Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mix CD, "An Introduction to Robyn Hitchcock"

Robyn Hitchcock, 1985.

Robyn Hitchcock on stage.
Robyn Hitchcock’s oeuvre as a musician might seem a bit inaccessible to some people. Hitchcock has been very prolific over his career, releasing 19 albums as a solo artist since 1981. So where would one begin if you were looking for an introduction to his music? Fear not, dear reader, for I made a Robyn Hitchcock mix CD that’s meant to be an introduction for newcomers to his songs and music. This CD is meant to highlight Hitchcock’s more accessible songs, as it was created with the express purpose of persuading my Mom and my wife that Robyn Hitchcock is a genius. But if you’re a hardcore Hitchcock fan, don’t worry; there are still songs about tomatoes and tarantulas. There are many great Hitchcock songs that aren’t included on this CD, as this CD isn’t meant to be a definitive overview of his career. 

Here are the songs I put on the CD:

1. The Man Who Invented Himself
2.  I Often Dream of Trains
3. My Wife and My Dead Wife
4. I'm Only You
5. Heaven
6. Airscape
7. Balloon Man
8. Madonna of the Wasps
9. So You Think You're in Love
10. Alright, Yeah
11. Beautiful Queen
12. Viva! Sea-Tac
13. Everybody Needs You
14. Underground Sun
15. Ole! Tarantula
16. Saturday Groovers
17. Up to Our Nex
18. Intricate Thing
19. I Just Wanna Be Loved
20. Strawberries Dress

And here are my thought about those songs:

The Man Who Invented Himself-1981-from “Black Snake Diamond Role”: I know, I’m skipping over Hitchcock’s two albums as part of The Soft Boys, but I thought it made sense to start the collection with his solo songs. Indeed, this is the very first song on Hitchcock’s first solo album. And it’s quite a catchy one too, as a pounding piano begins the song. Just who is the mysterious man who invented himself? Typically, Robyn doesn’t tell us in so many words.

I Often Dream of Trains-1984-from “I Often Dream of Trains”: This is one of Robyn’s loveliest songs, with a hypnotic guitar pattern. Of course, there are lots of other great songs from this album, which is one of Robyn’s best.

My Wife & My Dead Wife-1985-from “Fegmania!”: Robyn’s own version of Noel Coward’s play “Blythe Spirit,” as Robyn is confused by his visions of his dead wife, who can still communicate with him. Our tormented narrator sings: “And I can’t decide which one I love the most/the flesh and blood or the pale, smiling ghost.” A great example of the humor that runs through Robyn’s music.

I’m Only You-1985-from “Fegmania!”: Robyn’s sultry song of love and desire, “I’m Only You” often inspires beautiful guitar playing from him when he sings the song live. Check out the version from “Storefront Hitchcock” for evidence.

Heaven-1985-from “Fegmania!”: A lovely song with fantastic guitar playing. 

Airscape-1986-from “Element of Light”: Another lovely song with great guitar playing.

Balloon Man-1988-from “Globe of Frogs”: This is one of Robyn’s most famous songs, as it garnered quite a bit of airplay on college radio at the time. “Globe of Frogs” was Robyn’s first album for major label A&M, so he was now reaching a wider audience. Lyrically, it’s a rather silly song about Robyn meeting “balloon man” on the streets of New York City. It features some great lyrics like, “And it rained/like a slow divorce.” 

Madonna of the Wasps-1989-from “Queen Elvis”: Features the trademark Hitchcock trifecta of a catchy melody, great guitar playing, and inscrutable lyrics. 

So You Think You’re In Love-1991-from “Perspex Island”:  Robyn’s biggest “hit single,” as it reached #1 on Billboard’s “Modern Rock Tracks” chart. Like his other A&M recordings, the sound is a bit more commercial and polished. “So You Think You’re In Love” is one of Hitchcock’s catchiest songs, if one of his most lyrically slight. 

Alright, Yeah-1996-from “Moss Elixir”: “Moss Elixir” is one of my favorite Robyn Hitchcock albums, and it’s the album that really made me a Robyn Hitchcock fan. “Alright, Yeah” is a catchy, guitar-driven tune that features lyrics like, “I gotta walk/but I’m gonna put my fork next to your spoon.” Robyn also recorded this song in Swedish, which is available on the outtakes collection “Mossy Liquor.”

Beautiful Queen-1996-from “Moss Elixir”: One of my favorite Robyn Hitchcock songs, I love the hypnotic effect of this song. One of the few rock songs to use the word “phosphorus” in it’s opening line. Also features the lovely image of the beautiful queen “gliding through the snowdrifts in your miniskirt.” And the heartfelt sentiment, “I’m not afraid to be the only person on the planet/I’m not afraid to be the only person in the world with you.” 

Viva! Sea-Tac-1999-from “Jewels for Sophia”: In which Robyn expresses his love for the Pacific Northwest. Okay, so this might be a somewhat slight song from an excellent album. But I quite like it, and it’s catchy as hell. The chorus is wonderful: “And the Space Needle points to the sky/the Space Needle’s such a nice guy.” 

Everybody Needs You-2004-from “Spooked”: With a whiplash-quick guitar, Robyn spits out lyrics about how everybody needs love. “Spooked” is his excellent collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. 

Underground Sun-2006-from “Ole! Tarantula”: I could pick just about every song from “Ole! Tarantula” for this CD. “Underground Sun” has great vocal harmonies and beautiful guitar work. 

Ole! Tranatula-2006-from “Ole! Tarantula”: More catchy goodness about, well, tarantulas. 

Saturday Groovers-2009-from “Goodnight Oslo”: I also feel like I could pick just about every song from “Goodnight Oslo” for this CD. “Saturday Groovers” has a catchy vocal chorus and lyrics about those who go out and party on the weekend. Only Robyn would write a song with the lyrics “Emphysema, heart disease and gout,” and make it catchy. 

Up to Our Nex-2009-from “Goodnight Oslo”: Also featured in the film “Rachel Getting Married.” Another catchy song full of hooks from Robyn. 

Intricate Thing-2009-from “Goodnight Oslo”: A beautiful, jazzy song about relationships, with some very true lyrics. “You got all kinds of seeds that you don’t know you’re seeding/all kinds of needs that you don’t know you’re needing/all kinds of signals that you don’t know you’re reading/little drops of blood that you don’t know you’re bleeding.” 

I Just Wanna Be Loved-2009-bonus track from “Goodnight Oslo”: I think this is a great, overlooked song. It was only included on a bonus CD accompanying “Goodnight Oslo” from Yep Roc Records. In a perfect world, this song would have been a huge hit single. I wonder why Robyn didn’t put it on “Goodnight Oslo."

Strawberries Dress-2013-from “Love From London”: There are many fab songs on “Love From London,” as I can tell you here. But the sexy and slinky “Strawberries Dress” is one of my favorites. 

As I’ve said before, there are many other terrific Robyn Hitchcock songs, but hopefully some of the songs on this CD will make people who are unfamiliar with Robyn take a closer look at his music.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Album Review: Kylie Minogue, "Aphrodite" (2010)

Kylie Minogue, "Aphrodite," 2010.

Kylie Minogue, promo photo for "Aphrodite," 2010.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of pop singer Kylie Minogue. My favorite album of hers is 2010’s “Aphrodite.” It’s probably my favorite because I listened to it twice during an absurdly long snow-filled commute one day and it made my stress disappear. Like Minogue’s other albums, “Aphrodite” is a fun and upbeat pop album full of danceable songs. It’s a trip to KylieWorld, where things almost always go well, and good times are just a dance away. KylieWorld is quite a wonderful place to visit, especially in the middle of winter. 

Kylie sets the agenda for the album pretty quickly, as the first song “All the Lovers” starts out with Kylie singing, “Dance/It’s all I want to do/So won’t you dance?” “All the Lovers” is a song all about finding a new love, as Kylie sings in the chorus: “All the lovers/that have gone before/they don’t compare/to you.” Kylie professes her love as wobbly synths, sounding almost like a theremin, accompany her in the background. 

“Get Outta My Way” starts out slowly, with just a piano, before Kylie’s vocals come in. In the song Kylie is bored with her boyfriend, and starts flirting with strangers, aggressively singing, “This is what’ll happen if you ain’t giving your girl what she needs.” Kylie taunts her boyfriend, as she flirtatiously sings, “See me with him and it’s turnin’ you on.” 

“Aphrodite” packs a strong 1-2-3 punch, as the third song is the excellent “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)”.  The first three songs were all released as singles, with the lead single “All the Lovers” charting in the Top Ten in many European countries. Like the other songs, “Put Your Hands Up” starts slowly, with Kylie singing “All we need is love in this life, it’s true/All I need is the love I get from you/And I want to scream it out/If you hear what I’m saying,” which leads us right into the exuberant chorus, “Put your hands up/if you feel love tonight,” and then the song really takes off as a bouncy dance number. Displaying her trademark resiliency, Kylie sings “Everybody knows how life can get so twisted/but I won’t let it bring me down.” In KylieWorld, as in the real world, a positive attitude is the best defense against the bad things in life.

The next song is the sexy “Closer,” which opens with a catchy keyboard that sounds like a harpsichord, bringing a mock-classical feel to the song. Kylie’s sexy vocals accentuate the sensuality of the chorus: “Closer and closer and closer/to you now, never enough/closer and closer you pull me/give me more/soft and slow.” Definitely a highlight of the album for me, though I may be a bit biased because of my crush on Miss Minogue.

“Everything is Beautiful,” not to be confused with the 1970 Ray Stevens song of the same name, is a gorgeous slower song that finds Kylie longing for an escape from dreary reality. As she sings in the chorus, “And if I lie with you long enough/I can see the things I’m dreaming of/let’s go through the ritual/until everything is beautiful.” The song has a groovy catchy piano part during the verses that I like. Kylie’s voice is lovely on this song, and I think her voice is quite underrated in general. She has a very pure tone and her voice always sounds warm and inviting. And unlike some pop singers, her voice always sounds natural.

Next up is the funky “Aphrodite,” which starts with Kylie asking “Can you feel me in stereo?” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I like the sound of it. As if to confirm what I just wrote about Kylie’s voice always seeming very natural, she sings, “I got soul, you can check/in my heart, in my head/I got spirit, you can feel/did you think I wasn’t real?” The song then moves into the catchy chorus, “I’m fierce and I’m feeling mighty/I’m a golden girl, I’m an Aphrodite.” Kylie takes on the persona of the Greek god Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and pleasure, singing “You know that I’m magical/I am the original/I am the only one/to make you feel this way.” Oddly enough, this catchy song wasn’t released as a single.

“Illusion” starts out a cappella, before strings come in. It’s a nice song, but lyrically rather slight. I can’t quite figure out what it’s about, other than Kylie being slightly lost, as she sings, “I’m surrounded by confusion/and I’m lost in this illusion.” Reading the liner notes, I see that “Illusion” is one of the songs that Minogue wrote the lyrics for. Sorry Kylie!

“Better Than Today” starts out with some bleats from a synth before Kylie starts to brag, “Oh I see what she do/but I can do it better/and the talk of the town be true/that I’ll make you forget her.” It’s another upbeat, positive song, with the chorus wondering “What’s the point of livin’ if you don’t take a chance?/what’s the point of livin’ if you don’t want to dance?” Those are great questions, and they articulate one of the key philosophies of KylieWorld: dancing is always good.

“Too Much” is another happy and upbeat song, as Kylie sings about a love that “It’s too much/this kind of love/for the first time.” It’s a bit more repetitive than some of the other songs on the album, but it’s still a fun song.

“Cupid Boy” starts with a very catchy guitar riff, as Kylie sings about a guy she wants to see more of. “Why don’t you call me/start hittin’ me up/give me your love” Kylie coos as the club beats thump in the background. I’d definitely call Kylie if she sang this song to me.

“Looking For an Angel” starts off with strings, as Kylie sings a wordless backing vocal. It’s perhaps the most personal song on the album, and Minogue’s lyrics are quite philosophical, as she sings to an angel, “And when good things are good/I want to share them/I don’t want to be alone/and when darkness falls/will you hear my call/and show me the way back home?” Personally, I wonder if these lyrics were inspired by Minogue’s successful battle against breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 2005. The song also works in a nice obscure reference, as Kylie sings, “I’m waiting for my seraphim,” which is a fancy word for angel. It’s a lovely song.

“Can’t Beat the Feeling” is an energetic closer to the album, as Kylie sings “There doesn’t have to be a reason/there doesn’t have to be a why/and any moment could be magical/it could be this night.” Once again this articulates a key idea of KylieWorld; that good times are never far away, and they could be right around the corner. Wallowing in your misery isn’t allowed in KylieWorld. 

“Aphrodite” is an excellent album with a lot of very catchy songs that exemplify Kylie Minogue’s positive attitude and energy. Listening to this album and visiting KylieWorld for 45 minutes or so should make those winter blues go away.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mix CD, "The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 2"

Rick Nelson driving a Studebaker Avanti, 1960's.

Rick Nelson, 1981.
In my previous post I covered a mix CD I made “The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 1,” which included all of Ricky’s Top 20 hit singles. For “The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 2,” I dug a little deeper to include my favorite Rick Nelson songs that were album tracks or lesser hit singles.  This is a pretty subjective list, and there are definitely some hit singles that I didn’t include on this CD.

Here are the 28 songs:

1. You Tear Me Up
2. My Babe
3. Milk Cow Blues
4. That's All
5. Summertime
6. String Along
7. The Very Thought of You
8. Since I Don't Have You
9. Mean Old World
10. Blue Moon of Kentucky
11. Mystery Train
12. You Just Can't Quit
13. Easy to Be Free
14. She Belongs to Me
15. I Shall Be Released
16. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
17. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
18. Honky Tonk Women
19. I'm Talking About You
20. I Don't Want to Be Lonely Tonight
21. Mama, You Been On My Mind
22. That's All Right
23. Rave On
24. True Love Ways
25. Dream Lover
26. Almost Saturday Night
27. Believe What You Say
28. That's All Right

Here’s some commentary about the songs:

You Tear Me Up-1959-from “Ricky Sings Again”: This is a great “All Shook Up”-style pop song. I’m surprised it wasn’t released as a single.

My Babe-1958-from “Ricky Nelson”: A cover of the Willie Dixon song, it shows that Ricky could indeed sing the blues. It features excellent guitar work by James Burton, as usual. 

Milk Cow Blues-1960-B-side of “You Are the Only One”: A cover of a song that Elvis recorded for Sun Records. Ricky’s vocal is impassioned, and the song shows the influence that Elvis and other rockabilly artists like Carl Perkins had on Ricky.

That’s All-1959-from “Songs By Ricky”: Changing gears, this is a lovely ballad version of this standard, which has been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Mathis and Bobby Darin. Darin’s exuberant and up-tempo version is from 1959 as well, and it’s the title of his breakthrough album that also features “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” Ricky’s version features his typical ballad dreaminess.

Summertime-1962-from “Album Seven By Rick”: No, Rick’s early albums weren’t very creatively titled. But this rock/blues version of the Gershwin classic is quite creative. 

String Along-1963-from “For Your Sweet Love”: This was Rick’s first Top 40 single for Decca Records, and it’s actually a cover of a Fabian song from 1960. Needless to say, Rick’s version is much better than Fabian’s. Sonically, “String Along” is given the “Poor Little Fool” treatment, and it’s an addictive earworm that’s one of my favorites among Rick’s lesser hit singles. 

The Very Thought of You-1964-from “The Very Thought of You”: After Rick had hits with “Fools Rush In” and “For You,” his next single was “The Very Thought of You,” yet another song from his father Ozzie’s big band era. Which makes me think that Decca was not having success in getting writers to pen original hits for Rick, hence these versions of old songs. The arrangement of “The Very Thought of You” sounds a lot like “For You,” but it’s still an enjoyable song. This was Rick’s last Top 40 single until “She Belongs to Me” in 1969. Side note: the Decca album that “Fools Rush In” and “For You” were on was called “Rick Nelson sings ‘For You.’” As part of their ongoing campaign to confuse Rick’s fans, his old label Imperial promptly issued an album of old material called “Rick Nelson Sings For You.” The only difference is the lack of quotation marks around “For You.” Sneaky.

Since I Don’t Have You-1965-from “Best Always”: This is one of my favorite Rick Nelson album tracks. Originally a hit for the doo-wop group The Skyliners in 1958, this song features some great high notes from Rick.

Mean Old World-1965-from “Best Always”: This is a downbeat song with a passionate vocal from Rick. He practically screams the last refrain of “Oh, I need someone!”

Blue Moon of Kentucky-1966-from “Rick’s Rarities-1964-1974”: Rick turned towards country for two albums in the mid-1960’s, since his pop records were not making much of a dent in the charts. This is an excellent version of the Bill Monroe bluegrass classic, which was of course memorably covered by Elvis on Sun Records. For some reason, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” wasn’t released on either on either of Rick’s country albums and stayed in the vaults until 2004.

Mystery Train-1967-from “Country Fever”: Another great version of an Elvis Sun classic. James Burton unfurls some licks that he’ll use again in a couple of years when he’s playing the song live with Elvis in Las Vegas.

You Just Can’t Quit-1966-from “Bright Lights & Country Music”: A Rick Nelson original, this song reflects Rick’s position in the pop culture world of 1966. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was finally canceled in 1966, after 14 years on TV, and Rick’s singles and albums were having no impact on an indifferent public. Like every other rock and roller from the 1950’s, Rick’s career was being swept away by the Beatles and the British Invasion. But Rick vows to carry on, as he sings, “When the whole world puts you down/And makes you feel like a clown/That’s not it/You just can’t quit.”

Easy To be Free-1969-single A-side, available on “The Best of Rick Nelson 1963-1975”: This is probably my favorite song that Rick Nelson wrote. It’s a gorgeous tune, with idealistic and yearning lyrics. “Did you ever want to go/Where you’ve never been before/Did you ever want to know/Things you’ve never known before/I’ll take you there with me/And maybe then you’ll see it’s easy to be free.” 

She Belongs to Me-1969-single A-side, available on “The Best of Rick Nelson 1963-1975”: A cover of a Bob Dylan song, this was Rick’s first single with the Stone Canyon Band, and the first to highlight his new country rock sound. After a few years of floundering, Rick had found a sound that really worked for him. I think that Rick was a great interpreter of Bob Dylan’s songs; he really should have recorded an entire album of Dylan songs. I think the contrast between Dylan’s nasally voice and Rick’s sweet and pure voice makes Rick’s versions of Dylan’s songs really interesting.

I Shall Be Released-live-1969-from “In Concert, the Troubadour, 1969”: Taken from his first concerts with the Stone Canyon Band, “In Concert” was a triumphant album for Rick. It showed that the former teen idol had grown up and matured, and had also become an excellent song writer. This cover of the Bob Dylan song, first sung by The Band, was one of the highlights of the album, featuring an excellent vocal from Rick, and great support by the Stone Canyon Band.

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You-live-1969-from “In Concert, the Troubadour, 1969”: A Bob Dylan song from 1969’s “Nashville Skyline,” I’ve always thought that Elvis would have done a great version of it. Elvis never recorded it, but thankfully Rick Nelson did, and Rick brought the sexiness to the song that Dylan’s version is missing. Unfortunately, this song was unreleased until the 2011 2-Disc CD of the Troubadour shows, which I would highly recommend to any Rick Nelson fan.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit-1971-from “Rudy the Fifth”: Another Dylan song, Rick’s beautiful voice works well against Dylan’s obscure lyrics. 

Honky Tonk Women-1971-from “Rudy the Fifth”: This is the song that caused all of the fuss for Rick when he sang it at an oldies show in Madison Square Garden in 1971. Fans booed, and Rick thought they were booing his choice of material. Some stories suggest that fans were booing other rowdy fans, but whatever the cause of the booing, it inspired Rick to write his 1972 hit “Garden Party.” Rick’s studio recording of the Rolling Stones hit was excellent, with some filthy guitar work. 

I’m Talking About You-1972-from “Garden Party”: There are many great songs from the “Garden Party” album, like “A Flower Opens Gently By,” but I chose this Chuck Berry song because of the excellent band performance. Rick had previously sung “I’m Talking About You” on 1964’s “Spotlight on Rick,” you can listen to that version to see how much his music had changed in 8 years.

I Don’t Want to Be Lonely Tonight-1974-from “Windfall”: Not to be confused with the similarly-named James Taylor song of the same period, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” Side note: I think Rick Nelson would have done great versions of James Taylor’s songs. Written by Baker Knight, who had written “Lonesome Town” and other hits for Nelson, this energetic song really should have been released as a single, it could have been a big hit.

Mama, You Been On My Mind-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: After Decca, which had by this time become MCA Records, dropped Nelson in 1975, he signed with Epic Records. Rick’s time at Epic would be extremely frustrating, as he recorded enough material for 3 albums, but saw only one issued in his lifetime, 1977’s “Intakes.” “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is another excellent version of a Bob Dylan song, and it was cut for an album that would have been called “Back to Vienna,” but once the album was complete Epic shelved the master tapes. Fortunately, all of Rick’s Epic recordings were issued in 2012 on the excellent 2-disc set “The Complete Epic Recordings.” 

That’s All Right-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: Rick’s second unreleased Epic album was recorded in Memphis and found Rick recording many of his favorite rock songs from the 1950’s. Some of these songs were issued shortly after his death as “The Memphis Sessions.” Rick’s cover of Elvis’s first record is a highlight. 

Rave On-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: An excellent version of the Buddy Holly rocker. This was the final song that Rick Nelson sang at his final concert appearance in December 1985.

True Love Ways-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: A lovely, spare version of the Buddy Holly ballad. 

Dream Lover-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: A slowed-down version of the Bobby Darin hit, Rick performed “Dream Lover” on “Saturday Night Live” in early 1979 to a rapturous reception. Rick was hopeful that the song could become a hit, but the release of the single was delayed, supposedly because an Epic executive thought that a bongo drum should be overdubbed.  “Dream Lover” was moderately successful on the country and adult contemporary charts, but it didn’t crack the Top 100. “Dream Lover” would have been helped immensely if it had been released in support of an album, rather than as just a random single. Had Epic released the excellent “Memphis Sessions” as an album, Rick might have had another comeback hit.

Almost Saturday Night-1981-from “Playing to Win”: This was an excellent version of a John Fogerty song from “Playing to Win,” which would be the last album released in Rick’s lifetime. It’s proof that Rick could still rock and roll, even after turning 40.

Believe What You Say-1981-from “Playing to Win”: A superb re-recording of Rick’s 1958 hit single, this wasn’t just trading on past glories, but a re-imagining of one of Rick’s signature songs, with more aggressive lead guitar work.

That’s All Right-live-1983-85-from “Live 1983-1985”: I could have ended the CD with Rick’s re-recording of “Believe What You Say,” but I really like this live version of “That’s All Right,” recorded with his excellent final band. It leaves us with a glimpse of Rick Nelson as he was in his final years, still making great music, and still rocking and rolling. 

Rick Nelson died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985, while traveling to a concert in Texas. But the music that he made continues to live on. I think anyone who is familiar with Rick Nelson’s music knows that he was much more than just a teen idol; he was an excellent singer, songwriter, and performer who contributed a great deal to American rock and roll music. On this CD I’ve tried to show Rick Nelson’s versatility and his commitment to making great music. Later on in Rick’s career he was no longer making hit records, but he was still making good records, and that proves to me what a dedicated musician he truly was.