Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Whole Week of Elliott Smith: Coast to Coast

“Coast to Coast” is kind of unexpected as the first song on the  album From a Basement on the Hill that was originally intended to be his next release after Figure 8.  Released in 2004, it ended up becoming a posthumous album, after he died from a stab wounds to the heart. 

“Coast to Coast” is a straight ahead rock song. It  has got big fuzzy, distorted guitars – and of course the multi-layered vocals which were one of his trademarks.  Smith also had his friend Nelson Gary recite some poetry explaining to Under the Radar in 2003:

“I asked this friend of mine to make up something he could say as fast as he could in fifteen minutes about people healing themselves or being unable to heal themselves. While he’s saying this thing there is a main vocal that goes over that.”

The song begins softly with what appears to sound like a distorted orchestra – something that would have been suited to a latter-day Beatles’ song.  And then the actual music kicks in, and the central riff pulls in you.  It’s chunky and distorted – confusing the listener, a theme which also appears in the lyrics.    

 Smith was known for his love of the Fab Four, even claiming that The White Album was the reason that he started making music in the first place.  Even the repeated non-verbal “ahhhhs” beginning at the 2:38 mark are very Lennon-esque.    The song even ends with piano gently playing while numerous voices speak over each other in the beginning – linking together a standard “rock” song with avant-garde effects.  It’s as if Smith was trying to combine the things that he loved about the Beatles in one song – the conventional song, the open heart lyrics, and the experimental.

Songs for a Flood

It’s raining pretty hard in Baltimore today, and parts of the area are under a flood-watch.  A friend of mine told me that Fells Point is flooding.  I don’t find that hard to believe.  So here’s a list of flood themed songs for you today.

1.) Theme From Flood – They Might Be Giants

2.) Lost in the FloodBruce Springsteen

3.) Who Will Stop the Rain?Creedence Clearwater Revival

4.) High Water (For Charley Patton)Bob Dylan (Dylan has many choices, but I decided to go with this one because it’s one of my favorites of his latter-day career, less obvious.)

5. March into the Sea – Modest Mouse

6.) Walk to the Water – U2 (Joshua Tree-era B-side)

7.) The River in Reverse – Elvis Costello & Allen Touissant

8.) When the Levee Breaks – Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie

9.) Down by the Water – PJ Harvey

10. Famous Blue Raincoat – Leonard Cohen

A Whole Lot of Elliott Smith: Waltz # 2

Waltz # 2” might be Elliot Smith’s most enduring (and with the exception of “Miss Misery”) his most popular as well. 

It’s also a song that seems like  it’s  existed forever and is timeless.  It exists in its own universe as a song, yet it is familiar.  It’s the sound of Civil War-era Ball, of an evening dance in Vienna.    Even if you’ve never heard “Waltz # 2” before, you swear to yourself that you have.    The synching of the piano and the guitars playing the same hummable melody ensure that once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.

“Waltz #2”’s  sweet melody is betrayed, but the bitterness of the lyrics.  Smith seem s to be pinpointing his anger towards his mother, and new husband – “That’s the man that she’s married to now
That’s the girl that he takes around town”  The rejection cannot be denied.  The closing lines of the song – “I’m never going to know you now But I’m going to love you anyhow,” echo the opening l lines of John Lennon’s “Mother”.  Both songwriters are pleading for the attention of their mother, but are denied through different forms of abandonment.  In Lennon’s case, his mother died during a car accident when he was 17, and Smith feels the pressure of a new step-father in the song.  He doesn’t like that his new man is interfering with his life – “Tell Mr. Man with the impossible plans to leave me alone.”

Smith’s  left to wonder if his mother is happy or not.  She appears to have him “like a dead china doll”.  She appears composed and fakes having a stable marriage in public – but can anyone be so sure?  It might all be a lie, to save face.  A wedge has clearly been place in the relationship, one that might not be able to be repaired.  Yet, he’s not entirely bitter even if the relationship is breaking.  “I’ll never know you now,” Smith pleads.  “But I’m gonna love you anyhow.”

A Whole Week of Elliott Smith

(Song selection coming tomorrow.)

Fall days can be warm, but the night is (usually) cool enough to wear be comfortable with just a hoodie on.  The green landscape has given way to an orange hue.  The crisp cool air is a relief after the burning hot days of summer.  Yet underneath the reprieve from the heat – there is a certain sadness that comes with fall.  The days are getting shorter, and soon even the orange and red leaves will turn brown.  Before you know – winter is around the corner.

There are many albums and artists that perfectly capture the seasonal limbo between summer and winter – and perhaps known more so than Elliott Smith.  His catalog fits the mood of the changing weather patterns – the music itself is warm.  His voice was adrift and thin – like leaving falling from the trees.  It’s also perfect for sitting on the peach late at night.

Smith was sometimes described as a folk-punk (something like could be attributed to Ryan Adams – who before turning sober was equally as trouble as Smith).  Unfortunately, I was not too familiar with his work when I saw the news of his death back in 2003.  It wasn’t until a year later when I reviewed the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, that I realized the true depth of his work.  Like the best of my musical heros (Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison) the quality of Smith’s unreleased material ranked with the best of his work.  (New Moon confirmed this as well.)
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A Week Full of Hendrix: Stone Free

Even President Obama likes Jimi Hendrix and was slipping some lines from “Stone Free”  into one of his speeches.

From the AP:

“Some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time — and they’re not always happy with me — they talk about me like a dog. That’s not in my prepared remarks, but it’s true,” Obama said during a speech at Wisconsin’s Laborfest on Monday.

Though Obama didn’t acknowledge it, the line was a verbatim quote from “Stone Free,” the first song Hendrix wrote after moving to England in 1966. “They talk about me like a dog,” the song says. “Talkin about the clothes I wear. But they don’t realize they’re the ones who’s square.”

Check out “Stone Free”:

The solo is pretty short for Hendrix, but one of my favorites of his.

A Week Full of Hendrix: Hendrix Covers

Not much writing on this post, but check out Hendrix putting his stamp on quite a few classics.  (Note: I’m not including “All Along the Watchtower here – while great, it’s too obvious.)

“Hey Joe/Sunshine of Your Love”:

“Like a Rolling Stone”:

“Wild Thing”:

“Catfish Blues”:

“Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”:

A Week Full of Hendrix: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”

Like most people, my initial thought the first time I heard this song was: “what the hell is this?”   It’s there’s a song that captures everything that Jimi Hendrix did – it’s perfectly achieved on this wah-wah soaked masterpiece. 

A friend of mine remarked that even 40 years later, “Voodoo Child” is among the heaviest things anyone’s ever put to record.  What sets “Voodoo Child” apart though, is how Hendrix is able to play the blues to logical extreme, be heavy and funky all in the same song.  There’s also a few occasions in the song where he does all three at the same time. 

“Voodoo Child” is the song that is guitar heroism at its apex.  No other human being has played better than this.  A little over a year before he recorded “Voodoo Child” Hendrix famously lit his guitar on fire during his performance at Monterary Pop.  “Voodoo Child” is creating the impossible with this song, and burning it down as he goes. 

The song itself also deals with destruction and creation.  “Well I stand up next to a mountain,” Hendrix begins.  “And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”  But there’s beauty after the mess: “I pick up all the pieces and make an island.  Maybe even raise a little sand.”   He’s sorry for taking up sweet time, but don’t worry he’ll give it back to us, “one of these days.” 

Near the end of the song, Hendrix offers a sort of goodbye: “If I don’t meet you no more in this world, I’ll meet ya in the next one.”  It’s unclear whether he meant that sincerely, or as a threat to watch out for what he was up to next – Hendrix was said to be moving in a different musical direction around the time of his death.  Either way, he wasn’t going to wait around.  “Don’t be late!” He implores. 

Check out “Voodoo Child (Slight Return”):

A Week Full of Hendrix: “Bold as Love”

If “The Wind Cries Mary” was Jimi Hendrix at his most naked both lyrically and sonically, “Bold is Love” is where songwriter Hendrix meets guitar-God Hendrix. 

Musically, the song is like an audio version of “The Wizard of Oz”.  The first half of the song begins with a blues-based riff – reminiscent of the black and white picture of Dorothy in Kansas.   When Hendrix explodes with extended guitar-solo that kicks off the second half of the song, gray shifts to full-on color, like Dorothy landing in Oz.  He even mentions a rainbow in the song.  It’s hard to know where he was thinking of the “Wizard of Oz” when he recorded this “Bold as Love”.  But Hendrix was probably all too aware that he was taking the listener to a place never heard before – “over the rainbow”. 

Even the song’s lyrics are full of color – “metallic purple armor”; “Queen Jealousy in her green gown”.  Hendrix sees the world in front of him as a canvas, and he uses his guitar to create a psychedelic sonic painting.  Every note is a beautiful, yet furious brush stroke. 

It is worth noting Hendrix’s use of the word “bold” in the song.  Obviously, bold could mean courageous.  But I tend to think he’s referring to bold as a type-face since a bold-face is meant to accentuate, and emphasis words or letters in typography.  Everything about this song is bold.  It’s meant to stand out from everything else, and be larger than life.  When Hendrix yells out, “yeah yeah yeah!” – he’s emphasizing everything that he’s already sung with each individual, “yeah”. 

Check out “Bold is Love”:

On a side note, when I searched  for  “Bold as Love” on Youtube, John Mayer came up first.  Seriously?

A Week Full of Hendrix: “The Wind Cries Mary”

I knew that the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death was coming up, but somehow the actual date eluded me.  To that end, this week I’m going to devote my list to Hendrix.

I grew out of being blown away by guitar pyrotechnics when I was a late teenager -this was back when I thought Led Zeppelin was actually pretty cool.   Yet even as my tastes drifted from the guitar gods, I’ve always liked Jimi Hendrix.    I view Hendrix as a songwriter first and then a radical interpreter of the blues.

So much has been written about him, that it would probably be superfluous to add to here.

So I’ll start with my favorite Hendrix song – “The Wind Cries Mary”

As I stated above, I view Hendrix as a songwriter, and “The Wind Cries Mary” was the first song where I really saw his talent as a songwriter.  It’s been said that Hendrix was insecure about his voice.  Obviously this isn’t true, but he let his feet and hands hide his voice behind the walls of wah-wah and distortion.  “The Wind Cries Mary” is probably the first time Hendrix let down the wall, and delivered one of his most tender ballads.  Even the solo that comes in the middle of the song, is remarkably restrained for Hendrix.

Supposedly written about written one of his girlfriends after an argument, Hendrix isn’t just letting down his guitar-wall, he’s also truly revealing himself.  If Bob Dylan had famously said that the answer was “blowin’ in the wind”, Hendrix is seeing his life by taken by it – he wants his girl back, but his cries just drift out into the air.

“A broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life,” He laments.   Is he the broom?  Useless in a corner, until there’s a mess to be cleaned, trying to clean up the damage he made?

Even the things that are part of everyday life sense his unease – “The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow, and shine their emptiness down on my bed.”   “Will the wind ever remember the names it has blown in the past?” He wonders later.  “No, this will be the last,” the wind whispers back to him.

Without a doubt, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a heartfelt song and one of Hendrix’s best.

The Wind Cries Mary