Song of the Day, April 1: The Great Puzzle by Jules Shear

ShearPuzzlesignedToday’s song is the title track from Jules Shear’s 1992 masterpiece. The track is a nice statement of purpose for the talented songwriter’s long career. Smart and insightful, it’s a look at the challenges of everyday life. Despite the six-minute-plus running time, Shear avoids providing a mere catalog of catastrophe; instead, it’s a realistic assessment of personal ups and downs, cleverly paced. Shear’s vocals are at their best on this song as he gives a warmly Dylanesque delivery. The chorus is brief and to the point, summing up a practical but cautiously optimistic worldview that anchors the album and resonates through all Shear’s best work:

It’s a great puzzle,
But you’ve got to like games.

Enjoy this lovely song today, and may the tricks life plays amuse but never fool you.

Song of the Day, March 31: This Will Be Our Year by the Zombies

ZombieYearToday’s song is a charming highlight from the Zombies’ final album, the brilliant Odessey and Oracle. Written by bass guitarist Chris White, it’s a ray of optimism amid the predominantly dark and introspective songs on the disc.

Colin Blunstone turns in a lovely vocal, sounding happy without overselling the cautious joy of the song. The band provide a tight, timeless pop backdrop and a bright horn section emphasizes the rays of sun breaking through the clouds.

This will be our year
Took a long time to come

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, March 30: The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys by Traffic

TrafficLowSparkToday’s song is the title track from classic rock group Traffic’s magnum opus, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. By 1971, the ever-changing Traffic line-up included three of the group’s founders — Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood — and the dynamic three-man rhythm section of Ric Grech, Jim Gordon and Rebop Kwaku Baah. Winwood and Capaldi wrote most of the tracks together, including this amazing song.

Capaldi credits actor Michael J. Pollard with the title and concept. While vacationing together in Morocco, Pollard wrote the words on the flyleaf of the book Capaldi was reading. He felt like it was a perfect description of Pollard and of the times.

For me, it summed him up. He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket. At the time he was a heavy little dude. It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels. The ‘Low Spark,’ for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The ‘Low Spark’ meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.

He and Winwood crafted a mini-epic that dissects the entertainment business with smart precision. Blending Traffic’s best jazzy inclinations with a tight rock rhythm, the surging track lasts almost twelve minutes. As many critics have observed, the overall effect is so mesmerizing that it’s sneaks by, never seeming to be as long as it is. Winwood turns in one of his finest vocals as well, capturing the glittering promise and underlying menace in equal measure. Languorous, insistent, and subtle, it’s a powerful musical achievement.

Enjoy this classic track today.

Album of the Week, March 29: Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

EC-IBfrontBy the time he released his seventh album, Elvis Costello had established himself as a force to be reckoned with. After a stunning debut, he churned out a steady series of albums that each had a significant number of critics crying “masterpiece!” The erstwhile Declan MacManus proved a deft hand at a wide array of musical styles, applying his encyclopedic knowledge and broad tastes to post-punk, art pop, honky-tonk, country, and R&B. Through it all, the Attractions proved themselves one of the finest bands in the business, adapting to all the twists and turns and lending a solid consistency to every disc. Costello’s smart, wry lyrics were the other constant, analyzing and often skewering politics both personal and governmental. After five strong albums with producer Nick Lowe and the fascinating country covers experiment Almost Blue, he entered the studio with a set of tracks composed on piano and never tested live. He also engaged Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick to produce, bringing in the right talent to juggle the complex sounds he wanted to explore. The result set the template for his next 30 years of music and proved that everything he had absorbed and disseminated to date was in preparation for his bold reinvention of pop music.

Title Imperial Bedroom
Act Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Label Columbia Release Date July 2, 1982
Producer Geoff Emerick (from an original idea by Elvis Costello)
U.S. Chart  #30 U.K. Chart  #6
  1. Beyond Belief
  2. Tears Before Bedtime
  3. Shabby Doll
  4. The Long Honeymoon
  5. Man Out of Time
  6. Almost Blue
  7. …And In Every Home
  8. The Loved Ones
  9. Human Hands
  10. Kid About It
  11. Little Savage
  12. Boy With A Problem
  13. Pidgin English
  14. You Little Fool
  15. Town Cryer

This wasn’t just pop like 1982 radio. It was an honest, loving tribute to — and reinvention of — pop music traditions from Tin Pan Alley to the Great American Songbook, from the Brill Building and Bacharach to Lennon and McCartney. With his usual casual arrogance, deep feeling, and literate observations, Costello crafted a set of 15 songs that are at once diverse and cohesive.

Things kick off with Beyond Belief, a torrent of words that creates a single snapshot. Breathlessly narrating a casual encounter in a bar, he infuses it with emotion and potential, breaking off the narration just before it all comes together. It’s a smart, energetic, almost brutal beginning, two-and-a-half minutes of the finest of Costello. Tears Before Bedtime is a bit of vintage pop, a cinematic moment that captures the kitchen sink drama mood with a bit of carnival flair. Shabby Doll, inspired by a cabaret poster, dissects sexual politics with epic wit and a Gershwinesque melody. The aching Long Honeymoon closes the first section with another nicely narrated relationship snapshot and a warmly emotive vocal.

The opening and closing moments of Man Out of Time recall early Costello with a crazed guitar and angry howl. Fading in and out of these moments is a stately march of a song lamenting a figure who has lost his place. The juxtaposition is wonderful and the effect is both jarring and resonant. While Almost Blue shares a title with Costello’s previous album of country covers, the song itself is a smart jazzy piece that recalls the best of Cole Porter. The lament of a man worn thin by life, it’s become a standard and one of Costello’s most covered songs.

The next trio fit nicely together. …And In Every Home has a bright, Beatlesque horn section under a story of illusory domesticity. The Loved Ones features a joyous piano figure with a martial drum as Costello sings of the challenges of romance. Human Hands is the most New Wave of the cuts, a quick plea for compassion. The three create a clever, cohesive emotional set.

The slower Kid About It features a minimalist keyboard setting and a higher register vocal. These elements underscore the open emotions of the song, making it one a more straightforward but no less effective moment in Costello’s journey. Little Savage uses layered vocals and simple, driving pop to explore the dichotomies of human nature in a smart pop snapshot. In Boy With A Problem — written with Squeeze’s Chris Difford — things get more elliptical but no less emphatic. It’s a resigned number with just a hint of hope.

Pidgin English is another standout in the whole Costello catalog. It’s a surging mini-epic in a swirling post-psychedelic setting that ponders the power of words. Given the singer’s longstanding reputation for wordplay, it’s both self-referential and revelatory, a delightful song that boils down to its coda: “P.S. I Love You.” A modern pop gem, You Little Fool takes all the elements of the pop encyclopedia that precede it and crafts a little Costello masterpiece, a biting little story with soaring production.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous Town Cryer. Building from a simple but lovely pop song to a lush production, it’s a smart bit of big band jazz blended with 80s pop. Costello turns in an especially fine vocal managing to create a bit of aching self-pity without becoming maudlin. Bonus points for creating the phrase “tragically hip” a phrase that somehow feels perfectly at home on this album.

Complicated but earnest, smart without being smug (something Costello doesn’t always balance), comprehensive but not overwhelming, Imperial Bedroom is a wonderful musical statement. With and without the Attractions, Costello continues to churn out wonderful music thirty years later. Given the many gems in that catalog, it’s a testament to Imperial Bedroom that it remains his single most enduring statement.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending March 30, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 One More Night Phil Collins 1
R & B Nightshift Commodores 3
Country Crazy Kenny Rogers 1
Adult Contemporary One More Night Phil Collins 1
Rock All She Wants to Do Is Dance Don Henley 2
Album No Jacket Required Phil Collins 1

AxelFaltermeyerThis week sees a pioneering 80s sound enter the Hot 100. Harold Faltermeyer was born in Munich in 1952. He showed an early aptitude for music, learning piano, organ and trumpet. While waiting to enter university, he found work at a recording studio; within a few years, he was engineering recordings at Deutsche Grammophon. Legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder invited him to Los Angeles to play keyboards and work on some film scores. They began working together, and Faltermeyer contributed to many Moroder projects, including work with Donna Summer.

Faltermeyer began working on his own as well, scoring movies and producing recordings as well as providing session keyboards. By 1984, his work was well known and respected and he was brought in to a major studio project — Beverly Hills Cop. His musical vision helped craft the breakdance-infused score and brought together the diverse talents that helped revolutionize popular movie soundtracks. A short theme he wrote for an action sequence in the film became a song on the soundtrack. Titled Axel F after the movie’s main character, it’s an energetic synth figure, well suited to the action of the film and perfectly adaptable to the dancefloor. With its surging keyboard riff and smart drum machine Faltermeyer’s work became the template for action movie soundtracks for years to come. It was also a big hit, entering the Hot 100 this week in 1985 at #69 and peaking at #3 for three weeks in June.

Song of the Day, March 27: I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye

GayeGrapevineToday’s song is I Heard It Through the Grapevine, the R&B classic written in 1966 by the superstar team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. House writers for Motown at the time, the pair intended it for the Miracles but were asked to tighten it up. Gaye recorded his version, which was relegated to album track status, and Gladys Knight and the Pips had the first major hit version [#2, #1 R&B for six weeks]. When Gaye’s album In the Groove came out, however, DJs picked up on his interpretation and started playing it. Berry Gordy finally relented and released this version as a single. It was a massive success, topping both charts for seven weeks almost exactly a year after Knight’s success.

It’s one of the most famous Motown songs, a classic track of betrayal and simmering anger. Gaye’s strong voice is a perfect fit as he manages to be both smooth and searing at the same time. Whitfield, who also produced the single, had him sing in a higher key, providing a nice edge to the vocal. With a menacing rhythm track from the Funk Brothers and great counterpoint harmoines from the Andantes, it’s a masterpiece of studio work.

Enjoy this brilliant classic today.

BONUS VERSION: Grapevine has been covered dozens of times by a wide variety of artists and even managed to top the R&B charts a third time. Folk rock legends Fairport Convention, fond of an uexpected musical turn, provided attendees at their annual Cropredy festival with a special treat in 1995. They turned in a rousing cover of the song, with former Fairport member Richard Thompson providing a delightful lead vocal.

Song of the Day, March 26: Careful by Thompson

ThompsonFamilyToday’s song is Careful, one of two contributions by husband and wife team Kami Thompson and James Walbourne (also known as the Rails) to the delightful album Family. Aptly credited to “Thompson,” the project was curated by Thompson’s brother, Teddy; it’s the first-ever joint venture of the extended musical family of folk-rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson.

Careful is one of two Rails contributions, a spot-on pop gem with a slight country flair. Kami sings it beautifully, opening with the smart line “Careful you don’t fall in love with someone who might break your heart.” Energetic and wistful, it captures the spirit of the family outing brilliantly. Richard Thompson contributes a stirring lead guitar and assorted family members add lovely harmonies.

With so much talent in the family, the project took on a slightly competitive nature as the contributions trickled in. Teddy has observed of this track, “When Kami’s songs came in, my heart sunk just a little. I knew that she had won.”

It’s hard to pick a single winner, but Careful is a definite highlight of a brilliant set. Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, March 25: The Largest Elizabeth in the World by the Roches

RochesLgstElizToday’s song is The Largest Elizabeth In the World from the Roches delightful third album Keep On Doing. Written by Terre Roche, it’s a smart, cynical look at body image and the pressures we put on ourselves. It’s a fun bit of wordplay and social commentary wrapped up in a tight lyrical package. The sisters sing in tight harmony, driving the message along in series of rapid-fire observations and asides. It’s classic Roches, with vocal adventures and a clever, folky backdrop.

Didn’t you ever feel like the largest Elizabeth in the world?
Usually at a time when the boy is oblivious to the girl
I read in the paper the other day
This has been happening to everybody more and more
The scientists are on the case
But they still haven’t figured out
What it is that it is happening for

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, March 24: Action Speaks Louder Than Words by the Picketts

PickettsLiveActionToday’s song is Action Speaks Louder Than Words by the Picketts. It’s featured on their delightful third album, Euphonium. It’s a perfect sample of their distinctive “Grange Rock” — a Seattle sound that sat just outside the alt-country movement and provided a smart alternative to the burgeoning Grunge scene. Vocalists Christie McWilson and Leroy “Blackie” Sleep form a seamless unit as they spin their tale of apology and determination. They turn the title aphorism back on themselves, noting how personal behavior tells a compelling story. A nice guitar solo amps up the countrified action and the whole enterprise is a lovely romp.

Enjoy this fun track today.

Song of the Day, March 23: Genetic Engineering by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark OMD - Genetic Engineering - FrontToday’s song is OMD’s brilliantly quirky single, Genetic Engineering. After three impressive albums that blended a growing mastery of electronic instruments with great pop smarts, the band took things in a much more experimental direction with 1983’s Dazzle Ships. The album featured much more fragmented tracks and a significant use of sampling and found sounds. The result is a mixed bag, a wonderful display of the musical powers of technology but not a wholly satisfying and cohesive listening experience. When it works well, however, it’s as strong as any OMD release, and it never works better than Genetic Engineering.

With a chiming toy piano sound and energetic teletype driving the action, the song features an anthemic vocal from Andy McCluskey. Mixed into the action are a number of samples, including a clever use of the Speak & Spell toy. It blurts out the words

Babies, mother, hospital, scissors
Creature, judgement, butcher, engineer

as a sort of disembodied chorus. The overall effect is an interesting statement on the ways technology intrudes into modern life. McCluskey has stated that he is not opposed to genetic engineering in principle, and the lyrics can support that view. The disjointed effect however, encourages the listener to think carefully before accepting any modern solution as a definite improvement.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

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