There is nothing at stake here, so I can be brutally honest: this album is sort of boring.
There’s a difficulty at the heart of all of Randy Newman’s work: he writes (mostly) great songs that he then, unfortunately, chooses to perform himself, often with little more than his own piano-playing as an accompaniment. His observational lyrics (gently skewered by “Family Guy”) force you to pay attention, but rarely does the music part of the song do the same.
The early part of the album has a sluggish ragtime feel, as if each track should be playing over a sepia-toned title card in a black-and-white silent movie. It’s a fitting style, as much of the lyrical content deals with an ironic longing for the American south of the pre-civil rights era (with some pointed smartassery about northern hypocrisy), but ragtime itself has more variety than these tunes. There are odd moments of excitement that slip in – a country echo in “Birmingham”, the hint of a tropical feel in “Naked Man”, sneaky southern rock forays in bits of “Kingfish” and “Back on My Feet Again” – but these really just highlight the sameness of the rest. Even those clever lyrics become a problem: unless you already understand this going in, it can be challenging to get Newman’s point of view when almost everything is sung sarcastically.
The record is not without its moments. “Marie” is a delicate love song from an unworthy lover, and “Every Man A King” (co-written by Huey Long, the subject of “Kingfish”) is a snappy honkytonk ditty with a rich chorus from Eagles on a daycation. But in its entirety, the album left me with little compelling reason to listen to it again, since, unlike the very best music, I have no expectation of being surprised or brought to joy on any future play. Which is fine – there are lots of records that do that for me already.
The word that always comes to mind when I listen to Steely Dan is “lush”. The music is complex and perfectly played, the lyrics clever and insightful. Listening, you can’t help but feel a bit more elevated than with the usual pop, with all its messy emotion and histrionics. It can feel downright extravagant to allow yourself to wallow in these songs. It’s music for a concert hall, not a bar or repurposed hockey arena or ballpark.
Yet, for all the richness, it somehow manages to be understated at the same time. Donald Fagen never once seems caught up in what he’s singing about – he is simply the reporter of others’ misadventures, calmly giving you the details. Is it wrong to want something else from them? I know Steely Dan isn’t that kind of band – and I love them for it – but can anything so absent of danger properly be considered rock ‘n’ roll? They seem more of a jazz ensemble playing within the pop idiom, which sounds great, but without the unpredictability that can make jazz so exciting to listen to, there is nothing here to get the heart racing.
To an untrained ear, which definitely includes my pair, it all sort of sounds the same – other than the hits, with their built-in goodwill, very little jumps out and makes you take notice. The band definitely play with genre – the mild salsa feel early in “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”, the funky guitar of “Night by Night”, the bluesy beat of “Pretzel Logic”, the rollicking hillbilly vibe of “With A Gun” (my favourite song on the record) – but it almost always ends up sublimated to the Steely Dan sound. The one strong exception is the goofy old timey feel of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, which would benefit from being a bit ragged – perfectly played, it has a sort of pointless wonderment to it.
In the end, for all its beauty, I felt unmoved by the seemingly effortless cool of “Pretzel Logic”. It is high end background music, the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent doing the laundry, or for when you’re stuck waiting to see a doctor and the magazines are all out of date. Certainly not what the band was aiming for, but worthy nonetheless – we all have unavoidable tasks to get through and they are made more palatable by a pleasing soundtrack.
It’s not a good time to be saying anything less than glowing about Joni Mitchell, with her recent triumphant return to the stage. A lot of people love her music. I am not one of those people. The ones who love her are right to do so. And the rest of us are right not to.
Of course, it’s not allowed to be that simple. We struggle to understand why people don’t share our values and opinions. Is there something wrong with them? Or am I the problem? We are highly irrational about the things we love, and no better about the things we don’t.
Somewhere, there’s a Rammstein fan asking herself why she should give a shit about some old lady. I’m not quite there, but I can’t fake caring about Joni Mitchell’s music. Oh, it isn’t absolute – there are things on “Court and Spark” that I quite like, as there were on “Blue” (“A Case of You” still gives me chills) and the less-heralded “For the Roses” and “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”. But, for the most part, I have resisted the mighty weight of the Joni Mitchell Critical Complex.
When you read or talk about music, you will run into lots of people telling you that you’re wrong about something like this. They will explain patiently, as if speaking to a well-behaved child, why you are wrong: her intimate confessional lyrics, her melodies, her novel vocal style, her experiments with jazz. None of this is incorrect, but it misses the point. I don’t care how “great” she is, because I don’t care about the sounds she’s making. And if you don’t get enjoyment from what you’re listening to, why are you even listening to it? For all her greatness, give me something I enjoy. This isn’t broccoli, or cardio, or meditation, or any other thing I do (haphazardly) because it’s good for me. Give me cuddlecore, bedroom pop, emo. Give me my 50th play of “Welcome Interstate Managers”, my 100th play of “The Stranger”, my 250th of “My Aim is True”. But also give me artists that I had never even heard of until this very month: give me Cub, Freedy Johnston, Blake Babies, Leo Nocentelli, Leikeli 47, Hollie Cook. I hope you’ll check them out, but I won’t argue if they don’t do it for you. Just don’t tell me why I’m wrong to not love Joni.
Even some of the reasons given for why she is great don’t sit right with me. Does the personal nature of her lyrics make them better than less personal work? “My Sweet Annette” by Drive-By Truckers never fails to move me (pedal steel guitar is one of the most mournful instruments ever invented, and if you pair it with fiddle, I am pretty much done for), and that story absolutely did not happen to the writer. Artists make the personal universal and the universal personal: neither is intrinsically better than the other.
Or her voice. Yes, it’s distinctive, and you would know it anywhere. But what are you to do if you find it so displeasing that it distracts you from the song? This is sometimes what I experience with her work.
Often what I like in her music are the things that seem less like what I expected to hear. The shambling southern rock feel of much of the guitar work in “Free Man in Paris” (which I have been spontaneously singing over the past week). The boogie-woogie rhythms of “Raised on Robbery”. The minimalist funk of “Trouble Child”. The madcap silliness of “Twisted”. There are pleasant smooth jazz-adjacent moments throughout the record, and from what I know of her subsequent career, it turned out to be a sandbox that she quite enjoyed playing in.
“Court and Spark” is a perfectly fine pop record: I just don’t hear whatever it was that made critics decide it was the best album of its year, and I could listen to it one hundred times and probably never hear it. Luckily, I don’t have to: there’s always another play of “Purple Rain” waiting for me if I run out of ideas about what to put on next.
Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods – Billy, Don’t Be A Hero
I haven’t completed my empirical study on this issue – I’m still waiting on my Canada Council for the Arts funding to come through – but my preliminary findings would indicate that the 1970s were the Golden Age of musical cheese. A quick look at the Billboard charts will steer you towards enough product for the largest fondue party of all-time, with chart-toppers like Ray Stevens’ “Everything is Beautiful”, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”, Mary McGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers”, Morris Albert’s “Feelings”, Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”, and, of course, Paul Anka and Odia Coates’ “(You’re) Having My Baby” all making fine contributions. But none can match the all-encompassing melted Gruyere mastery of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods when they put “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” on tape.
I was aware of the band through the pages of “Tiger Beat”, though the amount of coverage seemed to far outweigh their cultural import. (This was a common issue with the magazine: for example, see De Franco, Tony or Eure, Wesley or Sherman, Bobby.) I certainly was very familiar with “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero”, but can’t say I knew at the time who was singing it: when looking up the song recently, I was sure it was Paper Lace’s slightly earlier version that was the Canadian hit, but in fact Bo and company topped both the RPM and Billboard charts while Paper Lace (which made its own important contribution to musical Emmental with “The Night Chicago Died”, reaching number one that same glorious summer of 1974) barely made a dent in either country with the song. I usually have a pretty good memory about such things, which says a lot about how much I’ve thought about this song in the past 48 years.
But, my god, why would I have thought about it? Rolling Stone readers voted it the 8th worst song of the 1970s, and with no disrespect intended to list-topper Rick Dees, who knew that “Disco Duck” was awful (and that awfulness was part of its charm), or the other un-notables in spots two through seven, I really think the Golden Toilet (yes, I invented that award, but it’s apropos) should have gone to “Billy” in a walkaway.
Sometimes, I revisit these songs with a measure of trepidation, thinking time will have dimmed my ardour. With “Billy” it was the opposite: would it, like a fine wine, have improved with time? I need not have concerned myself. “Billy” is, in fact, like a whine: something that gets worse the longer it goes on. I don’t blame the band: they were just trying to make a living, and this certainly helped draw those crowds to Mott’s Berry Farm (a mythical place that played an outsized part in my musical imagination thanks to “Tiger Beat”). When it comes to reading the musical zeitgeist, they couldn’t have made a better choice.
Considering the subject matter – Billy heads off to war and gets himself killed by doing the one thing his girl told him not to do (a mistake men have been making in endless contexts since the first caveman made note of a well-turned ankle) – it’s an amazingly cheery-sounding song, all jaunty Civil War-era marching band snare drum and toot-toot whistles. I’m sure it came off better live, because on record it gives the impression that no actual instruments were played; rather, it sounds like it came out of a late-night GarageBand session that ended when someone said, “Fuck it, I’m putting it up on my Soundcloud.” Some unidentified perv is close enough so that, while he’s eyeballing Billy’s “young and lovely fiance”, he hears her instructing the young soldier to let his fellow warriors take the fall rather than put his own life on the line. Really, if that was going to be the plan, Billy would have been doing everyone a favour by just staying at home. But he goes, tosses his lady’s advice in the dumpster, and gets taken down by some eagle-eyed (or lucky) Johnny Reb. And after Billy saved her from the Confederates, the ungrateful young lady, rather than carrying her virginity to the grave, drops the letter from Edwin Stanton into the garbage, and, maybe (I’m speculating here), goes looking for the narrator, who for some reason did not sign up for duty in the Union army and thus may have been the one un-maimed man of marrying age left in their town in 1865.
Anyway, that was a lot of reading between the lines.
Look, it’s not a good song (I need to be careful here with my “there is no bad music” ethos), but I don’t hate it, and I get why it was a hit. At that moment in time, bubblegum sounds ruled. Pop music often got too smart for its own good in the 1960s, and there was a lot of reactionary dumbing down in the first few years of the 1970s. Radio was painful to listen to a lot of the time, but the young people who rejected what they were being fed went out and started bands of their own to change this. So, yes, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” can take some of the credit (just go with me on this) for “God Save the Queen” and ”I Wanna Be Sedated”.
Thank you, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, for your service.
Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
The problem of small sample size has long vexed researchers. If you are trying to project results from a study onto a larger population, it’s better to have 500 participants than 20. The bigger your group – assuming it’s a representative collection of subjects – the more likely it is that your conclusions will have wider application.
The early Pazz and Jop polls, which returned after a two-year absence in 1974, reflect practically the worst case scenario, since not only were there very few voters (24 in 1974), but they were also mostly male, white, and of similar ages and cultural experiences. The result is that they shared a lot of the same perspectives about music, and this lessened the diversity of the list. Remember: in 1971, they did not include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”, a record that I don’t much care for but which a much larger pool of voters has ranked as the greatest album ever made. This would reach its nadir a few years later when they concluded that Graham Parker made 2 of the top 4 records of that year. That opinion has not come close to standing the test of time.
I questioned whether this should continue as a Pazz and Jop or Not the Pazz and Jop series. I’m sticking with my original intent, but will drop in periodically with more of the nots that I think were egregious oversights by voters of the time. And I’m not sure if there could be a better example of them screwing up than 1974’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” from Richard and Linda Thompson, which did not make the top 30 in that year’s voting.
I don’t know why this wasn’t appreciated for the masterpiece it is on initial release. Richard was known from Fairport Convention, and the airwaves were certainly friendly enough to lame versions of the folk rock that the Thompsons were putting out. It could be one of those records that takes time to grow on you, but I sort of reject that premise, because the first song grabbed my attention and the second ripped my heart out at the 52-second mark, threw it on the floor and stomped on it for the entire three minutes that remained of the track. Is it possible that critics in 1974 were just idiots, so awash in mediocre prog rock posing as art that they couldn’t hear simple unshowy brilliance when it was right there waiting to be recognized? That’s what I’m going with.
Of course, it is actually a rather showy record, with a fanciful mix of instruments – a mandolin here, marching band horns there – played masterfully, and often elusive and allusive lyrics (yet another songwriter wanting us to know how clever he is). It’s a fairly cynical record, populated by con artists (“The Little Beggar Girl”), well-meaning but inappropriate advisors of children (“The End of the Rainbow”: “Every loving handshake/Is just another man to beat” hardly inspires one to get out of bed in the morning – with this kind of worldview, you can see why Richard sought peace in a commune a few years later) and confident but distrustful performers (“I’m your friend until you use me” sings Linda in “The Great Valerio”).
In some sense, the Thompsons, at least on this record, were more two soloists than a true duet, as there is rarely any interplay between their voices, though they did work well together on “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, less so on “We Sing Hallelujah”, where it sometimes feels as if Linda is still learning the words. I don’t find either of their voices particularly pleasing, but they are unquestionably potent interpreters of Richard’s songs: these aren’t pretty songs, and they don’t need a pretty voice. Richard sounds much older than the 24-year-old he was, and for all the folkie elements here, Linda is best represented on a pair of “modern girl in the world”-type tracks. In “Has He Got A Friend for Me”, her work on the chorus is heart-rending: she starts hesitant and lacking confidence, then strong but wavering on the second effort, before retreating into insecurity. Richard doesn’t sing on that track – it would be an intrusion. The title track finds her liberated from the limits of folk ballads, with a modern-sounding come-hither tune about seeking liberation from a ho-hum life.
“When I Get to the Border” is a toe-tapper with the feel of an old traditional folk song, but grounded in the modern by Richard’s guitar and a steady, uncomplicated drumbeat (the unostentatious drum is also a critical element in “We Sing Hallelujah”). The mournful “Withered and Died” is another of those songs that feel like they were already 100 years old when he wrote them, traditional ballads from long-forgotten masters rescued from obscurity for today’s audience. Similarly, “The Little Beggar Girl” is a slowed-down jig – up the tempo and you’d be swirling around the floor.
But all of this pales to “The Calvary Cross”. Richard shows here that he is a true balladeer. After some amiable, sort of rambling guitar (that really sounds like a sitar in places), he hits with three repeated yet subtly different chords, that same steady drum backing him up. The song is dirge-like, spiritual, and rooted in Christian imagery, which may explain why it has such an impact on this lapsed Catholic. (The movie “Jesus of Montreal” similarly wrecked me on the initial watch in 1989 – resisting my innate Catholicism has been a lifelong project, it seems.) When Richard sings “scrub me ‘til I shine in the dark”, I have no idea what he’s getting at, but it doesn’t matter – it feels deeply personal to him, and I want to feel that, too. I know I’m doing a really poor job of saying why this song hits me so hard, but maybe that’s the point: the best art touches us so deep in our subconscious that efforts to articulate that feeling are no more than the wailings of an infant in an unknowable darkness.
It is the rare song that is made better by stretching it out, but “The Calvary Cross” is one such exception. The Spotify version of the album ends with a live version that falls just shy of 10 minutes. It drops the 51 seconds of noodling that starts the album version and jumps right into the three notes that crushed me so. It’s a showcase for Richard’s amazing guitar work, and a compelling argument for his position among the greatest axemen of his day.
All I can really say is that listening to this record makes me happy. I have probably played it 10 times in the past month, and “The Calvary Cross” maybe 10 times more, and even now, as I write these words with those three magical notes in my ears, I am slightly teary-eyed and feel my heart filled with joy. Music has that kind of insane power, and it would be wise not to trust it completely: it would definitely be a bad idea for me to be, say, operating machinery right now, or making an important financial decision. But we need to find joy wherever we can, especially in this darkest timeline in which we live, and so I am thankful for the Thompsons and others who can take me there. Good luck to you in finding your own “The Calvary Cross”. It’s out there, somewhere.