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Yet more '80s soul

November 20th, 2008 5 comments

I’m not sure whether it is due to popular demand after last week’s compilation, but here is a second ’80s soul mix, with a third and final installment in the works. The first mix was an attempt to create a fairly representative cross-section of the genre. This mix is less self-conscious about that. What we have here, then, are some of my favourite soul tracks from that comparatively barren decade. As in any compilation of favourites, the measure of quality may be secondary to the compiler’s emotional connection to a song. Is Smokey’s Just To See Her any good? I don’t rightly know. It may not be a better song than Being With You. But much as I like Being With You, it does not transport me back to a particular time. Play Just To See Her, however, and I smell the girl’s hair, taste the vegetarian gunk I used to eat, feel the anticipation of going to the club and the anxiety of missing my friends in London. And so it is with many songs in this mix (especially Pendergrass’ wonderfully Marvin-esque Joy). Read more…

The Originals Vol. 5

September 19th, 2008 8 comments

Delaney & Bonnie – Groupie (Superstar)
Carpenters – Superstar.mp3
Luther Vandross – Superstar.mp3
Sonic Youth – Superstar.mp3
The genius of the Carpenters resided with their ability, through Richards’s arrangements and Karen’s emotional investment, to make other people’s songs totally theirs. In the case of Superstar, they not only took the song, but also usurped its meaning. Sung by Karen Carpenter it no longer is the groupie’s lament it was written as. Indeed, in its first incarnation, by Delaney & Bonnie in 1969, the song was titled Groupie (Superstar), and included more explicit lyrics (“I can hardly wait to sleep with you” became “…be with you”). Released as a b-side, the song was written by the original performers with Leon Russell, and Eric Clapton featured on the recording. A few months later, former Delaney & Bonnie backing singer Rita Coolidge recorded it. According to Leon Russell, she had come up with the concept for it and Delaney Bramlett said she had helped with the harmonies. But it was Bette Midler’s performance of the song on the Tonight Show in August 1970 that alerted Richard Carpenter, who hadn’t heard the song before, to it. It is said that Karen’s first take, read from a napkin, is that which made it on to the record. In 1983 Luther Vandross recorded a quite beautiful epic version of Superstar; while a whole new generation was introduced to the song through Sonic Youth’s 1994 cover which forms part of a plotline in Juno.
Also recorded by: Cher (1970), Vikki Carr (1971), Colleen Hewett (1971), Bette Midler (1972), George Shearing Quintet (1974), Woody Herman (1975), The Shadows (1977), Elkie Brooks (1981), Richard Clayderman (1995), Dogstar (Keanu Reeves’ group, in 2000), Ruben Studdard (2003), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2004), Usher (2005) a.o.
Best version: I’m sure Richard Clayderman’s version fucking rocks, but Karen Carpenter could sing the Horst Wessel Lied and bring a tear to my eye, so – with apologies to the late Luther Vandross – it must be the Carpenters version.

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Betty Hutton – Blow A Fuse.mp3
Bjork – It’s Oh So Quiet.mp3
That Bjork, she is a bit mad, isn’t she? How crazy is It’s Oh So Quiet (the only one of her post Sugarcubes songs I actually like)? Only Bjork, eh? Actually, Betty Hutton’s 1951 original English version of the song, titled Blow A Fuse, is no less maniacal than Bjork’s 1995 cover. It’s fair to say that back in the day Hutton was a bit of a cook in her own right; her goofy performance in the musical Annie Get Your Gun (with which you apparently can’t get a man) testifies to a certain lack of restraint which is very much on exhibition on Blow A Fuse. The song was itself a cover of a 1948 German number by jazz musician Horst Winter, who knew it as Und jetzt ist es still (And now it’s quiet).
Also recorded by: Lisa Ekdahl (1997), Noise For Pretend, Lucy Woodward (2005)
Best version: The arrangement on Bjork’s version is superior.

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Pete Seeger – Turn! Turn! Turn!.mp3
The Byrds – Turn! Turn! Turn!.mp3
For all their songwriting genius, the Byrds were something of an über-cover band. Few acts did Dylan as well as the Byrds did. Some songs they made totally their own. One of these was Turn! Turn! Turn!, a staple of ’60s compilation written by Pete Seeger (co-written, really: the lyrics are almost entirely lifted from the Book of Ecclesiastes). Before Seeger got around to record it in 1962, a folk outfit called the Limelighters put it out under the title To Everything There Is A Season. The first post-Seeger cover was by – you guessed it – Marlene Dietrich as Für alles kommt die Zeit during the actress’ folk phase which also saw her record German versions of Blowin’ In The Wind and Where Have All The Flowers Gone. The same year, 1963, Judy Collins also issued a version, arranged by Roger McGuinn, then still Jim McGuinn, who had played on the Limelighters recording. After Collins’ version, McGuinn (still called Jim) co-founded the Byrds, for whom Turn! Turn! Turn!, released in October 1965, became their second hit. Jim turned turned turned into Roger in 1968.
Also recorded by: Jan & Dean (1965), The Lettermen (1966), The Seekers (1966), Mary Hopkins (1968), Nina Simone (1969), Dolly Parton (1984), Lou Rawls (1998), Bruce Cockburn (1998), Sister Janet Mead (1999), Wilson Phillips (2004) a.o.
Best version: The Byrds’ version was put to perfect use on The Wonder Years, one of my all-time favourite TV shows (the grumpy Dad was just incredible, and the annoying older brother was perfectly written).

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Racey – Kitty.mp3
Toni Basil – Mickey.mp3
I have been told that there is a practice in the cinema of pornography whereby seasoned thespians of the genre dress up in schoolgirl uniforms (temporarily, one should think) and pigtails and pass themselves off as teenagers. So it was with the video for Toni Basil’s 1982 hit Mickey, in which the 39-year-old dressed up as a teenage girl, doing an energetic routine approximating cheerleading. But if Stockard Channing could pass as a high school student in Grease… Mickey was unaccountably popular – it’s a pretty awful song, actually – eclipsing the original by British faux greasers Racey, who recorded on the RKA label. Their 1979 original version of the song was called Kitty, written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (who also wrote hits for the likes of Sweet, Smokie and Suzi Quatro). It was not a hit, and neither Toni Basil nor her record company evidently thought much of it when she recorded it soon after, also in 1979. For two years it languished in the reject tray before some bright spark decided to inflict the number on us, against Basil’s misgivings. In my view, they should have listened to the singer.
Also recorded by: Weird Al Yankovich did a version called Rickey, which I’m sure split sides coast to coast. And B*witched also did a version, which can’t have been great.
Best version: The Racey song is actually not bad.

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Pissing off the Taste Police with Carpenters

October 6th, 2007 5 comments

OK, I’m cheating a bit. There are factions of the Taste Police who adore Karen & Richard’s music. Read this post as pissing off those branches of the Taste Police who would prosecute their Carpenters-loving colleagues.

It is a little odd that the same members of the Taste Police who will defend the Carpenters are quite prepared to heap scorn on far edgier acts — for lacking edge. Let’s face it, you can’t really screw to the Carpenters (“Song For You” and “This Masquerade” being exceptions), they were mostly a cover act, and fans of the Carpenters are likely to like James Blunt as well. And many Carpenters song were utter crap. But when the Carpenters were great, they were indeed great. Richard’s arrangements could be exquisite. Perhaps the Taste Police forgives that. But Richard Carpenter, surely, is the least rock ‘n roll man ever to have worn the pop mantle. All I’m left with is Karen Carpenter: one of the finest vocalists in pop ever, blessed with an astonishingly beautiful and versatile voice.

Carpenters – (They Long To Be) Close To You.mp3
This Bacharach-David composition was the Carpenters break-through hit, and the best-known version of the song, which has been recorded by artists as diverse as Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes (whose symphonic version is incredible), the Cranberries and the Barenaked Ladies (the late Gwen Guthrie recorded a lovely upbeat version of it in 1986). The Carpenters were discovered by Herb Alpert and signed to his A&M label; it was Alpert who suggested they record “Close To You”, and it sounds like he is playing on it too.
Gwen Guthrie – (They Long To Be) Close To You.mp3

Carpenters – Superstar.mp3
Oh, Karen’s plaintive, yearning voice on this can move you to tears. Another Taste Police target, Luther Vandross later took this song, stirred in some Stevie Wonder, and created a 9-minute epic which should be regarded as one of the great cover versions of any song. I’m not quite sure how a song written from the perspective of a groupie (begging the question of why it wasn’t used in Almost Famous) came to become a big hit for the wholesome Carpenters. No doubt, they knew what the song was about; they even toned down the lyrics in one instance. A host of other artists recorded “Superstar” in the two years between its composition and the Carpenters’ hit version, including Rita Coolidge and Bette Middler, whose TV performance of the song alerted Richard to it.
Luther Vandross – Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me.mp3

Carpenters – Rainy Days And Mondays.mp3
This might be my favourite Carpenters song. Its undramatically but touchingly describes the condition of depression, with the promise of finding refuge and comfort from melancholy from “the one who loves me”. Karen invests much emotion into her delivery; presumably this was a song she could identify with more than the one written from a groupie’s perspective. I’m with Karen on Mondays being a bit of a downer, but rainy days cheer me up. As does this sad but hopeful song.

Carpenters – Goodbye To Love.mp3
This song breaks my heart. What fatalistic lyrics (” And all I know of love is how to live without it”) delivered with such a range of emotion. But it’s not the sad lyrics and Karen’s vocals that get me as much as that fuzzy guitar solo which captures the entire sentiment of the song. It’s a guitar solo that reaches inside me and wrenches my guts. Never mind “Rainy Days”, I think this is my favourite Carpenters song.

Carpenters – Hurting Each Other.mp3
A cover of a fairly obscure ’60s track. As this song begins, Karen sounds bit like Dusty Springfield. At 0:38, the chorus kicks in and it’s pure Carpenters. Richard’s arrangement is wonderful, making it sound like a Bacharach song. The climax at 2:13 is possibly the finest Carpenters moment: Karen’s phrasing of the lines, ” Making each other cry, breaking each other’s heart, tearing each other apart”, with her emphasis on the words “each other” as the strings go all soul on us…phew!

Carpenters – A Song For You.mp3
“A Song For You” was the title track for their best album by far, released in 1972 (it also featured the previous two songs). Karen’s vocals are incredibly intricate and emotionally beautifully judged, a real masterclass of singing (which Christina Aguilera might have taken note of on her attempt of a cover). I love the way Karen sings the word “better”. It seems difficult to top this version, but Donny Hathaway’s version, recorded a year earlier, is even better. Imagine Donny and Karen had lived to record it as a duet (hmmmm, Karen, dead; Gwen, dead; Luther, dead; Donny, dead…)!
Donny Hathaway – A Song For You.mp3

Carpenters – This Masquerade.mp3
If a song has a flute in it, I’m almost certain to love it. And “This Masquerade” has some of the best flute in pop. Like “A Song For You”, it was written by Leon Russell. George Benson’s version, from Breezin, is better known. Good as it is, the Carpenters’ take pisses all over it. Another intricate vocal performance, a wonderful jazzy arrangement — and Richard rocks a lovely piano solo, just before the first flute solo. Amazingly, this was only the b-side to the appalling cover of the Marvelettes‘ “Please Mr Postman” (the one with the Disneyland promo). And here’s a key as to why some members of the Taste Police still disregard the Carpenters’ genius: many of the great moments are obscured by the rubbish that was released to score hits.

The Carpenters – There’s A Kind Of Hush.mp3
And this is the sort of song I blame for that. The arrangement is cheesy and shoddy, the melody is pretty but lacking in substance, and the lyrics are so generic as to give Karen nothing to do with them. Of all the rubbish Carpenters songs, it’s not even remotely the worst. To his credit, Richard is unhappy with his reworking of the Herman’s Hermits hit, especially the use of the synth. (Previously uploaded on the Time Travel: 1976 post)