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.

Song of the Day, March 10: Sometimes A Fantasy by Billy Joel

joelfantasyToday’s song finds a well-known balladeer make a different approach pay off. By the time he released his finest album, 1980’s Glass Houses, Billy Joel was a bona fide star. A string of Top 20 hits from Top 5 albums established him as an accomplished singer of story songs and romantic ballads. His pop smarts and subtle rock edge were a perfect blend, but didn’t always result in critical acclaim.

Glass Houses responded to that situation brilliantly, with Joel exploring a range of styles from poppy punk to edgy new wave to urgent new takes on his pop traditions. One of the finest surprises was a Top 40 hit about phone sex. Sometimes A Fantasy is a charming wink-and-nod look at romantic frustration. Joel turns in a great vocal, keeping what could be a smarmy rant into something simmering. The result, expertly supported by his long-time band, is an unexpected moment in a strong catalog.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, March 6: An Audience With the Pope by Elbow

elbowseldompopeToday’s song is a bit of whimsy with serious consequences. By the time Elbow recorded their fourth album — the Mercury Prize winning The Seldom Seen Kid — they had refined a distinctive sound drawing on many traditions. A finely tuned unit, the quintet blended all their sounds in a smart variety of ways. Singer Guy Garvey famously observed that guitar rock often neglected dynamic range, whereas Elbow wanted each album to be a journey.

An Audience With the Pope is a wry bit of obsession. Garvey sings of a series of obligations, including the titular meeting and “saving the world at eight.” In each case, however, he’ll drop everything “if she says she needs me.” So powerful is the grip of the woman who keeps him waiting that her summons trumps everything. It’s clever, urgent, and nicely delivered.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Album of the Week, March 5: Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesLinda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, AZ, the daughter of pioneering Arizona ranchers of mostly German and Mexican descent. Her whole family loved music, and she absorbed a wide array of styles by the time she was 10. She credits significant influence from artists as disparate as Hank Williams and Maria Callas. At 14, she and two of her siblings formed a folk trio. She grew increasingly interested in merging folk and rock, eventually dropping out of college to join friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. They hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed the Stone Poneys, whose Different Drum gave Ronstadt her first hit. After three Poneys discs, she went solo, recording a series of albums blending pop, country, and folk and touring with artists ranging from the Doors to Jackson Browne. Her albums met with limited success, but she gradually developed a distinctive style and a significant circle of like-minded musical friends and collaborators. Her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now found her working with J.D. Souther, future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and — significantly — British pop singer and producer Peter Asher. They meshed well in the studio, with Asher understanding Ronstadt’s broad tastes and talents. He signed on as producer for her next album, which proved to be her breakthrough.

Title Heart Like A Wheel
Act Linda Ronstadt
Label Capitol Release Date November 1974
Producer Peter Asher (with Andrew Gold)
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You’re No Good [#1]
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like A Wheel
  6. When Will I Be Loved? [#2]
  7. Willin’
  8. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  9. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  10. You Can Close Your Eyes

Heart Like A Wheel set up the formula that launched a superstar career. Asher and Ronstadt rounded up a collection of classic rock and R&B covers, songs written by her friends and contemporaries, and new songs suited to the country-pop flavor of the album from a variety of writers. The result was a smart, cohesive adventure in music. It was also a showcase for Ronstadt’s vocal power, showing off more range and depth than her previous solo work. Asher also brought in multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold — who assisted with production on some tracks — and engineer Val Garay; the three would be mainstays of Ronstadt’s music for nearly a decade.

Things kick off in high fashion with a song Ronstadt and her band frequently used to close her live shows. You’re No Good is a smoldering song of romance gone wrong, a classic R&B track written by Clint Ballard and recorded a handful of times before Ronstadt perfected it. A very different sound than her previous more country-tinged tracks, it’s a smart choice and a great introduction to the disc. It also became her first big hit and her only Hot 100 chart-topper.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore — another classic cover written by Paul Anka and made famous by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — is more like her earlier work, but sounds fresh and inviting after the strong lead-in. Souther’s Faithless Love is a great country-pop torch song with a charming arrangement and a passionate vocal. Pop chestnut Dark End of the Street finds new life with Ronstadt’s restrained vocal and sudden, urgent surges of sorrow. The title track is and inspired choice, a quirky, literate look at the challenges of love written by Anna McGarrigle. Ronstadt channels the distinctive energy of the song, adding a pop standard vocal that differs completely from the McGarrigle version, working just like a good cover should.

Side two opens with another classic song that became another big hit. The team transform the Everly Brothers’ quietly wistful When Will I Be Loved into a demand for the love the singer deserves. Short and powerful, it works nicely and shows of the clever sequencing of the album. Lowell George’s Willin’ is an even odder choice than the title track, a song about trucking written from a very masculine point of view. Ronstadt mines the essential humanity of the song, however, and the production is flawless. Up next is a tribute to one of her main influences, a solid cover of Hank William’s I Can’t Help It. Ronstadt offers a respectful interpretation, crafting an homage rather than a surprise, and it works well. Keep Me From Blowing Away is a lovely song of loss written by fellow Williams fan Paul Craft. It makes for a solid pairing.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes. Written by James Taylor about his relationship with Joni Mitchell, it’s a modern lullaby of aching beauty. Taylor himself has recorded it solo and with both Mitchell and Carly Simon, and dozens of other artists have interpreted the song over the years. Ronstadt’s may be the finest approach, however, with the production discovering the hope in the sorrow, the possibility in the leaving. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a stunning album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Heart Like A Wheel matched the chart success of its lead single, becoming the first of Ronstadt’s three #1 albums. It propelled her to stardom, and over the course of the following decade she became one of the best-selling pop artists in the country. Her next six discs were fairly similar in approach, gradually taking on a more New Wave flavor as she entered the 80s. Since then, she’s offered up a variety of sounds, ranging from traditional Mexican music to pop standards to country-pop gems (often in collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). She stopped recording in 2006, revealing in 2013 that Parkinson’s disease made singing difficult. All of her albums offer something charming. Besides Wheel, her most consistent album (and a sentimental favorite of mine) is 1982’s Get Closer. Hasten Down the Wind is a good showcase with some strong tracks, and Simple Dreams is her second-best pop-rock set. With 21 Top 40 hits, her chart career distills nicely. If you’re mostly interested in her radio material — which is solid but misses many of her finer moments — The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is a solid collection.

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