I don’t do much on Sundays. So says my better half. Actually, I do a lot of laundry on Sundays, which involves a lot of waiting. Which involves a little bit of reading, a little bit of napping, a little bit of bumming around on the internet, and a lot of just sitting around listening to music. Needless to say, Sunday afternoon is, like, the greatest thing ever as far as I’m concerned. So here I am sharing a little bit of the Paul Lorentz Sunday Afternoon experience with you, Dear Sonic Clash Readers, with a weekly (hopefully) mix of seven songs I just happen to be listening to. This is not me just shuffling up my iPod and puking up the results (although that’s always fun!), but, I hope, a semi-free-associative weekly musical adventure. I call it a buffet because Sunday brunch buffets rock and the best ones have a little bit of everything. And though I, of course, have certain favorite artists and genres and musical eras that I tend to gravitate towards a little more heavily, with this playlist, I hope to achieve NPR’s Bob Boilen’s stated (but mostly flagrantly flouted) goal of at least considering all songs. (Dear Bob Boilen, I hate you. But I’ll never unsubscribe from your podcast. Can I be a guest on it sometime? Love, Paul.)
Okay, so that out of the way… This week, I picked up the latest CD by Willie Nelson, who just turned 77 two weeks ago (Happy Birthday, Willie!). Despite his age, Willie remains one of the most prolific artists still alive, putting out two or three new studio albums each year, and collaborating on music with basically everyone. (All Collaborators Considered!) There’s a reason there’s no game called Six Degrees of Willie Nelson: you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere with more than two or three degrees of separation from him. Though Willie Nelson is still active as a songwriter, the last few years have found him performing a necessary musicological service – reviving and interpreting songs of the early-to-mid 20th Century for 21st Century listeners. He recorded an album of standards in a Dixieland style with Wynton Marsalis, and last year, teamed up with Asleep at the Wheel for a tribute to the classic western swing bands of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
His latest album, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is called, simply, Country Music, and features reverent, yet relevant, takes on fifteen songs, most of which predate the Eisenhower Administration. (Eisenhower was a President. That was before the Beatles.) Songs like Al Dexter’s massive 1943 hit “Pistol Packin’ Mama” (which, in Willie’s current interpretation, sounds like a “tribute” to Sarah Palin), and Merle Travis’s grim miner’s ballad “Dark as a Dungeon”, which, given recent events, really needs to be heard in 2010. Here’s Willie in a live performance from March, doing one of the “newest” songs on this collection. It’s also the one song on the album he wrote. Nelson’s most recent albums have been dealing pretty frankly with mortality, and I loved that he included one of his own earliest songs on this collection. It dates back to the end of the musical era he’s covering, and like the rest of the songs here, Nelson delivers the song with a knowing sense of how “endangered” these songs are at a time when our collective sense of history (and specifically music history) seems to be getting shallower.
One of my favorite tracks on Country Music is the album-closing “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, a fire-and-brimstone blues given a chillingly spare, alone-on-my-death-bed arrangement. Most folks my age know the song better from Led Zeppelin’s Presence album, but the song is actually much older, dating back (at least) to a recording, circa 1927, by Blind Willie Johnson. The precise origins of the song are unknown, but then a song like this probably has no precise origin – it may very well be a generation or two older than Johnson’s recording.
Here’s another song I first experienced via a contemporary cover version. In 1987, the white-boy soul band Breakfast Club, who earned pop music history footnote status when one of the band’s early members (Madonna Ciccone) became a really big star, scored a really big hit with a song called “Right On Track”. Not for lack of trying, Breakfast Club was never really able to follow that song up and their self-titled debut album became their swan song. But one of the group’s last gasps was the song “Expressway To Your Heart”. I loved it – mainly for it’s big stairstepping bass groove. Later on, I worked in a pizza kitchen where we listened to the oldies station all day, and that’s where I heard the awesome Gamble & Huff-produced original by the Soul Survivors. Last night, I was out running an errand and the song came on the radio. The traffic sound effects, that insistent bassline, the urgency of the vocals – “too crowded! too crowded!” The whole thing makes the idea of being stuck in summer traffic sound really awesome.
Incidentally, the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway” was their first big hit, charting almost exactly 20 years (exactly 19 and a half) ahead of “Right On Track”, and after several failed attempts to follow the song up, the Soul Survivors split up and are today regarded as one of the great one hit wonders of the 60s. Brothers Chuck and Richie Ingui reconvened the band in the early 70s and still perform under the Soul Survivors name. To my knowledge though, “Right On Track” is not part of their setlist.
Like “Expressway to Your Heart”, Edwin Starr‘s 1969 single “25 Miles” is a great driving song – despite the “I’ve got to walk on” lyrics. It’s one of those songs where the backing music is so incredibly hot that it’s pretty much impossible for any vocal performance to really top it. Only Edwin Starr’s performance did. And as this clip from much later on demonstrates, Starr (who died in 2003 at the age of 61) never lost the vocal ferocity he brought to songs like this and his biggest hit “War” in the late 60s and early 70s.
Both Edwin Starr and the Soul Survivors were all about getting back to their baby as fast as their cars (or feet) could take them. Last week, the 20-year-old Haitian-American pop singer-songwriter-Kara-DioGuardi-protege Jason Derulo premiered the video for “Ridin’ Solo”, the third single from his self-titled debut, following his number one debut single “Whatcha Say” and “In My Head”, which hit the Top 10 earlier this year. The song was initially based on a sample of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”, although the sample couldn’t be cleared (probably because “Bittersweet Symphony” – whose video famously followed singer Richard Ashcroft as he “walked on” – was itself based on an uncleared sample and landed The Verve is all sorts of expensive legal hot water when it became their biggest hit). You can still hear a bit of that familiar chord progression in the finished project sans sample – Derulo and his songwriting-producing partner J.R. Rotem have demonstrated a knack for musical pick-pocketing – in Derulo’s celebration of freshly emancipated playboyhood.
Finally, we travel from the clubs to the junkyard with the British indie pop group Fanfarlo. Earlier this year, the band found themselves a graveyard full of former modes of transportation now resting in peace. These included an airplane, which inspired this adorable acoustic guitar-xylophone-and-bowed-saw rendition of “I’m a Pilot”, the gorgeous opening track of their 2009 debut album Reservoir. Enjoy!