Randy Newman and the Great Debate

Randy_bio_s-550x360“The ‘Toy Story’ guy wrote a song about Putin.”

That popped up on social media recently about Randy Newman.

If your career in the spotlight lasts long enough, you become different things to different generations. Joe DiMaggio becomes “Mr. Coffee” not “The Yankee Clipper.” LL Cool J becomes Sam Hanna, that guy on NCIS, not a trailblazing rapper. Journey becomes a schlock rock arena act not a psychedelic jazz fusion San Francisco band of former Santana members.

It’s been nearly 50 years since Newman released his first album so it’s natural he’s different things to listeners. He’s the guy who first wrote hits for Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, The O’Jays and eventually Three Dog Night (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”) and Joe Cocker (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”).

He’s been the guy who angered everyone with songs like “Political Science” about dropping the big one, “Rednecks” that tackles both southern and northern racism and “Short People” about a disturbed guy with an extreme prejudice against the vertically-challenged with the line that “short people got no reason to live.” With songs that evoke Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin, he’s earned a chapter in the Great American Songbook, albeit the one featuring satire and the wittiest wordplay.

His first new album in nine years, “Dark Matter,” was released in early August. It was an occasion because it’s only his tenth since his debut in 1968.

The opening track, “The Great Debate,” is an eight-minute suite about science and religious faith told from different points of view. There’s “Putin,” a goof on the Russian leader he began before the campaign controversies.

“When he takes his shirt off, he drives the ladies crazy,” Newman sings. “When he takes his shirt off, makes me wanna be a lady.”

He also confesses he’s written a song about Donald Trump that focuses on a part of his anatomy, but says he doesn’t want to release it and add to the vulgarity of the national debate.

 

“Randy Newman is a national treasure,” Don Henley of The Eagles told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s also probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated recording artist alive.

“He’s one of the only living songwriters who can get ridicule and empathy into the same song. Sometimes, he works in the realm of irony; other times, he’s a heart-on-his-sleeve romantic,” he said. “The combination of his lyrical genius and his deep ability as an orchestrator and composer is powerful stuff. There’s nobody quite like him.

“I said when I inducted Randy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [in 2013], that what you hear in his music is America, in all its shame and all its glory…. He mines so many rich veins of American musical culture and synthesizes them in a way that nobody else has done.”

Newman has always written from the point of view of characters, not much about himself. But he knows his way around an interview. Here is Newman in his own words over the years. He was not available for an interview before his show on Sept. 13 at The Sandler Center for Performing Arts in Virginia Beach.

About his Putin song:

“I don’t think I set out to write a song about Putin but I’ll tell you, another thing that inspired it, there’s an old song in the ‘40s, by the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel song called “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ when he fought the beast of Berlin.” About Hitler and Stalin. And I love it, that song. So I think “Stalin Stallin’” is what really pointed the direction to me. “Putin putting his pants on. Stalin wasn’t stallin’.”

About the difficulty of writing:

“It’s been murderous for me in some ways. I never liked writing. If you read back in interviews there’s whining and complaining. You’d think I was threading pipe for a living, rather than working in a nice room, you know? Songwriting time when you’re not thinking of anything is really slow time. I mean it’s like school, you know, where I was going “Oh, I know it’s 10:00 but I’ll guess it’s 9:30,” and it’ll be like 9:15 (laughs). And it’s because I come to the table with nothing. I sit at the piano and I’ve got nothing in my head, not a goddamn thing.”

About writing in character:

“I’ve said a number of times that songwriters ought to have the same latitude as short-story writers, where it doesn’t have to be some kind of personal or confessional thing. I was always more interested in the less-than-heroic mode. In so many songs, in one way or another, the singer is the hero of the piece … [For instance,] his heart is broken all over the place, and it’s noisy. No matter what it is, it interests me less than writing about people who are a little off in some way. And that’s not the norm.”

You can do it. When I first began writing this way, with characters in it, I always wondered why more people didn’t do it. And I think maybe it’s because it’s not a great idea for the medium [of pop music]. Maybe it’s meant to be a direct I-love-you, you-love-me kind of medium.
But you can do this other stuff and it comes off. And I have such an affection for comedy, that I like to laugh and I like to make people laugh, so I do it.”

About writing dark songs:

I have to be careful. I have to watch that my stuff doesn’t seem like I’m sneering all the time. What helps is that I’m actually not that cynical. I’ve got a song on this record, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” And I don’t think that; I don’t think it’s a jungle out there. I don’t think things are that bad. I think they’re very bad politically, but not otherwise.

About the difference between heartbreaking songs and satirical songs:

The comedy ones are harder, because you have to keep the comedy going. There are jokes in the front of it and a joke in the middle and then you have to have a funny finish. I remember once — God, I’m turning into John Prine, an old storyteller — but I remember going to hear a symphony. It was either Mahler or Shostakovich. It ended [hums quietly] bum, bum, bum-bum. I saw it with an orchestrator, and after that ending he said, “you always have to end with a ta-da!” This is a guy who named his boat Ta-Da. But that’s the thing: You have to find endings for the comedy songs in a way that you don’t for the other ones. It’s hard. I don’t know why I do it. Songwriting is not a medium that’s used much for laughter. Even fans of mine: I think they like it best when I do straight ballads like “Feels Like Home” or “She Chose Me” on the new album. But that’s not what I like best.

About writing on assignment for the movies:

“Well, “You’ve Got a Friend” is not a song that I would have written on my own, unless I were a used-car salesman or something. But I can do that. If you tell me to write a song about a monkey who falls in love with a goat, I could do it. And I’m proud that I could do it. It’s not like I’m selling out or anything. I can write to an assignment, and it’s the thing I’m most confident that I’m able to do well.”

About his long career:

“Yeah, I suppose it’s a significant kind of career I’ve had. What I’m most pleased about is that there’s no particular decline. The songs I wrote 40 years ago are no worse and no better – there’s a consistency. It’s clear they are by the same guy. I’m a little better in some aspects, but basically my style crystallized a long time ago and that’s what I’ve done.”
I was talking one time to Paul McCartney on the phone – he called me to do something for [Welsh folk singer] Mary Hopkin – and I was saying, ‘I’m trying to write… Jesus, it’s a drag.’ I was complaining as I am to you. And he says, ‘Well, you really don’t have that much to live up to anyway, do you?’ I replied, all meek and mild, ‘Oh yeah, I guess not’, but I was thinking, ‘Who’re you, shithead?’ I never forgot it.”

About what makes him optimistic:

“People as individuals. In general, I’ve found that if you sit next to somebody and start talking they’ll be pretty good. I’ve had no reason to feel differently.”

About whether he thinks about his legacy:

“No. I only know that if my obituary doesn’t start with something like “Newman broke a hip in January” it’ll start with “the composer of ‘Short People.’” That’s the way it goes.”

 

 

–end—

Jason Isbell: Stories for Listeners

jasonisbell4 I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink


I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams

— Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”

On the day after the 2016 election, Jason Isbell was at home outside Nashville caring for his baby daughter, Mercy Rose, then a few months past her first birthday. His wife, Amanda Shires, was on tour in Salt Lake City that night behind her album, “My Piece of Land.”

The presidential election results, he admits, blindsided him. He knew the choices were tough, especially for the working class folks he grew up with in rural Alabama.

So he did what he does. He wrote. He wrote to unpack his feelings, to confront and explain those things that seem unexplainable or intolerable. He thought he knew America. On Nov. 8, he realized he did not.

He was thinking about family, about what the election of a bigot and a misogynist meant for his far-away wife and his so-near daughter.

“As hard as it was for me to see those results,” he says, “I could only imagine what it was like for a wife and later on a daughter to have to explain.”
Out of that came “Hope the High Road,” the first single off his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound.”

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in

“After growing up in rural Alabama in a town without a red light or a post office and traveling the word for 17 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on America,” he says. “It turned out I was not right at all.”

 

His father works maintenance in a hospital. His mom has an office job. “My parents still work hard every day,” he says. “I’ve not made enough money to tell them they can retire. Hopefully, we’ll have some huge hits and everybody can move on up sometime soon.”

His father, he says, stood in line to vote torn by his decision. He’s been paying way too much from health care since the Affordable Care Act was passed. But he also didn’t believe he could vote for somebody like Trump, Isbell says.

 

“I hear both sides of the story,” he says. “My main concern was I feel like a lot of people who have been under represented had to ignore a lot of shitty things in order to vote in what they felt might be their own best interest. That’s what really bothers me. I can see middle class or poor working class Americans wanting somebody who is not a career politician. I can see them wanting somebody who speaks plainly and in a way that’s not coded the way political language often is. But I can’t really understand overlooking the bigotry and the misogyny.”

“So I felt like after all that went down,” he adds, “I didn

jasonisbell7

‘t know people as well as I thought I did. That was a big awakening for me.”

Isbell, who opens the season at the Portsmouth Pavilion on April 26, understands what he calls the “Springsteen conundrum:” “How do you sing about working class people when it’s obvious what kind of money you’re making?”

He’s not near that level. He doesn’t think he’s all that far removed from his roots. He lives outside Nashville, about 80 miles from his hometown of Green Hills. “The differences between how I grew up and how I live now and the similarities between those two are of great interest to me,” he says.

Isbell famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Shires and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life. He’s sober — a battle he talks about freely — and out in the country now, surrounded by a few musicians and a lot of working class folks, similar to the ones of his childhood and his days in school.

“So I have a lot of concern for the issues of working class people,” he says. “I think you can empathy without living like that. To deny a successful songwriter the option of writing about people who are not having success is really to deny that empathy works as a concept.”

I ask him about the line, “I used to want to be a real man; I don’t know what that even means.”

“As I got older, I stopped using phrases like “I want to be a man” or “Man up.” Look at what you’re saying. It’s pretty insulting to women,” he says. “I just started saying, ‘Try to be grown. Try to be an adult.’ Insulting to children,” he adds, laughing.

He explores working class characters and their stories on his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound” that gives co-credit for the first time in years to his band, The 400 Unit. Shires adds fiddle and vocals. Dave Cobb is once again handling the knobs as producer.

It’s the third in a line of stellar albums from Isbell, after 2013’s “Southeastern,” the 2014 Grammy winner for best Americana album, and 2015’s “Something More than Free,” the 2016 Grammy winner for best Americana album.

In a suite of songs on “The Nashville Sound:” “Cumberland Gap,” a rocker, “Tupelo,” a mellow reflection, and “White Man’s World,” he explores the walls closing in on working class men.

I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say?
I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.
Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge.
If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.
– “Cumberland Gap”

“Cumberland Gap” is one of Isbell’s many short stories in song. “You start building a character,” he says, “and that’s how the characters behave naturally. There are people I know who have had very similar experiences and they wound up being the primary inspiration. I take three or four people I know and try to build a character. It’s not different than going about writing a novel or a short story.”

That begs the question of what Isbell was reading while writing the album. He finished in January, writing the dark “If We Were Vampires,” days before entering Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, the birthplace of albums by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Gillian Welch, among others.

He says he read an advance copy of George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others. He’s been a passionate about reading since sobering up, dipping into everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”

“It’s difficult,” he says. “I try not to show my influences too obviously. I don’t want to let those find their way into too much of my material.”

Isbell named the album, “The Nashville Sound,” partly as an homage to the studio, managed for so many years by Chet Atkins, and as a way to stake his claim to the type of music made there.

jasonisbell2

Our talk is on the day after The Academy of Country Music Awards. Isbell has no tolerance for the music showcased there. “It’s obvious from last night’s awards show how much out of touch the pop country music world is,” he says.

“The Nashville Sound” reflects the kind of music still made in Nashville. While there are a few more rockers on this disc, Isbell says he never sets out to make one kind of record or another.

“Really the only thing that matters to me outside of documenting a point in time is trying to get the best songs I possibly can. That’s my guiding light.”

“The way I’ve gotten through the world and made myself happy and gotten more than I could have ever asked is early on I found something I wanted to do when I didn’t have to do anything else,” he adds. “It’s still that way. I’m very lucky.”

He’s worked at Wal Mart, in a fireworks warehouse and waiting tables. But since he started performing professionally he hasn’t had to do anything else other than play and write songs.

Among those songs are “Anxiety,” a dark tune about dealing with that fear written with Shires, and “If We Were Vampires,” a serious song with a funny title about mortality. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings. “I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift. Give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”

“That one caught me by surprise,” he says. “I wrote that the last day before we went into the studio. I was really proud of it. It’s really heavy and it took me a while to get through and be able to sing it without emotion.”jason77

“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell told me in another interview last year. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.

“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds.

“Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much anymore.”

That’s not surprising. Jason Isbell albums are therapy, time to sit and think and ponder the big questions. He understands no radio station today is going to play songs like “If We Were Vampires” or “Anxiety” and he’s just fine with that.

“I’ve just always been somebody who listened to music directly. It wasn’t’ really a background thing. That’s what my whole life has been based on. I know a lot of people who aren’t musicians who are that way. They don’t just have music playing while they’re having a party or washing dishes or something.

“I think I kind of write songs for those people, people who like to sit down and listen to songs.”
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Singalong: Sea Level Festival Showcases First Families of Tune

Is musical talent hereditary?

The Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival this year is proof — proof, I tell you – there is a music gene somewhere in the recesses of our DNA. Consider the evidence for yourself when the first families of music in the area perform over two nights to benefit the Tidewater Arts Outreach.

TAO is evidence of the healing powers of music, probably something also deep in those ancestral strands. The nonprofit arranges for local artists to perform at assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities, residential programs, homeless shelters and other organizations – more than 250 artists for more than 5,000 people in 2015.

Those performances are a balm to residents. Research increasingly shows the benefits to mental as well as physical health for those sitting and listening or clapping and singing along.

It Runs in the Family starts with a free show at Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing Company at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 31. Skye Zentz and her father, folk legend, Bob Zentz and his wife, Jeanne McDougall, join Zach and Megan Moats of Dharma Initiative and their father, Roy.

On Saturday, hear how far afield that gene ranges, from the blues to folk to bluegrass, at The Attucks Theatre. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance (it’s $4.50 more with Ticketmaster fees online) and $28.50 at the door.

The Saturday lineup is:

Bill and Pam Gurley with daughter, Macon, and guest bassist Jimmy Masters.

Bobby and Joy “Blackhat” Walters with their children, Akeylah, Maya, Shayna and possibly Ellie with special guest guitarist Tom Euler.

Lewis McGehee with his daughter, Kayce

Keith Stainback with his son, Seth, joined by Larry Berwald and Stephen Lazar.

I asked them four questions about their first performance together, about their favorite song written by the other, about their memories of singing together for the first time and a song the other likes they don’t need to ever hear again.



   Skye Zentz says she doesn’t recall the first song she heard her father, a longtime legendary folk singer, but there was a constant stream of sounds and songs from her earliest days. “There’s a very early memory I have of my Dad carrying me around on his shoulders singing the Woody Woodpecker theme song,” she says. She has old cassettes of the two of them on the front porch, singing together, making up lyrics when she was a four-year-old while he played the accordion. “Those early tapes taught me a lot about being a mindful accompanist,” she says. “It takes a lot of attention and rhythm to back up a spontaneous toddler.”

She is fond of her dad’s “He Was Just Some Old Jukebox.” “He wrote those words about Ramblin’ Conrad, but they also remind me of my Dad, himself- he knows so many songs,” she adds. She does not admit to disliking any of his tunes, but jokes that the drone from him tuning his hurdy gurdy haunts her in her sleep.


On Saturday, the Bobby “Blackhat” Walters clan takes the stage at the Attucks. The first performance by the kids, then ages 7 to 13, came at a school talent show when they sang “Lean on Me” acapella, creating rhythms with hand clapping, knee slapping and stomping. As kids they sang and acted out musicals including Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas,” “Aladdin”, and the High School Musicals. The family sang together from the time the kids were babies and then at religious ceremonies. The children have played various musical instruments including piano, guitar, drums, bass, ukulele, saxophone, bongos, clarinet, flute, mandolin, recorder, and violin.  Bobby is the only harp player.

The kids remember mom singing “All Night All Day” at bedtime and dad singing “Let My People Go” at the top of his lungs “for god knows why.”

Ellie also remembers her dad’s worst moment. “Most annoying song is “Too Legit To Quit” by MC Hammer,” Ellie says. “The only time I think I was embarrassed by my dad was him singing that dang song in his parachute pants walking through the mall torturing me at 15.”

On the flip side, “Help Me” is her favorite song sung by Bobby. “I got to see that wonderful in love look between my parents that I saw since I was a kid. That flirty big eye attitude lovey look that my mom has only for my daddy when he would sing it on stage,” she says.

For Maya, it’s “Honey Biscuit,” “the sweetest, most precious love song ever written (by my dad).”


Kayce McGehee, who performs under the name Kayce Laine, now lives in Nashville, where she is building a solo career playing indie electro pop music.  Her father is one of the deans of local acoustic players.

She remembers her father recording “Distant Voices” just after she was born in 1988. “A lot of the tracking was done at our home studio so some of my earliest memories of life are of him singing and playing those songs. “Looking at the Headlights,” “Walking Away”….all of the songs on that record bring me back,” she says. He remembers her singing Disney tunes and realizing she had talent.

Let Kayce explain the favorite that her father penned: “I would probably have to say “Growing of Grass” for a number of reasons: 1. I think the song itself is brilliant from the lyrics to the chord changes 2. It’s a song that I have performed with him and also covered of his for over a decade now 3. All of my sisters have, at one point, wanted to get the lyrics tattooed on our bodies (none of us have actually done this…yet!) and 4. We just got done recording it in Nashville a few weeks ago and will finally have an incredible version to share with everyone in just a few more weeks.”


   For Lewis, his favorite Kayce song is “5 AM Light,” a synth-heavy electronic pop song from her debut EP, “Lucid.” “I think it showcases her multiple talents of songwriting, singing, piano playing and production,” he says.

Their first public performance together, Kayce says, was when she was still a child. “The first gig we did together was me singing an Alabama song, “Angels Among Us,” with him for some sort of convention or fundraiser when I was 7 or 8. For whatever reason, I didn’t like the spotlight when I was young so I usually got ice cream or some sort of treat for getting up and singing with him. Now I ask for money :),” she recalls.

Lewis remembers that day. “Kayce was singing it around the house and I thought “She sounds waaay better than me doing this” so I drafted her to join me.”

There is one song her father favors that Kayce has heard enough. “Dad has taught every single guitar student “Good Riddance” by Green Day since it came out in 1997 so I’ve probably heard him play and sing that song thousands of times,” she says. “Now, I definitely wouldn’t say that he loves this song, but he loves TEACHING this song and I can safely say, I would be totally fine if I never heard it again.”


Keith Stainback, the father of blues rocker Seth Stainback of Roosterfoot, remembers his son singing around the house and at church from the time he was a toddler. But one day stands out. “I don’t remember the first song I heard Seth sing, there were so many. He would sing around the house from the time was a toddler. Mostly songs from church, or songs he’d hear his mom sing,” he says. “I do remember one day I was sitting on the deck when we lived in South Carolina. Seth was around 16 years old. He walked up with his guitar and said he had just finished writing a song and would I like to hear it. Now I knew that he could sing and was already a good guitarist, but after he played me the new song, I realized he also had a gift for songwriting.”

His favorite is “Earth & Worm,” the title cut off the band’s full-length album. “I’ve always loved “Earth & Worm.” It’s a great song and it’s about family,” he adds. “Now, the song “Reckless” off the new Roosterfoot EP gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Again, there are so many good ones, it’s hard to choose a favorite.”

They started playing together down below and eventually made it to higher ground. “Seth and I spent many, many hours jamming in the basement at home,” Keith says. “I’m pretty sure the first time we played in public together would have been with the band at church. We played a show together at his high school, which would have also been one of the first public times.”

While their tastes are the same, Keith admits that those prog rock days are probably not his son’s favorite.

“Seth probably has a few songs he doesn’t want to hear again. Songs that I would get him listen to when he was younger. Mostly progressive rock from bands like Yes, early Genesis, stuff like that. Even though recently he has shown an interest in experimenting with time signatures other than basic 4/4 and 6/8. I like to think that old stuff I made him listen to just might be coming out,” Keith says. “We will see.”

 

 

–end—-

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The Zombies’ Odyssey 50 Years On

For Rod Argent and The Zombies, deciding to play their final album as a band, the pop psychedelic masterpiece, “Odessey and the Oracle,” live for the first time required more than getting together a group that had not performed in decades.

It required a Victorian-era pump organ.

When Argent and Chris White, the two writers in the short-lived Sixties British band committed to doing the album live, they decided not to compromise. After all, the band never had a chance to play “Odessey and Oracle” following its release in 1967. They broke up before the album was released (delayed in the U.S. until Al Kooper convinced Clive Davis to issue it. More on that later).

So they decided to replicate its 12 tunes note for note. That meant finding a pump organ for “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” a Pink Floyd meets The Beatles deep track about the horrors of war.

Luckily for them, they found one not 15 miles from Argent’s home in Bedfordshire, “one of the very few Victorian pump organs around for sale in the whole country,” Argent says. It had to be stripped of a century of dust, cleaned and put back together.

The organ and the album debuted live during a 2008 London concert. A one-night stand turned into three. “All sorts of people turned up,” Argent says by phone. “Robert Plant. Paul Weller, who was there all three nights. Snow Patrol. I can’t remember everyone who was there. It was hugely successful.”

Now, 50 years after they released the enduring classic, “Odessey and Oracle” (the title was misspelled by the cover artist), they are on a tour of the United States with a sprawling band recreating the album that contains their biggest hit, “Time of the Season.” (Plenty of Americans saw groups named The Zombies playing that tune in 1968, but they were imposters. More on that later).

They come to Virginia Beach’s Sandler Center for Performing Arts on March 21.

The genesis of the tour was a few gigs in 2000 when Argent got together with White. At first, they didn’t play Zombies tunes. “Very, very gradually we started to realize there was a whole bunch of (Zombies) material we’d never played live and we started including it for fun and very gradually became more serious about putting something more prominent together,” he says.

White broached the idea of playing the resurrected classic. “He said do you realize in 40 years we’ve never played “Odessey and Oracle” live on stage in its entirety? Why don’t we do it?” Argent recalls. “I said, ‘How do we do it?’ ”
The answer was to take their current touring band, add the rest of the living members of The Zombies including Colin Blunstone and drummer Hugh Grundy and a secret weapon, Darian Sahanaja, an arranger for Brian Wilson and member of The Wondermints who could play the Mellotron parts. The final piece was Chris White’s wife, Vivian Boucherat, who adds the high harmonies.

“We decided if we were going to do it at all, we were going to do it by reproducing every single note on the original, ” adds Argent, who went on to form the group, Argent, after the Zombies and have hits with “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” “We needed all those musical lines and the extra harmonies we’d overdubbed to really make some of the tracks come alive.”

That the album was made in the first place is another story. By 1967, The Zombies had not had a hit in Great Britain for too long. Live gigs in those days, Argent notes, were paid based on your chart position. They’d scored a hit with “She’s Not There” at home, literally the third song Argent wrote in his life. But that was it.

“In those days, we were very much more based out of the country of origin,” he says. “We had done some States tours, but we were very much based in the UK. We found out later that we usually had a hit somewhere in the world, but we didn’t know this at the time. “

White and Argent, the writers, had a steady stream of income from publishers, but the three other guys in the band were struggling. “We were lucky enough to have very honest publishers. We didn’t have to search around for money. We were pretty well off, actually,” Argent says. “But the rest of the band didn’t have a penny to dress themselves with by the time we broke up.”

They also weren’t happy with the sound of their records. They wanted a fuller sound, no doubt influenced by The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” and the experimentation of The Beatles at the time. Argent’s roots go deep into classical music growing up. Then he discovered rock, especially Elvis Presley, introduced to him by Jim Rodford, a neighbor down the street who would go on to play with The Kinks. Rock and roll got him into R&B and then a long exploration into the jazz of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane. He says he was “very knocked out” when Pat Metheny mentioned his admiration for “She’s Not There.”

With their popularity waning, CBS in the UK offered them only 1,000 pounds to record the album. They walked into Abbey Road Studios just after The Beatles walked out following the recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Fresh in Argent’s mind were the bass lines of “Pet Sounds,” and the singles “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Sgt. Pepper” would not be released until they’d finished.

“Lennon left his Mellotron lying around and we pounced on that,” Argent says. “We had a ball recording that album. We had a very limited budget so over several months it was basically one session of three hours or two sessions of three hours at most to create each track.”

The last song they recorded, their last song in the studio, was “Time of the Season.” Argent got the inspiration for the title because he misheard the lyrics to Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” as “it’s the time of the season to trace the tracks of my tears,” which he blames on scratchy AM radio. Most of the song was written in a day. He finished the final words in the studio as the rest of the band chilled in a pub waiting to record.

When they returned, he wanted Blunstone to sing lead. It took more than a few takes and some verbal sparring before he nailed the phrasing Argent wanted. “I remember saying to Chris White I think this could be a big hit, but no one else shared my feeling,” he recalls.

For the first time on “Odessey,” they used multi-tracking, which allowed for overdubs of piano, Mellotron, guitar or harmonies. “We were very proud of the album when we finished. We thought it was the best thing we could do,” he adds. “It was how we wanted to sound.”

It was released in the UK to an ignoring audience.

Al Kooper, the keyboardist and member of Blood, Sweat and Tears, was a house producer for CBS in America at the time. He heard the album on a trip to Britain and bought 200 copies to take back to New York. Kooper told Davis he had to find out who had the rights, secure them and release the album in the U.S.

The rights weren’t a problem, Davis said. CBS in the U.S. owned them. But he’d already passed on the album. Kooper persisted, the album was released in the U.S. and became a hit — eventually (more on that s

oon). “We certainly keep in touch with Al,” Argent says laughing. “Our gratitude is unbounded.”

The first two singles flopped. Then came “Time of the Season.” “Nobody played it, but one DJ in Boise, Idaho, picked up on it,” he says. Over six months, the song slowly rippled out from there, rising on the charts to become a number one in nearly every country — except the UK, Argent notes.

The Zombies were offered a million dollars to tour. But Argent was moving forward with his own band with White as producer. Blunstone became a solo act. Guitarist Paul Atkinson became an A&R man. Grundy eventually left music all together.

The band that was no more had a hit. Crafty promoters solved that problem, creating fake Zombies who met the demand for “Time of the Season.” Years later, Argent learned one of those groups, born in Texas, featured a couple of guys named Dusty Hill and Frank Beard. They’d later go on to be two-thirds of a little band named ZZ Top.

The album struggled along, not earning many sales or much acclaim until years later when it became a cult disc that’s a staple of record stores, especially on vinyl. “To my complete astonishment, it has had a long life and is sells more every year than when it first came out,” Argent says.

The Zombies are on one last tour, a tour of the U.S. playing “Odessey” based on the success of those UK shows. There was just one problem. The pump organ, that huge pump organ, could not go on the road.

So they went looking for another one, one that was portable. They found a World War I era pump organ that was used to play for the troops, a perfect ending.

“That’s even more appropriate because the song we use it for is Chris White’s “Butcher’s Tale,” based on the world war,” Argent says.

For The Zombies, the odyssey had a happy ending. It just took time.

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My Favorite Music of 2016

This was a terrible year for music with the deaths of so many icons. But the material coming out of studios was the best it’s been in years. My list of favorites is as varied as I can remember.

Here are the albums that enchanted me the most this year, a list longer than usual because so many were worthy.

“American Band” — Drive-by Truckers.
I was a little late to embrace this band, but I’ve gone back and rectified that. This outspoken political statement is my favorite work of these sons of the South. “What It Means” is the song of the year. The album brilliantly explores the rural/urban divide in America. It features one lyrical op-ed after another from “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” through “Guns of Umpqua” and on to “Kinky Hypocrite.” An important album that will endure, especially over the next four years.

 

“Blues and Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook)” — Luther Dickinson.
Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All-Stars, steps out with his second solo disc that sounds like a long night on a wrap-around porch. It opens with a series of catchy folks songs then shifts midway through with the Mavis Staples duet, “Ain’t No Grave,” into after-a-few bourbon down and dirty blues.

 

“Undercurrent” — Sarah Jarosz.

Jarosz is a prodigy, a superb player whose songwriting seemed on the cusp with her first two releases. This, her third, is a breakthrough. Her writing finally matches her incredible playing and singing.

 

“Dori Freeman” — Dori Freeman.

This is the aching, seep-into-your soul stirrings of a daughter of Galax and Appalachia. Her story — sending a song to Teddy Thompson and him offering to produce this record — is a fairytale. The songs manage to be both vulnerable and strong. And that voice, oh, that voice.

 

“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” — Margo Price.

What a disc. Passionate, smart, and traditional yet somehow modern. The writing is smart, observant and topped only by her singing. She’s Patsy Cline and Lucinda Williams and every great country singer in between. She’s a fine storyteller. Listen to “Hands of Time,” “Four Years of Chances,” and “Since You Put Me Down.” In the latter, she writes “I killed the angle on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams when I found out you were never coming home.”

 

“My Woman” — Angel Olsen.
That voice. It whispers, wavers, cracks, howls and is unapologetically provocative. It’s Patti Smith, Nico, and Chrissie Hynde for a new day. “At your worst I still believe it’s worth the fight,” she sings on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the album’s catchiest declaration.

 

“Cradle to the Grave” — Squeeze.
What a surprise. Tilbrook and Difford back together after so many years and as good as ever. From the title track on through these come close to the band at its ’80s best.

 

“Paging Mr. Proust” — The Jayhawks.
Speaking of bands returning to form with an altered lineup, “Paging Mr. Proust” both looks back to the best of The Jayhawks, but also pushes into new territory. “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces,” with those marvelous harmonies, and “Lies in Back and White” could slide easily into any of their classic discs while the psychedelic groove of “Ace” is a different direction.

 

“This Is Where I Live” — William Bell.

William Bell was a supporting player in the Stax cast (“Never Like This Before” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which he wrote). Now, he returns at 77 with a classic soul album produced by John Leventhal, aka Mr. Rosanne Cash. From the opening “The Three of Me” on through “Walking on a Tightrope” to the Curtis Mayfield-inspired “People Want to Go Home” this is sweet soul music.

 

“Sea of Noise” — St. Paul and the Broken Bones

The lyrics take a serious turn, but the band’s playing is as tight and rambunctious as ever. Moreover, the disc moves them past the revivalist stage into new territory, both catchy and challenging.

 

“case, lang, veirs” — case, lang, veirs.
This super-group album of Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs is a mesmerizing mix of incredible harmonies (natch) and enchanting songwriting. It’s pretty, but also profound. There is not one standout track you think has to be on a mixtape, but the entire gentle experience is one where by album’s end you wonder where the time went.

 

“No Burden” — Lucy Dacus.
Her world-weary voice and insistent guitar strumming seep into your head listen after listen. In some cases, this reminds me of the best of ’90s indie rock (Liz Phair). But it’s her voice that carries the day, supple and engaging.

 

“Upland Stories” — Robbie Fulks.

With a couple of Grammy nominations for this record, Fulks, who has played North Shore Point House Concerts twice, finally gets well-deserved mainstream recognition. The album makes a hard nod to Appalachia. It’s full of great stories (no surprise there) like “Needed,” the teen love story turned serious, and “South Bend Soldiers On,” the reflections of an old man on loss and time. There’s a deeply rootsy production with tasty fiddle, banjo, and, of course, the superb guitar stylings of Robbie Gjersoe, Fulks’s longtime playing partner. Fulks has written lots of songs filled with yucks. These are filled with lumps in the throat and deep reflections. It may be the best of his superb catalog.

“Real Midnight” — Birds of Chicago.

This is one of those albums that ends up in a player and just stays there, thanks to partners Allison Russell (formerly of Po’ Girl), who does most of the singing, and her husband, J.T. Nero, who does most of the writing. The great Joe Henry produced and he highlights simple playing and Russell’s supple, emotional voice. While it’s a great surface listen, repeated plays reveal the existential depth of the disc. Go on, dive in.

“Look Park” — Look Park.
After years away, former Fountains of Wayne main man Chris Collingwood returns with the pop rock record of the year. That doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight offering. He’s tired of the jokes and it shows in the smart, thoughtful lyrics, including “Shout,” his brilliant attempt at a sort of new national anthem.

“The Very Last Day” — Parker Millsap.
Millsap released a fine debut disc a couple of years ago, but he steps it up with his sophomore outing, a harder-rocking, deeper probing effort. This one opens with “Hades Pleads,” a rollicking blues number fueled by slide and fiddles and then shifts into the acoustic catchiness of “Pining” before slipping to the slow, soulful “Morning Blues.” You get the idea. Millsap’s vocals, front and center, simply won’t let you do anything less than pay close attention.

Best Live Shows of 2016

1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater
2. Squeeze at The NorVa
3. Gary Louris at North Shore Point House Concerts
4. Jason Isbell with Frank Turner at Chrysler Hall
5. The Mavericks at The Sandler Center

 

The Mavericks Create a Second Act

mavericks_vipteaser2-438x438Eddie Perez was just a couple of years into his tenure with The Mavericks when the band shattered, fragile glass hitting a tile floor and exploding into jagged pieces. Those years before their 2004 breakup, he concedes now, weren’t much fun.
Perez is a veteran rock guitarist who has played with Dwight Yoakam, Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and others. But when the group first assembled back in the studio four years ago, he was uneasy.

“After doing music all these years with so many artists,” he says, “I can tell you it’s rare for me to get nervous or apprehensive, very rare. But the first time we came together after many years apart in the studio making “In Time,” I was nervous. “

“But once we put the headphones on and Raul (Malo) said it goes like this and here’s the song, from that moment, it was like no time had gone by at all. It was quite bizarre to tell you the truth.”

They did “Back in Your Arms,” that first song, in one take, the first time they played it as a band.

“That was an amazing feeling,” Perez adds. “We’re talking about a nine-year break. We didn’t see each other in the same room for that many years. To come together in a studio setting it was as if no time had gone by. We went from elation to wow, this is a chance to do this thing right again.”

The Mavericks were back, better than ever. “In Time” earned plaudits. The eclectic follow-up, “Mono,” drew universal raves and led to their recent live album, “All Night Live Vol. 1.”

“We started instantly realizing how good we play together,” he adds.

Everybody was, uh, more mature, Perez notes. They’d meandered through life’s experiences, had kids, and played with other artists. Malo had gone off and done solo discs, experimenting with different genres. “Lucky for us he brings his experiences to what we’re doing now and it’s been a completely brand new day for us,” he adds. “It really is a celebration. To be able to come back and have a second act like this is pretty much unheard of.”

The band appears at The Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on Dec. 7.

The Mavericks of 2016 are a dramatically different band than the one that burst on the scene in 1991 and landed 14 singles on the Billboard country charts over the next 12 years. Oh, they can honky tonk like they did on “What a Crying Shame.” They can blend in Latin music to make you shake and bake. They can swing like an old big band. They can get down and dirty with the blues. They can shape a ballad like few other bands.

Malo’s love for Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley and George Jones still shines through his vocals. The man may be the finest crooner today.

“His voice is one of a kind that doesn’t come along often,” Perez says. “And he sounds that good at 7 o’clock in the morning on some TV show after a night of martinis and cigars. It blows us away. I think if anything his voice has gotten better.”
The recent albums have taken the band into ever more varied terrain with songs that would not be out of place on albums by the The Specials, Buena Vista Social Club or a Latin dance disc.

“It is such a luxury to be a musician in a band like this that gets to explore without being confined. We explore all the musical genres that have turned us on and that we have been students of ourselves,” he says. “We all great up on the American songbook. We were inspired by all that, but we’re also complete audiophiles. We collect records. We still shop at record stores looking for records we don’t have. I’m big into jazz. There are a lot of influences there.”

“We just try to make the best, most honest fun feeling music that we can.”

In short, The Mavericks have become their own genre, labels be damned.

“When we’re making this music and writing this stuff, we’re not really conscious and aware of the specific style of song or style of guitar playing,” he adds. “We get in there and let it happen on its own, let it see where it takes us.”

He acknowledges that when he goes back and listens to the early records, it’s easy to hear the dramatic evolution.
They are also now on their own label with the live album their first offering. Perez says it’s a natural evolution. “We’re very hands on everything that has to do with this business from the music and the writing to playing together in the studio and going out and touring,” he says. “It seemed like a natural progression.”

The live show — they’ve played about 120 dates a year since getting back together — is the core of The Mavericks. “Our shows are pretty much parties every night,” he adds. “On the bus, grooving, getting into that head space. When we hit the stage it’s a party and afterwards it’s a party. We all missed playing music together.”

Perez says the band’s renewed passion shows on the disc. “I can attest to how much fun we’re all having right now,” he says.

“I can’t say that was always the case,” he adds, laughing.

 

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Chris Collingwood Moves On

chriscollingwoodmain Chris Collingwood outgrew Fountains of Wayne, simple as that.

Out of that metamorphosis sprouted Look Park, a quieter, reflective solo project that veers in a new direction, but not one severe enough to snap your head back.

“I definitely wanted to start recording songs that weren’t as funny,” he says. “It’s a side of me that I don’t think is really there anymore. I wrote goofy songs in the beginning of Fountains of Wayne and less so over the course of our career. It was just a thing I didn’t want to do anymore.”

“That’s really not my personality anymore,” he adds. “I don’t drink any more. Mostly when I’m home I’m reading nonfiction sitting around complaining about politics. I’m not a drunken young person anymore.”

He particularly tired of playing that big, old goofy song that’s become a punchline, “Stacy’s Mom,” night after night. “It’s like a comedian telling the same joke without ever updating the material,” he says. “It was something I wanted to move past.”

Collingwood is in San Diego after a seven-hour drive along the Mexican border from Phoenix, a trip he describes as beautiful. He’s out on a tour that brings him to the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club on Oct. 27.

For the first time in his life, he’s touring in a van without a tour manager. “I don’t know what I’m doing and it’s painfully obvious to everyone,” he cracks.

He will bring his van and his trio to the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club on Oct. 27 for a show open to members and their friends. Want a ticket? Ask somebody who belongs.

For the Look Park album, Collingwood worked with longtime producer and Grammy nominee Mitchell Froom, who has produced records by Peter Case, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, Indigo Girls and numerous others. At times, Look Park sounds a bit like stripped-down offerings from one of Froom’s past production par

lookpark2

tners, Crowded House. The disc features catchy pop like “Stars of New York,” the reflective “Minor is the Lonely Key,” the soulful “Breezy” and the wordy, quietly anthemic opener “Shout Part 1.”

“I was trying to write a national anthem” he says about “Shout.” “The words f

or that are way longer than the actual song. There are a lot of words.”

There are 243 words in the liner notes for “Shout.”

You got your freedom
And it weren’t for nothing
If you can hold down the note and sing it out
Remember you were born to the whispering world
With a shou
t

Collingwood writes using Evernote, a database program used by a lot of journalists (including me) and he says song files often end up with tons of discarded lyrics at the end.

“I try to edit a lot more now,” he adds. “I revisit stuff. Something that sounds right to me one day doesn’t feel right to me another day. That’s definitely true of “Shout”.”

There’s a lot of Mellotron, the Sixties instrument favored by The Beatles sprinkled throughout the album as well as piano that gives it an open, enticing feel.

Collingwood makes it clear he’s done with Fountains of Wayne and snarky power pop in general. He says during the making of the last FOW disc in 2011 it was clear he and co-founder Adam Schlesinger were splitting. They even went to a sort of couples’ therapy without luck.

“Adam and I just fought constantly making that record,” he says. “We stopped making that record in the middle of making that record to try to work out a whole bunch of things that were going on between us. We saw a psychiatrist and tried to work things out. “

In the end, they reached an agreement to finish the album, tour a bit behind it, and then go their ways.
“In the middle of recording that record, I knew I was going to go and make my own record,” Collingwood adds.

He wrote at home in Northampton, Massachusetts, and had the better part of 20 songs ready for Froom. Some were written during the last Fountains of Wayne tour. They recorded “Look Park” in two sessions in Los Angeles.

The songs come when they come. There’s no routine.

“I really wish I had a process,” he says. “Adam is that kind of writer. He sits down every single day and works on something. I’m not like that. I can’t focus most of the time. I have these fleeting ideas. I recombine and paste. Sometimes the whole thing will come out at once. Sometimes, it’s a labor that takes me months.”

lookparkThe good news is he has plenty of songs in reserve and is considering popping into a studio to record a second Look Park disc.

Collingwood stopped drinking in 2006 after alcohol interfered with his work recording a FOW album. For a while after he left the hospital, he took anti-psychotics. He says he doesn’t think about drinking.

“It’s behind me,” he adds. “I’m not speaking the language of recovery. I have great respect for people for whom it’s a struggle. I hit rock bottom so hard it was never an issue about going back. I don’t struggle with it.”

He does struggle with winter, suffering from seasonal affective disorder, sleeping a lot.

“It’s beautiful here in California,” he cracks. “I think I want to move out here. I could see myself getting a lot of work done in California.”

 

 

 

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