raise our children in the peaceful way we can,” overloads the mic in such a way that for just a split second he sounds like Duane.

Duane’s untimely death (every piece written about the Allmans has to mention it—did you know that? It’s a law.) ended the brotherhood in the most literal sense. But any band, particularly one as long lived as the Allmans, is bound by a sort of fraternal bond. They are families and teams, and they fall out and they make up and they find success and they make mistakes, but they are always drawn back together, as the Allmans were, by an invisible but inescapable bond. As Gregg sings:

“It’s up to you and me brother/to try and try again/Well hear us now, we ain’t wastin’ time no more.”

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Top 5: Songs for Driving

After I’ve depressed the clutch and turned the key, the next thing I do in my car is reach for the power button on the radio. When I’m driving—and I’ve been driving a lot the past two weeks—music must be going. Particularly on long drives where the highway stretches out in front of me, I turn up the volume to keep me awake and focused.

There’s a real art to the ultimate driving playlist. I have made many, but the fact is that each trip demands different music. A few things, though, are constant. This is the time for simple drumbeats that you can play on the steering wheel and bombastic guitars that push your right foot a little more firmly on the accelerator than you’d intended. Here’s five of my favorites right now.

 

1. Panama, Van Halen
I don’t consider myself much of a Van Halen fan, but I’ve always liked this one. Blame Superbad. The best driving songs have a discrete intro and then a drop (for lack of a better term) that shifts you into fifth gear. Van Halen’s guitar grabs you immediately with this cinematic thirty-second-long introduction, until David Lee Roth’s “uuuh” kicks things off properly. And although his vocals are at times shrill enough to appeal only to dogs, he has great timing. The spoken interlude right around 2:35 is the best example—“I reach down between my legs and…ease the seat back.”

2. Radar Love, Golden Earring

If your car stereo doesn’t have good bass, I would prefer it if you skipped this one. The bass line to this song is so legendary that you should be able to pick it out in two notes after hearing it once, and deserves nothing less than speakers that will do it justice. It’s a long song, too, clocking in at about 6:30. While that’s generally not great if you’re just running out to get cigarettes and pop tarts, it’s ideal on longer trips—those six minutes pass quickly. My plan is to one day found a radio station that beams this song to the most desolate, static-ridden stretches of America’s interstate system. You’re welcome.

3. Runnin’ Down a Dream, Tom Petty

Maybe the quintessential driving song. The well-written lyrics are particularly appropriate, and I’ve always like the last verse: “I rolled on as the sky grew dark/I put the pedal down to make some time/there’s something good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.” Funny that the most memorable part of the song for me musically is the palm-muted, percussive strums that come after the first line of the chorus—not so much a musical statement as the absence thereof. An anti-riff, if you will.

4. Losing Days, Frank Turner

This came on during a drive to Massachusetts last week, and I was surprised at how much it energized me. I think it’s the opening crack of the drums and that mandolin intro, along with the interval jumps in the vocal part. It runs a little against the big guitars rule I established above, but it has the drumbeat, and it’s another great one for sing-alongs, particularly if you’re working on your harmonies.

5. Stacy’s Mom, Fountains of Wayne

A road trip is the perfect time for indulging guilty pleasures. You have a lot of time ahead of you, you’re alone, and thanks to modern automotive engineering, no one is going to hear you when you mangle the lyrics at full volume. If, for some reason, you do have a passenger, this is also a great candidate for an impromptu duet. I know it might be wrong, but I love this song, and you’re a liar if you say otherwise.

Song of the Week: Changes, Jimi Hendrix

Click Here to listen to “Changes,” by Jimi Hendrix

At the very beginning of his career, Jimi Hendrix played guitar in the Isley Brother’s band. The fact that a pioneer of the psychedelic rock scene once played backup guitar in an R&B band might surprise you, but if you listen carefully, the R&B influence was never too far from his playing. You hear it clearly on “Changes,” which was on the last complete album Hendrix put out before he died. This is Hendrix at his earthiest and most focused.

I think this focus stems from the fact that this isn’t a Hendrix composition. Drummer Buddy Miles wrote it and sings lead vocal, so Hendrix works within Miles’ frame. Since he’s not concerned with singing, Hendrix has more freedom to lock in on dynamics and groove while interweaving rhythm and lead parts. The main riff is almost like a bass part, subtle and down low in the mix, but the incandescent solo at 2:03 is in the upper register and powered by his deft manipulation of the wah.

And though the solo is good (it is Hendrix, you know) it’s always been his rhythm work on this track that fascinates me. He harnesses his guitar to drive the song’s energy forward in a way that puts him closer to Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler, or other more rhythmic players—it’s not typical Hendrix. Not to say that Hendrix wasn’t a rhythmic player—anyone who has heard the intro to “Voodoo Child” knows he had great rhythmic sense—just that he didn’t always have the opportunity to showcase it.

And Hendrix’s rhythmically oriented playing here supports the rest of the group, allowing Miles to focus on his two jobs. It’s almost like Hendrix is back to being a sideman. As a drummer, Miles isn’t as showy as Mitch Mitchell was, but it’s hard to imagine Mitchell dropping out for a breakdown the way Mitchell does at 3:17. Miles feeds into the primal, four-on-the-floor groove in an elemental way that Mitchell didn’t. And he’s a pretty funky vocalist to boot.

It’s this driving rhythm that defines this track for me, and it’s here you begin to form a more complete picture of Hendrix: not as just a hall-of-fame soloist, but as a sensitive and keen musician willing to support and work with the rest of the band. And that’s definitely something to Shout about.

Song of the Week: Long Distance Love, Little Feat

 Click Here to Listen to “Long Distance Love,” by Little Feat

Little Feat is the best band you’ve never heard of from the 1970s. Though they had a couple hit songs in the late 80s, they’ve always remained a sleeper hit, a band that musicians talk about backstage before a show. I like listening to them in the summer—it’s hazy, sweaty music for the end of a hot day.

The group was the brainchild of Lowell George, a slide guitarist and expressive songwriter who had great touch and feel. Four or five different strains of American music met in his songwriting—country, blues, R&B—creating a greasy Southern fried soul. His ability to distill these different blends is what gave early Little Feat their sound, unclassifiable but distinctly American. Maybe the difficulty of classifying their music was what ultimately kept them from wider recognition.

“Long Distance Love” is one of George’s most sensitive pieces, a quiet, heartbroken lament from 1975’s The Last Record Album (great cover art by Neon Park). Although it’s a country song in spirit, the swirling Fender Rhodes piano and fuzzy slide guitar stick it closer to Dr. John or the Band at its funkiest. But what really drives the song home is George’s lyrics and delivery. Verses like “You know her toes they were so pretty/and her life so sweet/I wonder do she know/do she know she hurt me so,” have an understated precision to them, and his groaned delivery on the first line and the chorus articulate pain in a way that no lyrics can.

 

Song of the Week: Shattered, The Rolling Stones

Click Here to listen to “Shattered,” by the Rolling Stones

It was Mick Jagger’s birthday on Saturday, and that’s enough of an excuse for me to spotlight a Rolling Stones song this week. This tune, the closing track off of 1978’s Some Girls, features one of my favorite vocals in the Stones’ catalogue.

No one is going to argue that Mick is the most technically proficient vocalist of all time, but the great thing about rock & roll is that no one cares how you sound as long as you mean it. There’s nothing technically complex about “Shattered”—no tricky interval jumps, no impressive vibrato. In fact, it’s basically rap. Like I talked about last week with Van Morrison, though, Mick’s strength is in his inflection and rhythmic sense. Like the way he intones insouciantly at 0:32 that “life is just a cocktail party,” or his surprise at 1:03 when he discovers “I can’t give it away on 7th avenue” (love the way he bends the last syllable of “avenue”).

These little inflections balance the sections where he screams and repeats himself almost like a tic, creating counter-rhythms and building musical tension. The words that get this treatment: sex, success, up, tough, and flatter, respectively, unlock a deeper tension in the tune.

“Life is just a cocktail party,” and the other lines are sung with this glassy-eyed, oblivious delivery, coked-out and blasé, while the words that he screams all relate to New York City’s image—sexy, successful, tough. The constant ping-ponging back and forth between the two styles gives a pretty good idea of New York in the late ‘70s and early 80’s—for some, a spaced-out substance fueled pleasure center (hi, Studio 54!), and for others a dangerous, dirty metropolis. Maybe Mick didn’t intend that, but he just turned 71,  so let’s cut him some slack and just say he did, shall we?

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.

Top 5: Songs for Leaving

In the spirit of High Fidelity, I like to compile top 5 lists every now and again. Since I’ll be a college graduate in 48 hours, I figured now might be the time to put a top 5 list up on here. Leaving a place filled with people I’ve come to know and love over the past four years has provoked a slurry of emotions that I can’t separate out into neat categories. So these songs embrace the complexity and the contradictions of leaving a place and the people in it.

 

1. Langhorne Slim and the Law, Salvation

One of the very best concerts I’ve been to in my time at college was Langhorne Slim and the Law—an incredible amount of energy, spirit, and great music. This is one of their quieter tracks, and hits all the harder because of it. The quiet, subdued instrumentation, including a gentle banjo line, lets the lyrics breathe. The lyrics are plain but not inelegant, and Langhorne Slim’s voice emotes beautifully. Halfway between a bleat and a scream, it sounds raw and unguarded. When he sings “I hate to leave but I know/it’s time to go,” he manages to encompass both resignation and regret.

 

2. Tom Petty, Into the Great Wide Open

Ok, granted, Eddie’s just finishing high school in this song, but on the cusp of finishing college, I can certainly identify with “Into the Great Wide Open.” I think this song captures the really knotty feeling of moving on to something else—so much possibility, but also a real fear of getting swallowed up. Musically, this is Tom at his most Byrds-influenced—big, clean Rickenbacker guitars with plenty of shimmer. This man has got songwriting down, and I’m consistently amazed at this ability to work the same six chords as everyone else in new ways. I’ve linked to the actual music video, because it’s kind of 90s kitschy (featuring Tom doing his best Dickens impersonation) but actually has a pretty sophisticated narrative—and a very young Johnny Depp.

 

3. Frank Turner, Polaroid Picture

If I got to design a graduation ceremony, I’d play this song. Like Langhorne Slim, Frank Turner has a voice where you believe everything he says. Here, he sings about the importance of trying to keep a moment, to remove it from the flow of time in order to save it. The lyrics are simultaneously about being very present (“let go of the little distractions/hold close to the ones that you love”) and very forward looking (“cause we won’t be here this time next year/so while you can take a picture of us”), the strange paradox that leaving a place always provokes.

 

4. Nickel Creek, Rest of My Life

“The battle is over/Here we all lie/In a dry sea of Solo cups/With the sun in our eyes.” I love this whole album, of course, but the first verse of the first track, with lyrics by Chris Thile, cuts right to the heart of the moment. The lyrics start sardonic—definitely a glass-half-empty perspective on starting anew, but during the bridge at 2:00, with some orchestral chops that build tension, things begin to shift. As Thile stretches out the lines “I’m coming to, I’m turning myself into something a little less promising/A little more useful,” the harmonies move under him and resolve into a major tonality at 2:38, as Sean and Sara Watkins’ beautiful backing vocals kick in. Cynicism interspersed with brief moments of clarity and light.

 

5. The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

This song, hidden in the depths of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, was written about deceased band member Brian Jones, who died in 1969. Musically, it has a lot in common with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—slow piano intro that kicks into a gospel strut after about 3 seconds of reggae organ (00:58-1:01). It’s an almost uncharacteristically layered sound for the Stones, and the choir backing at 2:00 right before Mick Taylor’s guitar solo gives the whole thing a luxurious sonic feel. Lyrically, it contains what I think is the best blessing you can give someone. I use it for anyone who I don’t think I’ll see for a while, no matter what the circumstance. “May the good Lord shine a light on you/make every song your favorite tune.”