Song of the Day, April 7: The Fix by Elbow with Richard Hawley

elbowhawleyfixToday’s song is a wonderful collaboration. Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey met singer-songwriter Richard Hawley when they were both performing in Tennessee. They were on the same flight back to England and over “Battleship and drinks” struck up a friendship. They agreed to work together on a song, and the result is delightful.

The Fix, taken from Elbow’s stunning The Seldom Seen Kid, takes on a simple enough subject, fixing a horse race. Given the talent involved, however, the song itself is so much more. Featuring lines like “the redoubtable beast has had Pegasus pills”, it’s a lyrical tour-de-force. Garvey and Hawley’s voices blend delightfully, and the Elbow musicians provide a dark, swirling, mysterious backdrop for the tale. With eerie sound effects, subtle percussion, and off-kilter keyboards, it’s a magic musical ride.

The original version is stellar, but this live for broadcast version is even more amazing, showing off the band’s skill and featuring a tasty guitar solo from Hawley. Enjoy it today!

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Song of the Day, April 3: Take It On the Chin by Kim Carnes

carneschinToday’s song wraps up a veteran singer’s finest album. After getting her start with the New Christy Minstrels, Kim Carnes released a series of decent folk-pop albums. In 1980, she hit the Top 10 twice, writing a duet recorded with Kenny Rogers (Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer) and performing a smart reinvention of Smokey Robinson’s More Love. She followed that up with a monster hit, the charming, infectious Bette Davis Eyes. That success proved hard to follow on the charts, but her next album was an artistic peak.

Voyeur is a consistent, cohesive set of songs, dark and brooding but essentially human. The final track is Carnes’ composition Take It On the Chin. A delightful kiss-off song, it shows off the singer’s wit and sass. She turns in a sharp vocal, making the most of her trademark rasp as she dissects a disappointing lover. As she bids him farewell, she doubts he can even live up to her expectations in departure.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Album of the Week, April 2: Jeffrey Osborne

JOsborneJeffrey Osborne was the born the youngest of twelve children in a musical family. His father was noted jazz trumpeter Clarence “Legs” Osborne, and many of his siblings went on to careers in music. Osborne began playing drums professionally while still in high school, working around his hometown of Providence, RI. A new R&B outfit called Love Men Ltd. recruited him while touring, and he joined the group, renamed L.T.D., in Los Angeles after graduation. His rich voice soon moved him out from behind the drum kit, and his brother Billy joined L.T.D. also on vocals and drums as well as keyboards. After nearly a decade of solid chart success with the band, Osborne wanted to write for other artists and explore occasional solo work. L.T.D. wasn’t interested in sharing his talents, so he left the band entirely, waiting a year for legal releases to come through while he planned his solo debut. During that time, he hooked up with jazz multi-instrumentalist and producer George Duke, who agreed to helm the project. Duke’s diverse talents — and his many friends and connections — allowed the singer to make the most of his own strengths, resulting in a powerful first release.

Title Jeffrey Osborne
Act Jeffrey Osborne
Label A & M Release Date 1982
Producer George Duke
U.S. Chart  #49 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. New Love
  2. Eenie Meenie [#76]
  3. I Really Don’t Need No Light [#39]
  4. On the Wings of Love [#29]
  5. Ready For Your Love
  6. Who You Talkin’ To?
  7. You Were Made to Love
  8. Ain’t Nothin’ Missin’
  9. Baby
  10. Congratulations

Duke and Osborne set the stage perfectly with New Love. It’s a joyous blast of romantic optimism, featuring nice horn work and a tight rhythm section. A well-produced choir provide harmonies, providing a rich backdrop for Osborne’s exuberant vocal. The track is a nice kickoff and a great declaration of musical independence. Eenie Meenie is a darker track with a soulful groove. Telling the tale of a romance broken once too often, it features bright strings and elegant percussion. Osborne sings of knowing when something is finally over, conveying sorrow without being broken.

The masterpiece of the disc is the searing I Really Don’t Need No Light. The first single, it showed off everything Osborne learned in his time touring with the band and his new confidence in his own right. It’s a great kiss-off song with smart lyrics; Duke’s production makes the most of Osborne’s distinctive phrasing, and the whole package is a perfect example of timeless dance pop. The next hit took a very different approach. On the Wings of Love is a delightful celebration song. Driven by a blend of keyboards and subtle strings, it’s a joyous ballad of hope and love. The subtle touches — like the snare riff in the chorus — provide texture that helps it rise above the typical happy pop love song.

Ready For Your Love is a smoldering dance track, with Osborne singing his regrets about almost letting romance slip away. He offers a grittier vocal than usual, adding variety to the disc and energy to the song. Duke’s sequencing of the album is part of its magic, and offering the jazzy showcase of Who You Talkin’ To? next is a fine example. With sassy horns, a searing guitar solo, engaging treated vocal backing, and a tight, band, it’s a big, bossy number. Osborne clearly has fun with it. You Were Made to Love is fine, but something of a letdown. A fluffy slow dance love song, it features a nice vocal but some frankly silly lyrics. Fortunately, Ain’t Nothin’ Missin’ blasts in with joyful energy. A track of unadulterated happiness, it features fun do-do-do backing vocals and one of Osborne’s best leads.

Baby is a swirling torch song, reminiscent of Al Green. It’s lyrically slight, but Duke and Osborne treat it with respect, turning in something surprising. Things wrap up with the remarkable Congratulations. Sung to a former lover as she prepares for her wedding, it could be a syrupy weeper. Instead, it’s treated with restraint, a slow, bare start that builds gradually, almost sneaking up on the listener. Osborne’s great phrasing makes the most of the telling line “Life goes on, I guess”, capturing the heart of the song. It’s a perfect wrap-up to a solid outing.

FURTHER LISTENING: Jeffrey Osborne continued to release solid, fun albums for a decade. His sophomore effort, Stay With Me Tonight, is nearly as good as the debut and a personal favorite. Don’t Stop follows the Duke/Osborne formula with diminishing returns but is still very worthwhile. From there, things are a mixed bag. Osborne’s voice is always amazing however, and his sense of musicality is so strong that he makes the most of even the weaker material. For the casual fan, the Ultimate Collection actually lives up to its name, offering 17 great songs including his best work with L.T.D.

Song of the Day, March 31: Streets of Your Town by Bryndle

bryndleToday’s song features on the realization of a long-deferred dream. In 1969, four like-minded musicians got together as Bryndle. Karla Bonoff, Kenny Edwards, Andrew Gold, and Wendy Waldman all had an interest in country-tinged folk-pop and great craftsmanship. They signed with A&M and recorded an album. Only a single was released however, and the lack of a strong response to their carefully crafted recording broke up the band and shelved the album.

Over the next two decades, all four found success as writers, singers, producers, and session musicians, including shared projects with Linda Ronstadt. Finally, in 1995, they gathered again and recorded an eponymous debut — a quarter century after their first try. The result was magical, with the intervening years honing their talents. Regular collaborators, they meshed even better than they had in 1970. Bryndle is a fine album without a dull moment.

The standout was written by Gold with folk singer Jenny Yates. Streets of Your Town is a fun road song and tale of frustrated romance. It’s energetic and compelling, making the most of the fine group harmonies and solid musical talents of the quartet.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, March 27: Easy For You To Say by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtclosereasyToday’s song is a smart moment by a master interpreter. By the time she recorded her 11th solo album, Linda Ronstadt was a superstar with a proven approach. Each disc included songs written by longtime friends and regular collaborators, a couple of classic covers, and a few songs by emerging songwriters. Get Closer is a solid effort that follows this pattern to good effect. The standout track was written by veteran composer Jimmy Webb.

Unlike the lush, intricate songs for which he is best known, Easy For You To Say is a simple track. It explores the frustration of a woman whose lover has abandoned her, offering shallow excuses. Ronstadt is in fine voice, mining the subtle ache of the lyrics nicely. She saves up her dismay for the chorus, smoldering as she sings the title line. With a crack band and smart production from long-time partner Peter Asher, she offers one of her finest moments on record.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, March 24: The Everthere by Elbow

elbowleadersfreeToday’s song is a touching quest for lasting love. Elbow are known for their smart lyrics, diverse musical approaches, refined musicianship, and darkly quirky worldview. On the finest track from their third album, Leaders of the Free World, however, they put a more hopeful lens on that view.

The Everthere opens in classic Elbow style: “All my saints have taken bribes, singing going, going gone…” As singer Guy Garvey intones a series of setbacks and harsher realities, he asks his romantic partner if he can count on her to be his Everthere. It’s a sweet sentiment, nicely set in a worried framework. The band blend beautiful restraint with just the right soaring touches, underscoring the yearning and hope in the lyrics.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, March 20: I Want to Be Here by case/lang/veirs

clvwanthereToday’s song is a magical celebration. When k.d. lang, Laura Veirs, and Neko Case combined forces as case/lang/veirs, they brough three compatible but distinct approaches to music into a lovely whole. Most of the songs are led by one of the trio, but the moments of full collaboration are even more special.

I Want to Be Here is a sort of quirky lullaby, a charming acoustic number with resonant background sounds. The three singers fuse their voices into a single instrument. It’s an amazing accomplishment, reminiscent of the finer moments of the Roches. Promising to live in the moment rather than be distracted by what might come, they offer a wonderful celebration of hope.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Album of the Week, March 19: Glass Houses by Billy Joel

joelglasstvBilly Joel had music in his life from birth. His father was a classical pianist who fled Europe to escape the Nazis. His mother, another Jewish refugee, encouraged music in the household and insisted that young Billy take piano lessons. Despite his initial resistance, he showed a natural aptitude. After his parents divorced, he played in piano bars to help his mother make ends meet; that work interfered with his studies, and rather than extend his high school years, he dropped out to play rock and roll. Inspired by the Beatles, the Drifters, and the Four Seasons, he worked in a series of Long Island bands and did some session work.

His first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, was released to little fanfare. While touring to support it, he was signed by Columbia and moved to Los Angeles. His experience in a local piano bar there formed the basis of the title track for his second album, Piano Man. That disc sold modestly, but established him as a talented singer, pianist, and songwriter with a knack for charming pop, sometimes with a rock edge. After two more solid albums that established his sound, he broke big with The Stranger, followed by the nearly as massive 52nd Street. By 1979, he was a certified superstar, with platinum #1 albums, nine Top 40 hits, and a handful of Grammy awards. Frustrated by his inability to get critical acclaim that matched his success, he headed to the studio with his long-time band to record his finest album.

Title Glass Houses
Act Billy Joel
Label Columbia Release Date March 10, 1980
Producer Phil Ramone
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #9
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You May Be Right [#7]
  2. Sometimes A Fantasy [#36]
  3. Don’t Ask Me Why [#19]
  4. It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me [#1]
  5. All For Leyna
  6. I Don’t Want to Be Alone
  7. Sleeping With the Television On
  8. C’était Toi (You Were the One)
  9. Close to the Borderline
  10. Through the Long Night

Glass Houses was both a departure and a logical progression. Joel intentionally incorporated more electronic keyboards and synths into the mix and pursued music with nods to punk and New Wave. Through it all, however, he still wrote, played, and sang like Billy Joel, creating a unique synthesis that worked almost in spite of itself. The shattering glass sound effect that opens side one is an apt aural metaphor.

The first four tracks were all Top 40 hits — an unusual feat for the time that duplicated the success of The Stranger. They’re a mixed bag, but each charming in their own right. You May Be Right borrowed from My Life and Movin’ Out, but added a post-punk edge to the sound. Joel roughened his vocals a bit, fitting the story of the bad boy looking for love on his own terms. The second track was another story altogether. Sometimes A Fantasy is a clever song about phone sex that sounds like an Elvis impersonator borrowing Billy Idol’s band. And it works. The result is fun, urgent, and one of Joel’s best songs. Don’t Ask Me Why is another look at relationships and personal interactions, just smug enough without being snide. It also sounds the most like his earlier hits, helping long-time fans feel at home.

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me is famously the singer’s kiss-off to those who don’t appreciate his musical roots and approach. With nods to classic 50s pop sounds in a very New Wave setting, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Joel’s committed delivery and fun lyrics pull the whole thing together — and result in his first #1 single. Side one wraps up with a fantastic should-have-been-a-hit track. All For Leyna is an urgent, lusty tour-de-force. Joel’s protagonist is obsessed with a woman who may be indifferent, may be no good for him, may be just teaching him a lesson. Whatever the case, he can’t stay away. It’s a great song, with a stunning piano line and smart backup from the whole band.

After that set, side two somehow manages to keep up the pace. I Don’t Want to Be Alone is a wonderful love song, less easy listening than some of his earlier romantic tunes. Joel borrows a semi-Reggae riff that owes something to early Elvis Costello, giving the track an extra twist that helps it work. Sleeping With the Television On is his finest hit that never was, a perfect dissection of how independence and loneliness intersect. The mundane metaphor is perfect, adding a familiarity to the proceedings that makes the story universal. C’etait Toi is the lone throwaway, a fluffy bit of low-key wistfulness that’s partly in French for no particular reason.

On Close to the Borderline, Joel offers his own take on punk attitude. It’s somewhere between hard rock, pure punk, and new wave pop, and again, the determination and skill of the band make it work. It’s a fun romp that shows off how Joel can rock well when he puts his mind to it. Things wrap up with the most classic Joel moment. Through the Long Night sounds more like the decade it’s ushering in than the one it’s leaving, but the sweet sentiment and elegant delivery harken back to the Piano Man’s arc over the 15 previous years. It’s a smart track to end the disc, both as a career touchstone and as a sort of lullaby coda.

Over the course of ten tracks and barely 35 minutes, Billy Joel and company accomplish what they set out to do. Glass Houses is less a reinvention than a smart burst of artistic growth. The variety of lyrical and musical approaches helps it rise above his previous work. It also set the stage for the best — as well as the most indulgent — moments of the decades to come.

FURTHER LISTENING: Billy Joel has said he’s done recording pop and rock music, so his full career is available for the listening. With nearly three dozen Top 40 hits, he’s well anthologized. The three Greatest Hits volumes capture his radio-friendly career relatively well, tossing in a couple fan favorite album tracks for good measure. For a single disc sampling, either The Essential Billy Joel or The Hits does an adequate job that should satisfy the casual fan.

His just over a dozen albums are a mixed bag, usually including a couple of solid hits, a couple of great album tracks, some interesting songs, and some filler. The Stranger and 52nd Street are the most successful and most praised, but not my favorites. After Glass Houses, I recommend The Nylon Curtain. It’s trickier, and has some famously awkward lyrical moments, but the production is amazing and the adventurous spirit is compelling. An Innocent Man is a wonderful tribute to the music of Joel’s youth, and arguably his most consistent disc.

Song of the Day, March 17: (Everytime I Turn Around) Back In Love Again by L.T.D.

ltdturnaroundToday’s song is the biggest hit of a successful 70s R&B group. In 1968, members of Sam & Dave’s backing band formed Love Men Ltd. in Greensboro, NC. They added a couple of members and relocated to Harlem. Jeffrey Osborne joined the band on drums and occasional vocals when they met him during a gig in Providence, RI. By 1974, they changed their name to L.T.D. (for Love, Togetherness & Devotion) and moved Osborne to lead vocals, signing with A&M. Their third album — 1976’s Love to the World — included the Top 20 hit Love Ballad, which also became their first R&B #1. The following year saw the group’s fortunes expand even further.

The lead single from Something to Love shot to #1 on the R&B chart and went to #4 on the Hot 100. (Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again was written by Len Ron Hanks and Zane Grey, but L.T.D. made it their own. By this point, Osborne’s confidence as a vocalist was matched by his distinctive phrasing and smooth style. With the band providing a funky, soulful groove, he delivers an urgent but elegant story of a man overwhelmed by romance. It’s fun and energetic, a wonderful tune that fit into the disco mood of the country at the time while maintaining its own distinct flavor.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, March 13: MacArthur Park by Richard Harris

rharrismacarthurToday’s song was a surprise chart smash — twice. The first version of MacArthur Park came about through a serious of interactions. Producer Bones Howe challenged Jimmy Webb to write a radio-friendly song with a classical structure in multiple movements. Webb rose to the challenge, crafting a four-part suite about the end of a romantic relationship. Howe offered it to the Association, but they passed. Not long after that, Webb was playing piano at a fundraiser and was approached by Richard Harris. The actor had just finished a successful run in Camelot and enjoyed singing, so he wanted to put together an album. Webb was skeptical, but the pair hit it off, and he wound up composing and producing A Tramp Shining for Harris. The centerpiece was MacArthur Park.

Famously complicated and filled with rich imagery, the song has been the object of admiration and scorn for nearly five decades. Webb was inspired to write it after breaking up with a long-time girlfriend whom he often met in the titular park. Although the song was released in 1968, he maintains that there were no psychedelic influences. The musical structure was a response to Howe’s challenge, and the images were adapted but literal.

Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park.

Despite its multiple movements and seven-and-a-half minute running time, the song was a smash, reaching #2 on the Hot 100 and #10 on the Easy Listening chart.

Even more surprising was its next incarnation. Producer Giorgio Moroder was looking for a classic 60s song to adapt to disco for Donna Summer. He ran across the Harris recording of MacArthur Park and knew he had the right one. He thought the range and dynamics of the song were a good fit for her powerful voice. The song was included in an 18-minute suite on her double live album. A radio edit became an even bigger hit than the Harris version, spending three weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 while the full suite topped the Dance chart for five weeks.

Enjoy the amazing original recording of this song and its fun disco successor today.

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