Next 10 tunes on my iPod


Of all the self-indulgent features of this blog, this is certainly the most self-indulgent. As always I hope you get something out of this random selection from my portable collection of tunes.

1. Paul Simon, ‘Think Too Much (b)’ from Hearts and Bones. The reason Graceland was such a comeback album for Paul Simon was because Hearts and Bones was such a commercial failure, a frankly confused and unfocussed album (with shoddy production values, largely corrected much later by this very intelligent digital remastering from a few years ago). But despite its scattershot quality, Hearts and Bones is easily — easily — my favourite Paul Simon album, partly through an accident of timing that had me listening to it repeatedly during my early university years, and partly because of a few truly great songs or song fragments: ‘Train in the Distance’ (“What is the point of this story?/ What information pertains?/ The thought that our life could be better is woven indelibly/ Into our hearts and our brains”), ‘The Late Great Johnny Ace’, and this mournful ballad, over marimbas and the sound of a crying baby: “They say the left side of the brain/ It dominates the right/ And the right side has to labour through/ The long and speechless night.”

2. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, ‘And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad’ from The Dark Knight Soundtrack. I actually don’t think this is the greatest movie since sliced bread, but there’s a lot of elegant creative thinking going into it, not least in the soundtrack, which moves gratifyingly far from the Danny Elfman model toward something dark, percussive, heavily synthesized — I’m left wondering whether even the strings are authentic — and sleekly menacing.

3. Kenny Cox, ‘Snuck In’ from Introducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Good for Blue Note to reissue this obscure, highly rewarding set from an intense, brooding quintet of Detroiters led by the very fine pianist Kenny Cox. Recorded in 1968, built on insistent grooves whose beginnings and ends are shaped by repeated melodic fragments, its obvious antecedent is the Miles Davis Quintet of 1964-1969 — which means that only a couple of years after the word about Miles’ band got out, Cox and his peers had decoded that music’s DNA and found their own uses for it.

4. Jason Moran, ‘Joga’ from Facing Left. I’m not a huge Bjork fan but some of her songs have sunk down to my consciousness, including the starkly gorgeous ballad ‘Joga.’ Turns out it’s sunk down to a lot of people, including the nerdy but reliably clever jazz pianist Jason Moran, whose trio plays it fairly straight over a two-beat ostinato. There are critics who are reliably enchanted when young jazz musicians play pop tunes — Oooh! Relevance! Irony! — but what they usually miss is that it would never occur to those musicians to ignore pop tunes. They’re in the air. Musicians have always applied their craft to what was in the air.

5. Johnny Cash, ‘Bird On a Wire’ from American Recordings. Self-explanatory. How can Johnny Cash singing Leonard Cohen be anything but great?

6. The Who, ‘You Better You Bet’ from Face Dances. It was 1980, they had a new drummer, they were still a band and they were dealing with the sound of New Wave around them — synths, spritely backup vocals, a tight poppy drum beat — so if you were in a sour mood it must have sounded like they were selling out. Almost 30 years later it still sounds fresh.

7. Cassandra Wilson, ‘Time After Time’ from Travelling Miles. So yeah, in 1985 Miles Davis, chasing an idea of relevance and, it’s true, a gorgeous melody, covered Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.’ In 1999 Cassandra Wilson made a Miles tribute album. Of course she covered the cover but, no fool, she restored the chorus Miles skipped over (“If you’re lost you can look/ And you will find me time after time”). It’s all gorgeous. I haven’t always agreed with Cassandra’s stylistic choices but I’d follow that voice anywhere.

8. Steps Ahead, ‘Young and Fine’ from Smokin’ in the Pit. From the late 1970s: a band of young hotshot jazzmen who were already making good money playing slick crud in studios — drummer Steve Gadd, saxophonist Michael Brecker, vibraphonist Mike Manieri — but who liked to escape and play music that felt good to them. In this case they escaped to the Pit Inn in Tokyo (hence the great, great album title) to play long, relaxed, tremendously exciting solos on assorted tunes. A wonderful documentation of early Brecker. He had hundreds of bright young saxophonists chasing him for most of his life, yet he never had any trouble sounding smarter, more agile or more musical than his armies of imitators.

9. Randy Newman, ‘Main Title’ from Ragtime Soundtrack. Sweetly mournful ersatz Joplin from the soundtrack to the Milos Forman hit of the early 1980s. Fully one-third of the tune’s structure is an elongated turnaround in what would ordinarily have been the last 8 bars, like a story that stretches out because it doesn’t want to end.

10. The Killers, ‘Mr. Brightside’ from Hot Fuss. I was working out in a hotel gym somewhere, Calgary I think, four years ago with Much on the overhead TV and I couldn’t believe this song from a band I’d (somehow) never heard of. Most of the melody is one note, repeated obsessively, which makes dramatic sense — it’s a song about obsession — and it even works musically, I know not how.


Next 10 tunes on my iPod

  1. I should almost start paying attention to your ruminations on jazz, since you have such excellent taste in popular music. As for Hearts and Bones, I’ll grant you most underrated (I once named a blog “What is the point of this story?” in honour of the Train in the Distance lyric you quoted) but your favourite album? Have you never heard Rhythm of the Saints or Songs from the Capeman (okay, I know you’ve heard the latter, because you mentioned it in a previous entry).

    I’ve always been curious about what H&B sounded like before Garfunkel’s tracks were deleted, though. My guess is weaker, but I can’t be sure.

  2. Continuing the Paul Simon thread, DJ Earworm has put together one of the finest mashups you’ll hear – Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes (the work-in-progress version from the aforementioned remaster) with Django Rinehardt’s Brazil. Get it here: http://paulsimonweb.com/2008/08/06/worlds-greatest-mashup/.

    The arrangement of Train in the Distance Simon has been doing on his last few tours is outstanding.

  3. I’ve never known what Garfunkel’s involvement was supposed to be on Hearts and Bones, or what the story was on that, only that he was going to be involved and then he wasn’t. Anyone fill me in?

    Yeah, it’s my favourite Simon album, but aesthetic choices are hardly ever rational. It came along when I wanted to hear an album that sounded like that, is all.

  4. Pretty straightforward – after the Central Park reunion (and subsequent tour), they got to work on an album. Simon, however, didn’t really like Garfunkel’s vocals – his songwriting had evolved considerably since the pair split up, far away from the two-part harmony, travis-picked guitar of the peak S&G years (i.e., up until Bookends; with a couple of Bridge tunes thrown in, I guess). As Art tells it, one day Paul calls him up, says he’s doing the album solo and, oh by the way, he’s marrying Carrie Fisher that week and would Art come to the wedding. The marriage didn’t last too long and Hearts & Bones (called Think Too Much when it was an S&G project) fizzled. I think Simon might have chosen to go solo because he appears to have been really frustrated with the way the album came together. He didn’t like most of the tracks and was fed up with writing songs he couldn’t turn into good records. Ever since, with the exception of the Capeman and a handful of tracks (e.g., Wartime Prayers from Surprise), he’s started in the studio first, usually beginning with rhythm grooves, then improvising melodies and finally trying to match words to the blossoming song. His writing has become a little more elliptical but his albums are so much more satisfying.

    There’s a bootleg of the H&B album with some of Artie’s vocals still on it. You can hunt it down fairly easily but it’s pretty lousy. Aside from singing the bridge on Song About the Moon, all Garfunkel does is add some backup vocals here and there. Nothing earth-shattering, and nothing that would have saved the album. Though he tends to disagree, naturally.

  5. The Who, ‘You Better You Bet’

    Brings back memories. Saw The Who in Toronto at exhibition stadium in 1982 with Joe Jackson added as a last minute replacement of The Clash for opening band.

    Joe Jackson is/was new wave and the fans did not appreciate him at all. He was pelted with food and booed off the stage. He had a little hissy fit and walked off early. I don’t think the fans that day were in the mood for new wave anything and wanted the old classics.

    It still irritates me that I don’t not get to see the clash. They are one of my fav bands and that was my only chance to see them.

  6. Since we’re on Paul Simon, I just heard Boy in the Bubble for the first time in about 15 years (I played the heck out of the Graceland cassette, but that track had always displeased me, maybe because the video was so ugly).

    Man, do the words stick. A song about the what’s happening now, that was written, what, 20 years ago, and still sounds like it’s what’s happening now.

  7. Agreed on Cassandra Wilson – I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to the Amtrak website after hearing her urge me to take the last train to Clarksville.

  8. Re: Paul Simon

    I also love that album. Hearts and Bones, and Train in the Distance are among my ten favorite songs that Paul Simon has written.

    Re: Johnny’s Bird

    You might like the live version (with full orchestra) that appears on Johnny’s 2003 ‘Unearthed’ Boxset. Not my favourite track on the boxset, but seems to be the favourite track of just about everybody else who has the set. Available for download on iTunes as well.

    Re: You Better You Bet

    Sure to be the theme to the next CSI series. (Although given the title — should it have been the theme to the original CSI, which is set in Vegas?)

    Re: Joe Jackson’s Bird

    The inside cover for the live album Joe did in the late ’80s has a picture of much of the Toronto “Who” crowd giving Joe the finger while he performed.

    Re: Randy Newman

    Thanks for the tip. Always loved the Avalon soundtrack — now further motivated to check out Ragtime.

    Re: Mr. Brightside

    For curiousity’s sake, you might want to check out Paul Anka’s version.

    Two questions for Paul:

    What do you think of the Wynton Marsalis / Willie Nelson album…and what do you think of Van Morrison, generally?

  9. Haven’t really listened to the Wynton and Willie thing in detail, but they are both very charming performers and I’m sure it’s fine. It’s still further evidence of how Wynton is working to reach out, while staying true to his ideas about music, instead of barricading himself as he sometimes did when he was younger.

    Not a huge Van Morrison fan, but that’s not his fault, it’s just random personal taste. I do like a couple of the old hits, vaguely.

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