Monday, January 30, 2006

Once is delicious but twice would be vicious or just repetitious

A peerless composer and lyricist in the Broadway realm, Stephen Sondheim has been in the biz for over five decades, creating huge hit musicals that are continually revived. During his rocky childhood - his father abandoned him and his mother was clingy and smothering - he became a friend of the son of Oscar Hammerstein II (the musical giant behind such shows as Show Boat, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music), who was a profoundly influential mentor to Sondheim. After graduating from Williams College in 1950, he studied under the composer Milton Babbitt, known for his bold forays into electronic music.

Sondheim first found praise as a lyricist, penning West Side Story in his mid-twenties and Gypsy in 1959, and his first Broadway production as both a lyricist and composer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, opened in 1962. His next success was Company in 1970, centered on a bachelor's 35th birthday and his married friends, "middle class people with middle class problems" as Sondheim calls them. Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music (Merritt's 1973 entry on the list) was another hit, featuring one of Sondheim's most famous songs, "Send in the Clowns." Other productions include the gruesome Sweeney Todd from 1979, which is currently experiencing a revival, Sunday in the Park with George about the pointilist painter Georges Seurat, and the psychological fairy tales of Into the Woods from 1987.

One of the most well-known versions of "Send in the Clowns" is Barbra Streisand's take, and the title refers the circus practice of dispatching a team of clowns to distract the audience after something goes awry. Streisand was actually pursued by Merritt and Claudia Gonson to be a singer for the second 6ths album; Gonson said, "I wrote a lot of letters to Eartha Kitt and Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand, and I got a lot of responses that were kind but noncommittal." The second track this week is "I Never Do Anything Twice," originally written by Sondheim for the 1976 film about Sherlock Holmes, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (by the way, the title isn't an "I've solved it!" solution, but instead refers to a 7% cocaine, 93% saline solution.) The Three Terrors performed it as part of their "...Go Hollywood" show in April of 2001.

Barbra Streisand - "Send in the Clowns"
Julie Wilson - "I Never Do Anything Twice"

Monday, January 23, 2006

It was fun for a while, there was no way of knowing

Almost comically, Avalon is a notorious seduction aid, the musical equivalent of Spanish Fly: Any bachelor who plays it risks announcing his depraved intentions in neon letters, ALL CAPS.

- Rob Tannenbaum, Village Voice

Roxy Music's Avalon, Merritt's pick for 1982, is indeed a swanky album, and it's one of the few Roxy Music releases that doesn't feature a trashy woman on its cover. It makes one imagine white-tie affairs with socialites straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel mingling and having torrid, consequence-free trysts at beach houses on the French Riviera. It just oozes sophistication, with Bryan Ferry's suave voice singing unabashedly passionate lyrics like "I'd do anything to turn you on" (or, more smugly, "All the world, even you, should learn to love the way I do.") This world overlaps with Merritt's world, full of attractive and brooding people (see the cover of Get Lost), hopeless romantics who dance among chandeliers and avoid hard labor.

With an art school background, the group was formed in the early 70s by Bryan Ferry with a lineup that included Brian Eno, whose synth stylings added an experimental side to the band's glam rock. Eno was gone from the picture after two albums, and the outfit continued their furious pace of recording, releasing a total of five albums between 1972 and 1975. They gradually moved away from their rock tendencies, with more emphasis on soul, and by the time Flesh + Blood was released in 1980, their edge was practically gone. This led to the smoothness that is Avalon, the band's 8th and final studio album; after a tour to support that album, Bryan Ferry ended the group and focused on his solo career.

This week, we have two selections from Avalon, and it's an album that is hard to describe without making it sound like some insufferable adult contemporary release. True, it is lite rock, and it does feature saxophone flourishes, but they pull it off with taste and finesse.

Roxy Music - "More Than This"
Roxy Music - "Avalon"

Monday, January 16, 2006

Blue is my world now I'm without you

"I don't know why Whitney Houston doesn't do one of my songs. A lot of them are blank enough for her to play around with and have bland enough lyrics for the meaning to be in the singing rather than the lyrics, which is what she seems to demand from a song. I do that sort of thing pretty well, and I'm actually surprised that I haven't been taken up by that group of people."

That first sentence of Merritt's sounded a little flip back in 1998, with just a hint of indignation (although I have no doubt that he was being serious), but that was before 69 Love Songs and being signed to Nonesuch Records. Many indie-friendly bands have covered Merritt's songs, and a few of those groups were a bit more popular than the Magnetic Fields at the time, like Lush (who covered "I Have the Moon") and White Town (who covered "Famous"). However, Peter Gabriel's cover of "The Book of Love" (on the Shall We Dance? movie soundtrack album from 2004) is the first example of an artist that is significantly more well-known than Merritt tackling one of his songs. (And see this page for a rundown of some other recent and not-so-recent covers - add the Shins' live cover of "Strange Powers" to that list.)

As explained in this Wikipedia entry, "cover" songs were probably so named because decades ago, when a song became popular, other musicians would quickly release their own versions of the song to capitalize on its success, thus "covered" like a football carrier at the bottom of a pileup. The dynamics of the music business have, of course, changed substantially within the last hundred years, and whereas the "cash in" covers of the early-to-mid 20th century were based on a certain song's popularity, in the last few decades, such covers were often based on a certain artist's popularity.

For their Lonely Days EP, Future Bible Heroes recorded an English version of "Love Is Blue (L'Amour Est Bleu)", and it's somewhat astounding to read that in 1968, there were four different versions of that track on the charts, the most popular one being the non-vocal one by Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra. Time magazine analyzed this song back in 1968:

For those whose idea of an oldie is pre-rock 'n' roll, there is still hope. A record called "Love Is Blue" has become a hit without any of the ingredients that pop musicians have considered necessary for the past few years: the juggernaut beat, the vocalisthenic performance, and the strain of novelty. "Love Is Blue" is concocted according to an entirely different recipe. Its rocking rhythm cradles a plaintive, folklike melody swathed in lush strings and horns. It is an all-instrumental number, the first to become a bestseller since 1963.

(By the way, that forementioned instrumental bestseller was "Telstar" by the Tornados.)

"Love Is Blue" has three composition credits: André Popp (who composed the music), Pierre Cour (who wrote the French lyrics), and Brian Blackburn (who wrote the English lyrics). Popp was a French arranger, composer, and bandleader who made highly unusual spage-age pop in the 50s, using various tape manipulation techniques - comparisons to Esquivel are fair, as both had playful and bold arranging styles, and Popp also reminds me somewhat of Perrey and Kingsley (although Popp's work predates theirs), with their ever-changing sound effect-ridden pop madness. (This page and this page have a few brief Popp sound samples.)

Versions of "Love Is Blue" are plentiful, and this week, three renditions are featured. The forementioned version by Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra was a tremendous smash, staying at the #1 spot (USA charts) for five weeks. The proto-waif, whisper-voiced Claudine Longet, known for marrying Andy Williams and shooting a boyfriend, gives us a French language version, with a spoken English middle section. And finally, we have a version by Arthur Lyman, who played the vibes in Martin Denny's band and was a prolific and notable figure in 50s and 60s exotica.

Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra - "Love Is Blue"
Claudine Longet - "Love Is Blue (L'Amour Est Bleu)"
Arthur Lyman - "Love Is Blue"

By request, the Wild Stares track is back up:

The Wild Stares - "Babies Falling"

Monday, January 09, 2006

To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die

Morrissey is a bit of an easy target for mockery, being unabashedly effeminate and seemingly eternally sad, and I can't help but think of an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 where he emerges from a giant Tupperware container (to lock in pop star freshness) and says, "This is a song I wrote at a time of my life when I was...very, very sad. Breakfast, actually." He is, however, a fascinating songwriter, often channeling Oscar Wilde, who can tap into adolescent despair and loneliness like few others can, and his voice, high and pleasant, can deftly carry any melody he takes a stab at.

It's often mentioned that Morrissey attended the legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall show by the Sex Pistols in 1976 (recreated in the film 24 Hour Party People), but as documented in letters to various music mags, he wasn't really impressed with them. He much preferred the proto-punk New York Dolls and glam singer Jobriath. In 1982, he formed the Smiths with Johnny Marr, who gave the band its distinctive jangly guitar sound, and the group had an incredible five-year run of singles and albums on Rough Trade Records. There was a bit of friction between Morrissey and Marr, and's band bio says that Marr "...was frustrated with Morrissey's devotion to 60s pop and his hesitancy to explore new musical directions." After Marr left in 1987, Morrissey disbanded the Smiths and promptly started his solo career. Starting off with the pop-friendly Viva Hate, certainly easy on the ears of Smiths fans, he drifted into guitar rock territory (Your Arsenal) and even into prog rock for later releases.

In a review of Morrissey's album You Are the Quarry for the New York Times (alternate link here), Merritt called Morrissey "the best lyricist in rock," and there are obviously similarities between Merritt's "how utterly over-the-top depressing can I get?" songs and Morrissey's "nobody loves me and I want to die" songs. At one performance by the Magnetic Fields, Stephin and Claudia discussed how someone referred to one of their songs as being Morrissey-esque, and then one of them responded that "Summer Lies" had to be their most Morrissey-esque song, particularly the lyrics "hiding in my room, wasting away, cutting myself." And so this week, we feature Morrissey at his most Morrissey-esque, with two of his classics: the majestic, wistful "Everyday Is Like Sunday" (do notice, as that site's commentary points out, that it's "everyday" and not "every day") and one of the ultimate morbid pop songs, "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out."

Morrissey - "Everyday Is Like Sunday"
The Smiths - "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"

Monday, January 02, 2006

I'm on my way and I won't turn back

Folk singer and guitarist Odetta turned 75 this last New Year's Eve, and there's a 51 year span between her first album from 1954, and her latest, Gonna Let It Shine, released a few months ago. In those five decades, she's blown minds with her powerful voice and influenced many notables in the folk music biz, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan; Odetta gave Dylan encouragement early in his career (before he was in NYC), and her album Sings Ballads and Blues inspired him to switch from an electric to an acoustic guitar. Stephinfans know Odetta from her astounding (and markedly non-indie) singing for the 6ths track "Waltzing Me All the Way Home"; her voice demands attention, being commanding and husky yet elegant. In an interview for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Merritt recalled witnessing the recording session:

"I think I actually cried at the recording session because it was so unexpectedly beautiful. Hearing Odetta sing my song for the first time was like hearing an orchestra play my symphony for the first time, I imagine."

And in an interview for NY Blade, Merritt explained Odetta's unique interpretation of the song:

"She told me that she saw the song ‘Waltzing Me All the Way Home’ as being about two gay black soldiers in World War II, which is completely different from what I thought of the song being about. I don’t generally think of my characters in visual terms so I didn’t have any race in mind. I also don’t really think of singers in visual terms."

Merritt has admired Odetta for a long time, as she (along with Jefferson Airplane) performed at the first concert he ever attended, and in the 69LS interview booklet, Merritt named her as one of the great vocalists in the pantheon. At one of the Magnetic Fields performances at Town Hall in NYC in 2004, Claudia Gonson placed a copy of Odetta's At Town Hall album at the front of the stage; apparently, they saw it for sale by a street vendor that very day and took that as a good omen. *(see footnote)

"Gallows Tree" (a.k.a. "Gallows Pole") is a tense song from the point of view of a person trying to stall his own death by pleading with the hangman. It's a traditional song that was included in Leadbelly's repertoire, but I'm partial to Odetta's version (from her 1957 album At the Gate of Horn), which demonstrates her impressive guitar chops. (By the way, the person playing bass on that song is Bill Lee, film director Spike Lee's father.) Odetta's "Spiritual Trilogy" comes from the forementioned Sings Ballads and Blues album from 1956, and it's a stirring medley, to say the least. By the time she gets to "I'm on My Way," she's practically barking out the words, passionately, and she ends each sustained note with an exhausted wilt - it gives me the shivers every time.

Odetta - "Gallows Tree (Gallows Pole)"
Odetta - "Spiritual Trilogy: Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I'm on My Way"

Note: just so it won't be startling news when the time comes, I'm going to be wrapping this blog up probably at the one year mark - around Valentine's Day. While theoretically I could write about every last artist Merritt has ever mentioned, I feel like I've kept things fairly relevant so far to the task of unlocking his tastes and influences. I have artists picked out for the last six weeks, but if any of you have some suggestions or requests, I'd be happy to read them.

* footnote added 1/9/06: my remembrance was somewhat incorrect. Here are my notes from soon after the performance:
Stephin brought a copy of an Odetta album (a live performance at Town Hall!) and displayed it in front of him. He said that someone bought it on the street for him that day.