Saturday, May 1, 2021

April 2021 Song of the Day

 Wow, this is two months in a row that I'm posting my Song of the Day update on the first day of the following month. I know what you're all thinking -- this guy has no life! And you're right. (Well, I actually, I have brief lull in work this morning, and I figure I'd better get to it while the getting is good. But also, I have no life.)

The voting wasn't even close this month in terms of the top spot, which is another reason I feel confident is getting to this early. So pull up a chair, and I'll tell you all about it.

For new readers, this blog entry refers to the monthly Song of the Day list on the Sputnik Music website. Each month, one user hosts the list and names a theme. Everyone then recommends songs in line with this theme, and people rate the various song recommendations. The list of April songs can be found at Sputnik Music Song of the Day - April 2021.

1. The theme for this month was Sing Along, meaning anthemic songs and songs people like to sing along with.

2. We had full participation again, meaning thirty different Sputnik Users each got to pick one song a piece. I would have actually liked to have recommended our old friend Tony Hightower's brilliant little number, "So the Hell What," but it's not posted anywhere on YouTube for me post a link to so the other Users could hear (and rate) it. (I think it might not be on Spotify either, but I forget for sure if I checked. We basically all use YouTube, bandcamp or Spotify, so if a song isn't up on at least one of them, it's not eligible.) I did consider going with Halley DeVestern's "Glow in the Dark Baby Jesus," but it's got a country/blues kind of vibe, and that never seems to score well with the other Users. So in the end, I played it safe and went with Patti Smith's "Summer Cannibals," which scored a very respectable average rating 3.77 out of 5. Unfortunately for me, it was a high-scoring month, so I wasn't even close to the top spot. Sorry Patti. Maybe next time. Patti Smith - Summer Cannibals

3. I thought it was a very solid month's worth of songs, and my average rating for the month was 3.05 out of 5. I actually had a three-way tie for my personal top spot of the month, with three different songs rated at 4 out 5: Don McLean's classic, "Vincent"; another classic, 1981's "Golden Brown" by The Stranglers; and yet another iconic track, "Last Caress" by the Misfits. All three of these tracks scored higher than a 4 out of 5 with the group at large. Don McLean - VincentThe Stranglers - Golden BrownMisfits - Last Caress

4. However, this time out, the winning recommendation was Fugazi's "Waiting Room", thanks largely to the fact that five different Users gave it a perfect 5 out of 5 score (and another gave it a 4.8). I gave it a respectable score myself, but I thought all of the 5's it received was kind of insane. But what can you do?

5. Once again, you can find all 30 of the tracks that were recommended for April up on YouTube. And here's a link to the full month's playlist, because I'm such a helpful guy: April 2021 Song of the Day YouTube Playlist

So that finishes off April. Hopefully, now that the warmer weather is here (and many of us have now been vaccinated), people will have the chance to get and about. Stay safe, y'all!

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Favorite Artists, Part 13: About The Smiths

 I'm going to have dig back a little for this one, as I did my preparation listening at least a month-and-a-half ago. I planned to write this up in late February or so, but then my job got crazy busy, and before I knew it ... well, suddenly, it was now.

There are a lot of things I want to say about my history with The Smiths and how they came to make the My Favorite Bands list. So I guess the place to start is here -- when I first teased this write-up, I mentioned that The Smiths are the only artist on this list that I never started listening to until after they were broken up. Here's how that happened.

When I graduated high school in 1975, I went directly into Queens College of the City University of New York system that September. I did pretty well while I was there, working on a joint major of Drama and English. At the time, I wanted to become a playwright. My focus was on writing and directing my own plays, which I got the chance to do while I was at school. Unfortunately, after doing about 2-1/2 years there, I started having family problems. I wound up dropping out of school and entering the work world, because things became so strained at home that I thought I might have move out of my mother's house on short notice. (She and my father were divorced.)

I worked a variety of low-paying jobs over the next bunch of years, until at some point, I found work as a proofreader. This turned out pretty well, and by 1986-1987, I was making decent money in this profession. At that point, I decided I wanted to go back and finish my bachelor's degree (albeit with an entirely different major, Psychology).

I tell you this because it's how I remember my personal music history. At some point very shortly after I went back to college, I started listening to WLIR, 92.7 FM, Long Island's alternative rock station. I took to it quickly, because it fed my need to hear new music. After WNEW-FM, the station of my teens, had gone south, I had listened to a number of what were already being referred to as "Classic Rock" stations. Unfortunately, they mostly played the same old stuff again and again. WLIR was fresh.

Shortly after I started listening, because of a legal battle too exhausting to get into here, the 92.7 frequency was taken over by Jarrad Broadcasting, and its call letters were changed to WDRE. The format changed slightly, and all of the longtime WLIR listeners (and deejays) will tell you not for the better. But compared to what I had been listening to, to my ears, this was still crisp stuff. (And a few years later, it helped me to meet Denise, as the Village Voice I answered in order to meet her mentioned her love of WDRE and cats. It also mentioned beaches, but I figured two out of three wasn't bad.)

I can't tell you exactly when I heard my first Smiths' song, but it was definitely on WLIR/WDRE. The song was "This Charming Man", and I was taken with it immediately. It was short and had a great hook, with some first-rate jangly guitar and a vocalist whose voice was actually pleasing to the ear.

It was also, to a young man that had gone through 12 years of Catholic schooling, pretty gay.

I later learned that Morrissey, the band's lead singer and lyricist, denied being gay as such, and over the years, he's been characterized in the press as everything from asexual to bisexual to celibate, etc. Who knows. But "This Charming Man" tells the story of a young man whose bicycle breaks down on a "hillside desolate," who speculates as the whether nature will "make a man" of him yet. He is rescued by a "charming man" in a luxury car, and things progress from there (albeit in a very non-explicit fashion). So yeah, however you characterize them, and The Smiths and Morrissey characterize themselves, they were certainly the gayest band that I was listening to at the time.

This in no way stopped me from liking them. While I didn't have any gay friends (that I knew of) in those days, working in Manhattan, I'd certainly had a number of gay co-workers over the years, and I found some of the themes and perspectives of many of their songs to be new and interesting. And while I couldn't fully relate to the theme of coming out to your parents and being thrown out of the house that seems to be present in a song like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out", I could relate to driving around in a friend's car, drinking and feeling somewhat melodramatically suicidal.

I didn't go out of the way to push The Smiths at some of my old high school friends -- I suspect I would have gotten some strange reactions if I had -- but for me, the strengths of The Smiths' music far outweighed any mild discomfort I might have felt about Morrissey's sexuality, his somewhat effeminate presentation, or some of his lyrics.

Shortly after I started listening to The Smiths (and I had bought the CD for The Queen Is Dead), WDRE started playing a lot of Morrissey's solo material, mostly from his Bona Drag compilation. I quickly bought that, too.

At the time, I don't think I was even aware that The Smiths were broken up, and really why would I be? Their last album (Strangeways, Here We Come) had only come out in 1987. And even if I'd been fully aware they weren't together anymore, bands broke up and got back together all the time. Who knew in the late 1980s and early '90s that they were really and truly done as a unit forever.

Anyway, here's a brief history of the band, and things I want you to know about them. The Smiths formed in Manchester, England in 1982. The core of the band was its songwriting team, singer Steven Patrick Morrissey (just known as Morrissey), who wrote the lyrics, and Johnny Marr, who wrote the music. They were only together from 1982 until 1987, but in that time, they were a hugely important band in England. In the U.S., they were more of a cult band, beloved in cities like New York and Los Angeles, which had strong and influential alternative rock stations, but fairly obscure in a lot of other areas. (To give you an idea of the disparity of their popularity between the two countries, all four of the Smiths' studio LPs charted either #1 or #2 in the UK, but the highest they ever reached on the U.S. charts was # 55.)

As mentioned above, The Smiths only ever released four studio albums. However, that's a little deceptive, as quite a few of their best songs were never included on any of those four LPs -- they came out as singles or B-sides, and the only other way to buy them was on one or more of the many solid compilation albums they released. Examples of these songs include such classics as "Panic" (the "hang the deejay" song), "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now", "Ask", "Shoplifters of the World Unite", "Sheila Take a Bow", and "William, It Was Really Nothing". For an obsessive-compulsive person like myself, who likes to collect most of their music on studio albums, this is kind of frustrating, but it is what it is.

As best I can tell, the main reason for The Smiths' breakup was this: Morrissey is a total pain in the ass (more on that in a minute), and as the band got bigger and bigger, Marr, who started out handling all of the band's business functions as well as his musical duties, just got completely overworked. At various times, Marr tried to hire one person or another to take some of the business burdens off of his shoulders. Unfortunately, every time he did, Morrissey would find one reason or another to get rid of them. In a nutshell, it seems like Morrissey trusted no one but Marr to handle the business end of things, and was perfectly happy with Marr doing everything, and why wouldn't he be? At some point, Marr tried to take some time off, an article appeared in the British music magazine NME claiming Marr had quit the band, Marr assumed (apparently erroneously) that the article had been planted by Morrissey to pressure him into getting back to work, and at that point, Marr really did quit.

Now let's be blunt here. Morrissey is ... well, a bit of a dick. He's a terrific singer, and at his best, often an absolutely brilliant lyricist. He can be very whiny and self pitying. He can also be tremendously clever and very funny. And his frequent themes of loneliness and estrangement often cut to the heart of the human condition, which is why almost anyone can find something to relate to in his music. But he's also an entitled, over-sensitive prick who over the years has found a way to insult just about anyone. He's famous for taking offense at something or other and storming out of concerts early, leaving his fans hanging. And his outspoken opinions have, over the years, pissed off right wingers and left wingers alike. The only reason he makes any kind of a living in music is that he's also a bit of a genius.

So what do I like about The Smiths? A number of things. For starters, I've always been a total sucker for a band that consistently produces songs with strong hooks, and The Smiths do this out the wazoo. This can be largely attributed to Marr, who wrote pretty much all of the music.

But I also really like Morrissey's vocals. Some have criticized him for not having much of a range, and if I listen to some of The Smiths' earlier stuff, I can sort of hear what they mean. But he did learn to change things up a bit as his career went on, and I just find his voice enormously pleasant to listen to.

And as for his lyrics, while I've found much of his solo material (especially in his later years) to be a but too strident self indulgent, Morrissey is a more-than-able wordsmith with a sharp wit and a biting sense of humor. Think of "Bigmouth Strikes Again", where he compares himself to Joan of Arc, "As the flames rose to her Roman nose/And her walkman started to melt.") Or the bizarre "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others", were he goes on to observe that it's also true that "Some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers"). And don't even get me started on "Vicar in a Tutu" or "Girlfriend in a Coma".

If you add all of this together with Johnny Marr's tasty guitar work, you have a truly classic band.

In the years after their breakup, I've found Morrissey's work to be somewhat uneven. However, he's definitely created some classics that are right up there with The Smiths' best work, including "Suedhead", "The Last of the Famous International Playboys" and "Everyday Is Like Sunday".

As for Marr, after years of being criticized as someone who's only comfortable being someone else's second banana (having become a member of a number of bands such as The Pretenders, The The, The Electric, Modest Mouse and The Cribs after the demise of The Smiths), he released a series of solo albums in the 2010's that put the lie to that notion. Unfortunately, as a man then in his fifties, the LPs were largely ignored by the youth culture. But if you're an old Smiths fan (or a fan of well-written pop rock in general), give them a listen (especially 2013's The Messenger and 2018's Call the Comet), and I promise you'll enjoy them. Even 2014's Playland, which I found to be a little less consistent than the other two, had one absolute banger on it in "Easy Money".

So obviously, I never got to The Smiths perform live, as they were already done by the time I was even aware of their existence. And I would never buy a ticket to see a Morrissey concert, because if I shelled out 100 bucks or so and he walked off after 20 minutes because someone hit him with a popcorn kernal, I'd have to kill him. (Denise saw him at Jones Beach before she and I were together, and that's pretty much what happened -- he stormed off of the stage because one or two people tried to climb up there with him -- they were stopped by security -- and he never came back.

As for Marr, Denise and I did see him at The Paramount in Huntington at the end of 2019, and he put on a great show. Ironically, Morrissey was in New York that night, on an off night in the middle of a series of shows he was performing in Manhattan, and the rumor spread wildly that he was going to make a surprise appearance and join Marr onstage in Huntington. Obviously it didn't happen (nor did I expect it to), and Marr even made a joke about it that made it clear it wouldn't be happening anytime soon. But cynical as I am, there's a little kid inside me that hoped. It would have been an amazing moment. 

Anyway, I guess that's all that I wanted to say about The Smiths. Next up in this series is an American band I was supposed to see again last year before the pandemic hit (but that show just got rescheduled again to the summer of 2022): The Go-Go's!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

March 2021 Song of the Day

 OK, this is more like it. I'm getting to the March 2021 Song of the Day, and it's only April 1. This is partially because I'm more caught up on my work than I have been in a while, and also because we have a clear enough winner this month that I'm confident that there won't be any late voting that will overturn the result.

Once again, for new readers, this blog entry refers to the monthly Song of the Day list on the Sputnik Music website. Each month, one user hosts the list and names a theme. Everyone then recommends songs in line with this theme, and people rate the various song recommendations. The list of March songs can be found at Sputnik Music Song of the Day - March 2021.

1. I was the host for this month, and got to pick the theme. The theme I went with was Songs about the Weather. Rain, snow, sunshine, hurricanes, blizzards, if it was anything related to the weather, it was eligible to be rec'd.

2. Once again, we had great participation, so thirty-one different Users got one rec apiece. I could have gone a number of ways on my rec. I considered picking local Staten Island band Bluish's "One of Eight". I love that song to pieces. But it's 11:17 long, and I know this crowd well enough to know that they would have hammered Anthony Bilotti's emo-style vocals, especially in that long a song, so I reluctantly passed. I also considered Garbage's "I'm Only Happy When It Rains," which I thought would probably get me the highest score of all the songs I was considering. In the end, I compromised, and went with Paramore's "When It Rains", which I knew wouldn't win the month but would at least be treated respectfully. (Mostly.) I was pretty much right about this, as the track garnered a respectable 3.235 average (out of 5). Paramore - When It Rains

3. I thought it was a decent month songwise, although my own personal rating was a little lower for March than it had been for February (2.95 vs. 3.05). My highest score for the month went to the progressive metal band Neurosis for the title track of their 2004 LP The Eye of Every Storm. Neurosis - The Eye of Every Storm

4. However, the highest average score from the group (and the track that won the month) was the one we all listened to on March 1, "On Teasing" by New York City-based singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia. I had no problem with this, as I gave it a pretty high score myself. Nina Nastasia - On Teasing

5. And happily, all of the songs were once again available on YouTube (although the Jesu song for March 19 is only available on YouTube as part of the full EP. So while the link for the list starts at that song, there's a song or two afterwards you can just skip over to move on to the Slayer song for the 20th. Or, you can also find that song individually on the bandcamp website.) March 2021 Song of the Day YouTube Playlist

That's all there is for March. So I'll see you all back here next month, OK. (And hopefully, I'll have my write-up on The Smiths posted here within the next week or so as well.) Bye!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Review of Blackmore's Night's "Nature's Light"

 I posted this review a short while ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: "Wish you were here/Me, oh, my country man/Wish you were here."

Blackmore's Night is back with their eleventh studio LP (their first in six years), and I, for one, am glad to hear from them. Ritchie Blackmore, of course, is a rock guitar legend, best known for his days with Deep Purple and Blackmore's Rainbow. For the last almost-quarter of a century, though, he and his wife Candice Night, have been making folk and Renaissance music together, and have established an audience of their own throughout the world, particularly in Germany and Japan. They recorded Nature's Light in 2019 for a planned release in April of 2020. Then COVID happened, and, well, you know how that goes. In any event, the album has finally been released by Edel Records, the German label that released their first two LPs back in the late 1990s. So I guess things have come full circle.

My overall impression is that yes, this is definitely a Blackmore's Night album. Which is to say that if you liked the first ten Blackmore's Night LPs, you're going to like this one as well. They're not really breaking any new ground here, which I guess isn't surprising, given that Blackmore is now 75 years old. (Candice is considerably younger.) And I wouldn't say this is one of the band's very best albums. Nevertheless, Nature's Light is a solid effort, and one that I find has grown on me the more I've listened to it.

Blackmore and Night seem to have played most of the instruments between them here, with Ritchie handling the various stringed apparatuses, Night playing the woodwinds and tambourine, and David Baranowski (aka Bard David of Larchmont) adding the keyboards. Night, as always, sang all of the lead vocals, and some of the harmonies as well, with other backing vocals contributed by Bard David and Blackmore and Night's two children, Autumn and Rory Blackmore.

The songs on this LP provide a nice mix of styles. The title track is something of a royal processional theme, while other tracks mix folk and folk rock, blues rock, medieval and renaissance folk, and even Slavic-sounding folk. There are two (basically) instrumental tracks: "Darker Shade of Black" (which sounds like a tribute to Procol Harum's "Repent Walpurgis"), and "Der Ietzke Muskatier", a more blues-oriented track. These are the two songs where Blackmore cuts loose a bit with some electric guitar. There are also two covers: "Second Element", which is a cover of a song that Sarah Brightman recorded on her 1993 Dive album; and "Wish You Were Here", a cover of a track by Swedish pop country band Rednex that Blackmore's Night first recorded on their initial LP, 1997's Shadow of the Moon. ("Wish You Were Here" has become one of the most beloved and requested songs over the years at their live shows).

As usual, Night's vocals are impeccable throughout -- I can really never say enough about how beautiful and pure her voice is. (And having seen her live many times over the years, I can promise you it doesn't sound that way because of studio trickery. Her voice is just as lovely and consistent in concert.)

So, like an old friend, Blackmore's Night is back. And to me, it feels like they've never really been away.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saturday, March 13, 2021

February 2021 Song of the Day

 It's been a brutal month so far. So it's March 13, and I'm just getting around to February's SOTD. Sorry about that. Anyway, here we go.

For new readers, this blog entry refers to the monthly Song of the Day list on the Sputnik Music website. Each month, one user hosts the list and names a theme. Everyone then recommends songs in line with this theme, and people rate the various song recommendations. The list of February songs can be found at Sputnik Music Song of the Day - February 2021.

1. The theme for the month was non-romantic love songs. It encompassed platonic love, familial love, unconventional love, love that didn't work out, etc.

2. We had another month of full participation, which was nice. So everybody got to pick one song. My choice for the month was one that I got from Denise. She's always been a big Thomas Dolby fan, and sometime after we first met, she exposed me to this one, which I found both sad and beautiful. My rec was his song "I Love You Goodbye." It didn't win the month, but it was pretty well received. Thomas Dolby - I Love You Goodbye.

3. I enjoyed the month pretty well - my average score was 3.05 out of 5, and that included a rec that sounded like a 12-minute-long bowel movement that I scored a zero. (Don't ask.) My highest score for the month went to my favorite song by The Cure, which someone was kind enough to recommend: "Just Like Heaven". The Cure - Just Like Heaven.

4. The highest average score from the group in general went to a track called "Train Song" by the British folk artist Vashti Bunyon. I thought it was a little bland, but OK. Vashti Bunyon - Train Song.

5. Once again, all of the songs recommended were available on YouTube. So I've wrapped it all up for you with a pretty ribbon. (Well, OK, there's not really a ribbon, but here's your damn playlist!) You can find it on February 2021 Song of the Day YouTube Playlist.

Anyway, that's my list, and I'm sticking to it. Y'all come back now, you hear?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

R.I.P. Ramona Spooney

 Although I don't have any details about it, I found out tonight that Ramona Spooney, known around these parts for her long musical partnership with Frank Walker as the duo called SpoonWalk, has passed away.

Denise and I are immensely are sad to hear this. We spent so many nights, at the Pisces Cafe and various other venues, enjoying SpoonWalk's music. Ramona was a lady with a big, beautiful voice and an equally big heart.

Rest in peace, Ramona. Heaven will be a better place with you in it.

SpoonWalk - Every Us 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

January 2021 Song of the Day

 Yeah, I know, I'm a lazy sod -- this is two months in a row of not getting the previous month's Song of the Day results published until the 9th of the next month. What can I say? Sue me. Besides, this month, I had a little bit of an excuse for being somewhat late at least. The month was exceptionally close -- I had to give people a chance to get their scores in to be sure who the winner was.

Anyway, we do have a winner now. So without the further ado, here's the usual yadda yadda yadda.

For new readers, this blog entry refers to the monthly Song of the Day list on the Sputnik Music website. Each month, one user hosts the list and names a theme. Everyone then recommends songs in line with this theme, and people rate the various song recommendations. The list of January songs can be found at Sputnik Music Song of the Day - January 2021.

1. The theme for the month was Songs that Make You Euphoric. 

2. The month filled out nicely - we had a lot of participation for whatever reason. (Maybe people just really liked the theme.) So I once again limited myself to a single rec. My choice for the month was a song that always brings joy to my heart, "Life Is a Long Song" by Jethro Tull. The song was pretty well received by the group in general, and for a little while, it was even in contention for the #1 spot (although by later in the month, it was clear that it was no longer a contender.) Jethro Tull - Life Is A Long Song

3. It was actually a pretty good month, by my standards - my average score was 3.06 out of 5. But my highest score for the month was "Chat Room" by local New York band Charly Bliss, from the album that was my pick for 2019 Album of the Year Young EnoughCharly Bliss - Chat Room

4. However, the song the group rated highest is one I wasn't that big on, "Bread Crumb Trail" by Slint. (This is the second time a song from this band has done really well with the SOTD crowd, and I have to admit I don't get the appeal. But oh well ... it is what it is. Slint - Bread Crumb Trail

5. All of this month's songs were available on YouTube, so as usual, I wrapped it up all nice and pretty in a YouTube playlist for you. You can find it at January 2021 Song of the Day YouTube Playlist.

So, 2021 is now officially off and running. Stay safe, everybody.