Top 5 New(ly Discovered) Christmas Songs of 2014


Hey! I haven't been blogging at ALL. Sorry! It's been a weird few months but I'm feeling back in the groove again.

I'd have to say that tied with decor and food, music is my favorite part of the Christmas season. My tastes in Christmas music have shifted a bit over the past two years, from more classic genres of Motown, Big Band, or pop, to a more bluegrass and mediaeval choral arena. Of course I'm happy to hear most all Christmas music (though some song featuring Larry the Cable Guy came on the radio the other day and I became eager to offer whatever help I could to any of the south's renewed attempts to secede), but when I'm especially wanting to feel connected to the holiday both spiritually and nostalgically, the bluegrass and choral music has been just the ticket.

All of the following songs are one's I've only just discovered (or really begun to appreciate) this year. You may have loved them for ages, which makes me jealous, because they're only now in constant rotation for me.

1) First up is "Light of the Stable." Written in 1975 by Steve and Elizabeth Rhymer. The version I discovered was on Ricky Scagg's album, A Scagg's Family Christmas, Vol. 2. I'm not sure who does the vocals for it, but when I first heard it I was not super impressed with their voices. But the more I listened to it, the more the song felt homey and cozy in its non-grandeur. It feels like a song I would like to sing around a campfire at a non-crazy Christian camp. Like an awesome, progressive, hippie-dippie Christian camp. I came to find out that the most famous version of this song is probably the one by Emmylou Harris, who even named her Christmas album after it. When I found out her backing vocals are by none other than Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young, I thought, "Oh, this version must be the best." But honestly, the backing vocals don't feel warm and close to me, instead they feel ghostly and distant. I want to hear this song sung in a casual, intimate space, not in a cathedral. So here's Ricky Scaggs' family version, my preferred:

2) Next up is "The Wexford Carol," a traditional Irish carol. Technically I've heard it for years sung by Julie Andrews, but it wasn't until this year that I feel I really heard it for the first time, and now I'M OBSESSED. I've scoured iTunes for as many versions as possible, and hum it to myself regularly. Julie's is gorgeous, but I've found more covers that leave me just as thrilled. I adore The Chieftains with Nanci Griffith (stirring) as well as Judy Collins (glorious), but the one I'm posting is no shocker--it's the #1 downloaded version on iTunes. It's Alison Krauss with Yo-Yo Ma, and I swear it's like her voice was made to sing this carol. It feels powerful, ancient and mystical.

3) I love the Nutcracker Suite, and always love to have it in my Christmas mixes. About a month ago I heard a Bluegrass-jazz version of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I never knew I needed a banjo playing this song, but now I don't know how I ever lived without one.

4) Perhaps the most modern song I've adopted into my playlist is a cover of a Melissa Manchester song by The Indigo Girls: "There's Still My Joy." Every Christmas I hope to find a new "Blue Christmas" song--one that embodies the grief and heartache that this season can hold alongside the celebration. Well, when I heard this one for the first time it knocked my socks off like Tracey Thorn's "Joy" did last year.

I brought my tree down to the shore
The garland the silver star
To find my peace and grieve no more
To heal this place inside my heart

5) Finally I end with another carol that I've heard for years, but now listen to as often as I do to, say, "Carol of the Bells" or "O Holy Night." I love it because it's a weird carol, as it follows an apocryphal narrative about Mary and Joseph. It's been called "Joseph and Mary" but I know it as "The Cherry Tree Carol." It tells the story of Mary and Joseph hanging out in a cherry orchard and Mary tells Joseph she's pregnant, and that she'd like him to pick her some cherries. He gets pissed and says, "Let the father of your baby pick you cherries, you slut!" (Ok, he doesn't call her a slut but it's very implied.)  Then Jesus the FETUS talks to the cherry trees and tells them to lower their branches for Mary, which she awesomely rubs in Joseph's face by saying "I have cherries at command, you asshole!" (Again, everything but the asshole bit is in there.)

Now, my favorite version stops the story there, but other ones then go on to have Joseph humbled and sit Mary on his knee to ask when the baby's birthday will be (or Mary's birthday? It's not always clear to me), and in a shocking turn of events, the baby replies January 6th instead of December 25th! Is that a pagan thing? I don't know. But I LOOOVE this carol. Some excellent versions include Natalie Merchant's of 10,000 Maniacs with Elizabeth Mitchell and Joan Baez's (I mean, all of her Christmas stuff is gold). But my favorite version is the one I've known the longest, Peter, Paul and Mary's performance from their Holiday Celebration (1988), which of course you've seen, because you've never celebrated Christmas properly unless you've watched it.

Why I Love Pumpkins


Because they roll into town on the backs of trucks
with a loud, orange
tomatoes, apples, and melons
moving from the market stalls
to make way for their huge invasion.

Because the grocers pile them row on row
with the same skill that builds stone fences.

Because this fall for the first time, living
as I now do farther south, I saw
a whole field, pumpkins tumbling
to the horizon and doubling back,
and I had to stop the car to stare
as if I'd come upon a herd of deer.

Because they are more accurate than calendars or clocks.

Because of the grin some mother or father
carves for a child. The nose,
the triangular eyes that look at you
as if they know your face.

Because a candle flickers inside inside their heads
like memory
striking its paper matches and blowing them out.

Because they are the last
of autumn's light, the last to ripen,
an explosion, a contradiction of
colour in the colourless fields.

Because their flowers are deep yellow,
because their five-lobed leaves resemble hearts,
because pumpkinseed is also
the name of a fresh-water
fish resembling perch and the name of a type
of sailing boat.
Because you can therefore travel on a pumpkinseed
across any kind of water, or holding it to your ear,
hear the secrets of the sea.

Because the OED says, "A single pumpkin could furnish
a fortnight's pottage."

Because they are not a vegetable
for the delicate, the weak-hearted.
When you knock on their doors, someone
might answer, beckon you inside.

Because they are moons defeated by gravity,

hugging the earth in their orbits, as we do,
dust to dust. Because in soups and pies
and thick slices of pumpkin bread,

we taste what they know of time.

Because of the small distances
they travel on their trailing vines.

Because they float just above the earth
like lighted buoys marking the safest entrance
to the harbour.

Because the deer, born in the spring,
return to the pumpkin fields
after the harvest,
and are lost,
though they nibble with their soft mouths
the broken shells left on the ground
and slowly
find their way.

Because the first snow falls,
the first snow falls,
into the huge silence
the pumpkins leave in the fields.

- Lorna Crozier (x)


#165: Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and The Attractions


Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and The Attractions (1982)

Favorite Tracks: "Beyond Belief" and "Tears Before Bedtime" and "Shabby Doll" and "Man Out of Time" and "Almost Blue" and "...And In Every Home" and "Human Hands" and "Kid About It" and "Boy with a Problem" and "Pidgin English" and "You Little Fool" and "Town Cryer"

Thoughts: WOW. I like Elvis Costello, but I was a little bummed to have another of his albums when I JUST listened to him at #167. But after Metallica, I decided I should count my blessings, as it were. So I half-heartedly queued up the album's first track, "Beyond Belief", and GOOD LORD. I had to listen to it another 6 times before moving on to the next track. It knocked my socks off. The soft, quick singing as the song builds and builds. What a great start to an album--one of the strongest I've experienced when hearing a song for the first time. I couldn't wait to see what the rest of the album held in store.

"Tears Before Bedtime" was less impactful, but it was still a fun and groovy listen. It reminded me vaguely of Prince. "Shabby Doll" was just alright until at about the minute mark the piano came in and then I LOVED it. "The Long Honeymoon" was a nice song, but I kept being distracted by the wire percussion brushes in my left headphone. They sound just like a cat kicking in a litter box.

"Man Out of Time" has more killer piano, and a great building sound as well. "Almost Blue" is a classic sad song, apparently inspired by Chet Baker's version of "The Thrill is Gone." Almost me, almost you, almost blue.

Side 1 ends with "...And in Every Home," full of fun horns and orchestrations. Side two opens with upbeat "The Loved Ones" and then comes the romantic "Human Hands" which had me rocking my head and once again enjoying the piano part. "Kid About It" also had a great intimacy about it with the volume fluctuations of Elvis' singing. The next stand-out track was "Pidgin English"--a complex and fun song that reminded me of Bowie, doo-wop, late 60s Beatles (the horns), and features Elvis singing in several types of voices. Give it a listen! It's shocking that it wasn't released as a single.

The album ends with a bang: "Town Cryer", a piano and orchestra-laden masterpiece. Seriously, check out this album.

Is This Better Than Every Picture Tells A Story?: Certainly as good!

You can get killed just for living in your American skin

I'm terrible at keeping up with the news but this month many of my friends brought attention and voices of outrage to the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, as well as the brutal mistreatment of peaceful protesters that has followed. I don't feel like I have anything to add to the conversation that hasn't already been better said by others about racism and police militarization in America...But that doesn't mean I will be silent. I want to boost the voices of those affected and shed light on this and other travesties of justice.

This weekend driving in my car Bruce Springsteen's song "41 Shots (American Skin)" came on. Written following the brutal shooting of unarmed street peddler Amadou Diallo by the NYPD, I heard it for the first time in the recording of Live in New York City Madison Square Garden concerts. He has since played it at several concerts in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. In 2012 he released a studio version of the song on his album High Hopes.

41 shots
And we'll take that ride
'cross this bloody river
to the other side
41 shots
I got my boots caked in this mud
We're baptized in these waters
and in each other's blood

Is it a gun
Is it a knife
Is it a wallet
This is your life
It ain't no secret
No secret, my friend
You can get killed just for living in
your American skin

"We think music is a great place to start the healing."


I thought I'd share with you all something that I've been thinking (and crying) about recently. In April I had my dear friend Brie over for dinner. We got Indian take-out, watched Broad City, and caught up. During our conversations she brought up that her roommate had attended a concert for The Angel Band Project, a group of musicians who raise awareness and money for victims of sexual violence. Brie knows I love Broadway, and she mentioned that one of the musicians was a famous Broadway star. Through a quick process of elimination we figured out that it was one of my all-time favorite actors, Norbert Leo Butz. Norbert formed the group with siblings and friends in honor of his sister, Teresa. In 2009 she and her partner were violently attacked and sexually assaulted in their Seattle home. Teresa did not survive.

I had no knowledge of the crime, much less its connection to Butz. That evening I decided to burn the soundtrack to The Last 5 Years and Norbert's songs from Wicked onto a CD for Brie (yes, I still burn CDs), but after it finished I forgot to give it to her! So for the last few months it's been playing in my car. Hearing his voice kept reminding me of this musical project/foundation, and so I decided to google the Angel Band Project. Not only had they given concerts, but had also released a benefit album, so I headed to iTunes and bought two songs, one called "Take You With Me" and Norbert's song "Goodbye." (UPDATE: guess what song I heard on my iPod being sung by Patty Griffin? This one. I'm assuming she wrote it, but I have to say I like Norbert's version better.)

I love them both, but after only one listen the melody and lyrics of "Goodbye" haunted me. I feel it so powerfully conveys the specific grief and confusion of losing someone far too soon and under tragic circumstances.

Occurred to me the other day
that you've been gone now a couple years
I guess it finally takes a while
for someone to really disappear

and I remember where I was 
when the word came about you
it was a day much like today
the sky was wide and high and blue

And I wonder where you are
if the pain ends when you die
and I wonder if there was
some better way to say goodbye

Today my heart is big and sore
It's trying to bust right through my skin
I won't see you anymore
I guess that's finally sinking in

Early last week I decided I wanted to find out more about Teresa and how she died. I found several articles written by Eli Sanders of Seattle's The Stranger, including one on Teresa's partner's court testimony, (WARNING: very graphic) "The Bravest Woman in Seattle," all of which he ended up winning a Pulitzer prize for. Norbert was actually in Seattle that summer premiering a new musical that he would end up winning a Tony for his role in, Catch Me if You Can.

Today on tumblr I came across a Commencement speech Norbert gave in 2013 at his alma mater, Webster University, where he talked about the Angel Band Project, and how in his career he now refuses to take roles in projects that use violence against women for entertainment's sake.

(Norbert begins talking about his sister at 10:20. Here is an excerpt transcript that takes place from 15:11-19:47)

"One is apt to freeze or shrug one's shoulders, in a gesture, 'what can I do?' And I say to you Webster graduates of 2013: plenty. It can start with this simple idea: when watching your favorite television show, or building a queue on Netflix, or heading to the AMC multiplex, or downloading games or films or web series or even just channel surfing at 2AM from your sofa...say 'No!' to violence against women in so-called "entertainment." Change the channel at the very least. Write the producers, the writers, the creatives of violent, exploitative imagery and let them know it's not allowed in your home.  
I have also done some work in TV and films and just last year I finally took a stand with my agents and manager: I will not audition for material that uses the rape, mutilation, or murder of a woman for the purpose of adding suspense to a plot, to tease or titillate an audience when a narrative gets boring. Guess what? I had to turn down almost all the scripts I received. Because the fact remains women worldwide are still thought to be the inferiors of men. And their bodies--especially the bodies of the young and the poor--are believed to be made for the sole purpose of enhancing the power or the pleasure or a twisted combination of the two--of men. This deep-seated oppression must end. We all know it must end. And you, as college graduates, literally know better. Your degrees are proof that you have been taught to know better. To recognize oppression, and call it what it is. To treat all humans with dignity and respect, to empower your fellow man and your fellow woman. 
I have 3 daughters as well, 2 of whom are teenagers. Both of whom have had to deal with unwanted sexual innuendos from boys in the halls of their public middle and high schools. Both of whom who have been groped or grabbed in their public school cafeterias. I cannot afford to be ambivalent about the issue of sexual violence. When 1 in 4 women will be the victim of an unwanted sexual assault on a college campus, and I have three daughters, I'm guessing I'm a lucky man not to have had one more. If I had one more I suppose I'd really be sad. I don't sleep well with that math. These are my girls, my babies. This is what they will deal with as women in the culture. 'What are you going to do about it, dad?' That's a question for all dads, and future dads out there. And moms. And boyfriends, and husbands.  
What are you going to do? How are you going to treat the women in your lives? How are you going to help end the culture of violence against women on television? In music? In homes and public parks and backseats of cars all over America. In brothels in India and Cambodia, in villages in Africa, in dorm rooms and Greek houses and libraries at our best colleges and universities? If nothing else it's a question well worth your time. 
And to the women out there, those of you who are survivors, but silent. Those of you who have become discouraged with the system that routinely practices an inequitable distribution of justice, freeing rapists for political reasons or because monetary privilege allows them to buy the law, and victimizing women a second time, making them relive deep humiliations and traumas in court rooms to satisfy defenders, or judges, or juries. You're not alone. The Angel Band Project shares your grief. We share your fear. But we also offer validation, hope. We think music is a great place to start the healing."

Song of the day.


you know you've done enough when every bone is sore
you know you've prayed enough when you don't ask any more
you know you're coming to some kind of understanding 
when every dream you've dreamed has passed and you're still standing

#167: My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello


My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello (1977)

Favorite Tracks: "Welcome to the Working Week" and "Miracle Man" and "Blame it On Cain" and "Alison" and "Less Than Zero" and "Pay It Back"

Thoughts: The last time we listened to Elvis was back in 2011 for #474! I love when an artist picks a lyric from one of their songs instead of the song's title for the album name. It particularly makes sense in this case because "Alison"--the song's title, wouldn't make a lot of sense for the album's name. (Unless of course all the songs are written about/for her.) A sort of similar example is an Elton John remix album I learned about from QuizUp (I'm obsessed AND contributing content!) called Good Morning to the Night--a lyric from his song "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." The point is, I love that the album's name is My Aim is True, and it's Elvis' debut album. Pitchfork reported it to be "held by many as the most impressive debut in pop music history."

The album opens with the fun and quick "Welcome to the Working Week." Side 1 continues with other classic rock/punk/50s-style tracks, most of which reminded me of early Springsteen, so of course I loved them. Track 5 is one of the best ballads of all time: "Alison." My first exposure to this song came from one of my favorite albums, Acoustic by Everything But the Girl. I recently finished reading Tracey Thorn's autobiography, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, and she only mentions the album in passing, not even by name! I was disappointed, but if it's not an album she wants to be associated with, there's nothing I can do about it. It takes up a huge part in my emotional and musical life. Elvis' original version on this album is great, more instrumental and confident. Everything But the Girl's version chooses to take the ultimately condescending lyrics and turn it into a desperate love song to a former lover. I think hearing the lyrics sung by a woman to another woman vastly shaped my initial impressions of the song, versus a man to a woman. The way she sings "I'm not gonna get too sentimental like those other sticky valentines / cause I don't know if you were loving somebody / I only know it isn't mine" comes off as much more melancholy than jealous.

I could listen to this version on repeat forever.

Side 1 ends with peppy "Sneaky Feelings" and keeps rocking into Side 2's "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." The next track was the first single off the album, "Less Than Zero," which while about a fascist, has a very fun lyric-less chorus. Elvis was asked by his record label to play it on Saturday Night Live (after the Sex Pistols couldn't get visas) and he started it live, but 10 seconds later addressed the audience saying there's "no reason for us to be playing this here" (the song is about a British politician) and they began playing "Radio, Radio" (a song from his second album, This Year's Model, which had not been officially released in the US yet). He was then banned from the show until 1989 (the song change threw off the scheduling for the rest of the live show).

Is This Better Than Every Picture Tells A Story?: Tough call. Just as good I would say.

#168: Exodus by Bob Marley & The Wailers


Exodus by Bob Marley & The Wailers (1977)

Favorite Tracks: "Natural Mystic" and "Exodus" and "Jamming" and "Waiting in Vain" and "Turn Your Lights Down Low" and "Three Little Birds" and "One Love/People Get Ready"

Thoughts: I believe this is our 3rd Marley album, after Burnin' at #315 and Natty Dread at #180. Exodus was recorded in London after a failed assassination attempt on Bob's life, which lead to his leaving Jamaica.

This album is considered by many to be the record that launched Bob's international stardom. I found the record listing to be extraordinary in that all the big hits are on one side of the album, side B:

Side A
 1. "Natural Mystic"
 2. "So Much Things to Say"
 3. "Guiltiness"
 4. "The Heathen"
 5. "Exodus"

Side B:
 6. "Jamming"
 7. "Waiting in Vain"
 8. "Turn Your Lights Down Low"
 9. "Three Little Birds"
 10."One Love/People Get Ready"

It's a bit strange, right? Usually the hits are more mixed up around the album. (I mean, I know "Exodus" is also a hit, but it's even at the end of side A, closest to side B!) Track #9, if you'll remember, is one of my desert island discs.

Also, the "Waiting in Vain" cover by Annie Lennox is one of my favorites.

Is This Better Than Every Picture Tells a Story?: I would say as good.

It's warm outside, so I want some barefoot Carly Simon.


Song of the day.


"Acid Tongue" by Jenny Lewis.

to be lonely is a habit
like smoking or taking drugs
and I've quit them both
but man was it rough

#169: Live at Leeds by The Who


Live at Leeds by The Who (1970)

Favorite Tracks: "Young Man Blues" and "Summertime Blues" and "Shakin' All Over" and "My Generation" and "Magic Bus"

Thoughts: (Pre-listening) This is our 3rd Who album! We've heard Quadrophenia and The Who Sings My Generation, and I'm impressed that a Who live album I've never heard of has made it so close to #1. I mean, I've never claimed to be hardcore Who fan. It's not because I don't want to be, but because I have yet to put in the time/work/energy. But I imagine it's only a matter of time. For now, I'm excited to see why this live album gets such a prestigious ranking...

The Rolling Stone website says "there's no finesse, just the pure power of a band able to play as loud as it wants." And according to wikipedia, New York Times music critic Nik Cohn calls it the "definitive hard-rock holocaust" and "the best live rock album ever made." No pressure!  Let's turn it up.

(Post-Listening) The album opens with "Young Man Blues" and gets things rolling. One youtube commenter said: "I think this song was described as, "What happens when your bassist, drummer and guitarist all play lead at the same time," and it's true. Everyone is giving their all from the get-go. I turned up the volume as loud as I felt was more-or-less safe for my ears is just pure rock.

Next up is one of Pete Townshend's songs (I will always want to spell it 'Townsend'), "Substitute," which has a much more 60s pop feel. Next is their cover of "Summertime Blues" with gives the song more energy than I think I've ever heard it have. And of course in each of these songs I can just picture Pete shredding and Roger's golden locks whipping around the mike. Next is another cover, "Shakin' All Over" (which reminds me that The Who have a song called "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand" whose lyrics I've tried not to ever read too deeply into). This is the first song where Roger's vocals really seemed to take center stage and demand attention away from the instruments.

On a side note, as far as live recordings go, the crowd was either very reserved and respectful during the songs or the sound mixer/engineer did an unbelievable job just getting music to show up on the tracks.

Side B opens with a fourteen minute and thirty second version of "My Generation." I wasn't sure how it wouldn't get annoying after a few minutes, but they tricked me by adding in a song from Tommy mid-way through: "See Me, Feel Me." At about 4 minutes and then again at 6 minutes in, there's beautiful guitar solos that took my breath (ears?) away. So really it's more of a medley than just "My Generation" but it's the kind of live track you could see people starting a church as a result of hearing it.

The crowd finally seems to get rowdy (or we finally hear their rowdiness) in the last track, "Magic Bus." We can hear them clapping and yelling along with the woodblock (right?) that opens the song. This is, I believe, my first time hearing "Magic Bus" and it is a freaking fun song, and excellent track to end the album on. I love hearing Pete and Roger sing back and forth with each other.

Is This Better Than Every Picture Tells a Story?: Since it's a live album and not original work, I won't compare the two. Suffice to say, it rocked my socks and shoes and pretty much everything else off. I highly recommend a listen or three!

Counting Sheep


one morning you will still
be asleep and
I will awaken you
take you to a country we've never
before seen together
and by dusk we'll swear
this is where
we've always been and everything
is the same
your clumsy French or Spanish
and the waiters laughing
the footbridge where light
paints the water
tower a peculiar shade of orange
and I'll try on rhymes
that fail to capture the hues
the smell the salt
"orange" you will
say "never
rhymes" and just before we turn
in for the night
I'll kiss you once for luck
another for no reason
and we'll go back to sleep
into dreams
that no longer keep us awake

- Colleen J. McElroy, from Here I Throw Down My Heart

#170: The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds


The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds (1968)

Favorite Tracks: "Goin' Back" and "Wasn't Born to Follow" and "Get to You"

Thoughts: I've finished reading Graham Nash's Wild Tales. In the past I've stated more than once on this blog that Graham Nash is my favorite member of CSNY, and I need to retract that statement now that I've read his memoir. Even though this is a Byrds album, I'm not here to declare the new favorite is David Crosby. Far from it. Neil Young--despite his grumpiness and flaky devotion to the quartet--is now the best of the group in my mind. Not that it's a competition. I used to think "Gosh, why couldn't Neil keep it together and stick with the band?" Now I know why.

This is actually the album during which Crosby left (or was fired) from The Byrds, which made more sense when I realized that he wasn't in the cover photo. (Apparently the other band members have denied that the horse represents Crosby. Don't you think it looks photo-shopped in? I do.) Despite his dismissal/departure mid-production of the album, 3 of his recorded songs made the final cut.

Maybe if I read a memoir by Crosby himself I would like him better, but that certainly hasn't been the result of reading Wild Tales. Nash talks about admiring the fact that (adult content ahead) he once walked in on Crosby getting a 'job' from two women at once. The whole book treats the women in these men's lives like shit. (Except for Joni, which I appreciate. Graham refuses to say a bad thing about her, which I didn't expect but really respect.) Not to mention the endless amounts of hard drugs and huge egos that makes one imagine how any music got made at all.

Anyway, the Byrds. I know very little about this band, aside from "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)" covers I heard growing up with the Oldies station in my hometown (neither of which are on this album). It looks like this record is during the psychedelic stage of the band's discography, though I didn't really get that vibe until the 3rd track in, "Natural Harmony."

There's a song called "Dolphin's Smile" by Crosby which from the title sounds like it should be right up my alley, but really I wasn't that into it. It felt like a parody of 60s folk pop. The album ends with the trippy "Space Odyssey," overall leaving me quite unimpressed and uninterested with this album.

Is This Better Than Every Picture Tells A Story?: Not even close!

#171: Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart


Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart (1971)

Favorite Tracks: "Every Picture Tells a Story" and "Seems A Long Time" and "Amazing Grace" and "Tomorrow is a Long Time" and "Maggie May" and "Mandolin Wind" and "Reason to Believe"

Thoughts: Rod Stewart Feels Sequence BEGIN! This is the only Rod Stewart album on the list (travesty) so I've got to blow my whole Rod wad in this post. You should know I really enjoyed coming up with that last sentence.

First off: I'm glad that if only one Rod Stewart album makes it on the list, it's the one with "Maggie May." Second, both the album title and cover are kick-ass. Finally, FUCK YES IT'S AT #171. Damn straight.

As with most 60s/70s greats, I can attribute my appreciation to my folks. It's rare for my dad to give me a mix CD without a Rod Stewart song on it. We continue to disagree over which version of "Ooh La La" is better to this day, and he remains in Rod's side of the court, while I stand by Ronnie Lane's vocals. At this point it's no longer about which one is better sung, it's more about standing our ground. :)

I should confess that I am not a die hard Rod Stewart fan. I'm glad he's had such a long, illustrious career, but let's just say that when my dad and I were in Vegas in November, we mutually agreed to skip on seeing Rod at Caesar's Palace. It goes like this:

60s Rod: Like Like
70s Rod: LOVE
80s Rod: We're Cool
90s Rod: Not Bad
00s: Meh
10s: Meh-er

There aren't many artists that keep my interest musically once they're into their 60s and beyond. I know that is very ageist of me, but between their aging voices and song/production choices, their later work is rarely my 'thing.' Rod fits in this pattern. Old Rod Stewart doesn't do it for me like old Springsteen, ya know? But young Rod Stewart scares me. Sexually.

So let's get started! Before we get to the album, let's just take a moment to begin this Rod Stewart LoveFest with a YouTube video I only recently discovered (on Twitter) from 1970 of Rod singing "Gasoline Alley" (from his second solo album) a capella in Berlin:

I mean, COME ON.

Ok, to the album. For starters, "Every Picture Tells a Story" delivers. At 3:33 the music holds back to just Rod harmonizing with himself (on two separate tracks of course) and the acoustic guitar with a touch of percussion. It's just thrilling. TURN. IT. UP.

"Seems Like a Long Time" is soulful and ends with amazing backing vocals from what seems like a choir but according to the wikipedia page was only 3 people. "That's Alright" has a fun country guitar opening, and it makes sense because this song, written by Arthur Crudup, is best known for its Elvis version (which is how I recognized it as well).

When I saw that "Amazing Grace" was the next track on the album, I confess I was skeptical. As much as I love Rod, it's hard to imagine him bringing anything new or different to this song. It opens with a lovely steel (?) guitar intro. Of course once Rod started singing (and he only does the first verse) it couldn't be ignored. He sang in a higher key that really brings out the scratchiest of emotional tones from his range.

The final track on side one is a cover of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time." It is...perfect. The violin, the guitar, the singing. Perfect, perfect, perfect.

Side two opens with a short instrumental acoustic piece called "Henry." But THEN comes the musical intro for one of the greatest songs of all time: "Maggie May." Some say "Henry" was meant to be incorporated into the full track of "Maggie May" but I just find it sort of pointless. The musical intro to "Maggie May" is more than enough to start off the second side, in my opinion. Anyway. MAGGIE FUCKING MAY.

This is the first 'old' song of Rod Stewart's 'young' years that I got to know. Introduced to me by my dad, it remains in my top 5 mandolin songs, and easily in my top 100 songs of all time. It's based on Rod's real life experience with an older woman. I know all the lyrics by heart, and they're a blast to sing along to, particularly:

 I laughed at all of your jokes, my love you didn't need to coax
Oh Maggie, I couldn't have tried any more

The mandolin solo, originally performed on the album by Ray Jackson of the band Lindisfarne, is sublime. The whole song from start to finish is a classic rock masterpiece. The song reached #1 in the UK and US, even though it was originally pressed as the B side for "Reason to Believe."

Apparently a lot of people feel that the next track, "Mandolin Wind" (also written by Rod), is just as good as "Maggie May." I'm new to the song, so it doesn't hold the same emotional pull on me at first listen. But Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic calls the song "unbearably poignant." So I gave it some more time. It's not catchy in the way "Maggie May" is, but it is much sweeter and more vulnerable.

Oh, I never was good with romantic words
so the next few lines come really hard
Don't have much but what I've got is yours
except of course, my steel guitar
Ha, 'cause I know you don't play
but I'll teach you one day
because I love ya

I intend to listen to keep listening to it. The next track, "(I Know) I'm Losing You" is a fun, fast-paced rock cover of the Motown hit with an excellent drum solo at the end by Kenney Jones. All good things must end, so the album finishes with "Reason to Believe." The piano intro alone is unforgettable. Then Rod, the organ, the violin. You may remember I mentioned Rod's version when The Carpenters covered it at #174. His is the definitive cover in my opinion. The vocal solo! A total classic.

Is This Better Than Desire?: Oh yeah.

Song of the day.


"Ain't It Fun" by Paramore.

Ain't it fun living in the real world
Ain't it good being all alone

#172: Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren (1972)


Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren (1972)

Favorite Tracks: "I Saw the Light" and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" and "Wolfman Jack" and "Cold Morning Light" and "It Takes Two to Tango (This Is For the Girls)" and "Song of the Viking" and "Black Maria" and "One More Day (No Word)" and "Torch Song" and "Little Red Lights" and "Hello, It's Me"

Thoughts: (Before Listening:) Straight talk: I've always sort of dismissed Todd Rundgren as a soft rock pop idol from the 70s. I didn't really think anyone took his music very seriously. Now, that's not to say I won't enjoy his stuff considering my other well-known love affairs with less-than-punk or widely respected musical artists. So imagine my surprise when the characters on That 70s Show wanted to go to a Todd Rundgren concert! They usually had such excellent music taste. So maybe Todd Rundgren was ok after all.  I'm glad he's on the list so I can decide for myself.

"I didn't think you'd be interested in Todd Rundgren. I mean, like you said, he's no Frampton."

(After Listening:) Many of the first few songs were soft rock love ballads (which I have a weakness for--particularly from the 70s), but some songs actually rocked out nicely, like "Wolfman Jack."

Amusingly, Todd opens the second side of the album with a track called "Intro", wherein he proceeds to walk the listener through various kinds of 'studio sounds.' His narration (I'm assuming it's him) reminds me of the voice of Jesus. This Jesus in particular:

"John, you drank too much wine the other night. Not way too much, just enough to make me angry."

Now, I am super impressed that Todd could create a 25 track album this good when he was only 24. I'm less impressed that he was 24 and thought it was ok to write a love song to a (real or imaginary) 17 year old with "Marlene." Eww.

But despite being in another universe than Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," Todd's "Song of the Viking" is quite fun. I really liked "Black Maria" but in fairness it should really be called "Black Mariah," considering that's how he pronounces the name. "One More Day (No Word)" reminded me of a less-Jimmy-Buffett-esque Jimmy Buffett song.  I was shocked to discover I don't actually recognize the biggest hit, "Hello, It's Me."  I'm sure I've heard it before, but for whatever reason it never took hold in my conscious or subconscious. I'd lay the blame on someone, but it's not that great of a song, so it's fine.

What's less fine is the final track on the album: "Slut." It has the charming lyric, "She may be a slut but she looks good to me." Charming. Also there's lyrics regarding someone 'putting up a fight' but 'losing tonight.' I reaaaaaally hope that this supposed 'slut' is not the person he's referring to. Yuck. Made the album end on a very sour note for me.

Is This Better Than Desire?: Nope, but I did like it. Most of it.

All Possible Pain


Feelings seem like made-up things,
though I know they're not.
I don't understand why they lead me
around, why I can't explain to the cop
how the pot got in my car,
how my relationship
with god resembled that
of a prisoner and firing squad
and I how felt after I was shot.
Because then, the way I felt
was feelingless. I had no further
problems with authority.
I was free from the sharp
tongue of the boot of life,
from its scuffed leather toe.
My heart broken like a green bottle
in a parking lot. My life a parking lot,
ninety-eight degrees in the shade
but there is no shade,
never even a sliver.
What if all possible
pain was only the grief of truth?
The throb lingering
only in the exit wounds
though the entries were the ones
that couldn't close. As if either of those
was the most real of an assortment
of realities--existing, documented,
hanging like the sentenced
under the one sky's roof.
But my feelings, well,
they had no such proof.

- Brenda Shaughnessy, Paris Review, Fall 2011

#173: Desire by Bob Dylan


Desire by Bob Dylan (1976)

Favorite Tracks: "Hurricane" and "Mozambique" and "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" and "Oh, Sister" and "Joey" and "Romance in Durango" and "Black Diamond Bay" and "Sara"

Thoughts: It's 2014! Let's get back on track! This is, I believe, our 5th Dylan album, and the last one we heard was at #288 with The Band and The Basement Tapes.

The first song on Desire starts out with intense energy: "Hurricane." With "Isis" we have another Dylan song where I could not recognize his voice. I've had the same issue in the past with "Lay Lady Lay"! "Mozambique" was also a less obvious Dylan song, with smoother, pop-style vocals. I loved it immediately.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Emmylou Harris doing backing vocals for most of the songs, particularly for the haunting "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" and the eerily-similar-in-sound-to-The-Band's-"The-Weight": "Oh, Sister." Did "Romance in Durango" remind me of ABBA's "Fernando"? Only a little bit! Strangely they were both released in 1976 and could have been recorded within days of each other.

"Black Diamond Bay" was fun and sweet--I loved the strings. The album ends with "Sara", one of Dylan's more personal songs about his then-wife. She filed for divorce a year later, and the song is just so lovely and sad. Over the course of the song he calls her (besides her name): sweet virgin angel, love of my life, radiant jewel, mystical wife, beautiful lady, Scorpio sphinx, AND glamorous nymph. Now I have no trouble believing she probably had excellent reasons for divorcing him, but oh my god can you imagine BOB DYLAN writing a song like that about you (and your children)? Loving you is the one thing I'll never regret.

Is This Better Than Fleetwood Mac?: Desire creeped right up into my heart. I was expecting to like it, but not this much. It's country-folk tunes lulled me to peaceful contentment, but it also felt like one listen was definitely not enough. So...yes, Desire deserves to be closer to #1 than Fleetwood Mac. I'm absolutely adding it to my personal music library.

Song of the day.


"Make Every Word Hurt" by Lori McKenna. This has been stuck in my head for the last 48 hours. So singable! And as usual her lyrics are killer.

Poem Without Forgiveness


The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.
Night after night Tybalt's stabbed
so the lovers are ground in mechanical
aftermath. Think of the gunk that never
comes off the roasting pan, the goofs
of a diamond cutter. But wasn't it
electricity's blunder into inert clay
that started this whole mess, the I-
echo in the head, a marriage begun
with a fender bender, a sneeze,
a mutation, a raid, an irrevocable
fuckup. So in the meantime: epoxy,
the dog barking at who knows what,
signals mixed up like a dumped-out tray
of printer's type. Some piece of you
stays in me and I'll never get it back.
The heart hoards its thorns
just as the rose profligates.
Just because you've had enough
doesn't mean you wanted too much.

- Dean Young, Winter 2006, Paris Review