Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Alison Scott is a Class Act

I've told you about Alison Scott before and I will continue to do so because the more I listen to her music, the better I like it.

Ali's latest album, Chinese Whispers, came out in September, 2010. I was planning on going to the CD release party at the Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul, but I had a philosophical disagreement with Ticketmaster - they wanted me to pay some exorbitant handling fees; I did not.

Instead of picking up the CD at the release party I skipped, I ordered it from Alison's web site. I figured I would put the greatest amount of cash in the artist's pocket by buying directly from the artist. I bought her previous two CDs from her in person and she was nice enough to autograph those CDs. Had trouble getting the wrappers off but was very nice.

For Chinese Whispers, there was a comment box on the on-line order form. Since she signed the other CDs, I thought she might sign this one as well, so I entered a comment, "Would it be possible to get this CD autographed? Alas, when it arrived a week later, it was still in the shrink wrap, unsigned. That's fine. I figured she might be using a fulfillment house that made signed CDs impossible, or maybe did them only in person, or charged extra, or some completely innocent and understandable reason. I took no offense and I loved the album.

A few weeks ago, I pick up the mail and see a craft-paper media mailer package in the midst of my junk mail. Curious. I had no unaccounted for on-line orders. I looked at the addressing. To: Me. From: Alison Scott. Curiouser. She doesn't have a new CD out and when she has songs to promote, she sends MP3 attachments to her mailing list people (like me). Why would she send something through the mail to me? And the mailer was filled out by Alison herself - I look at two of her autographed CDs every day and recognize her handwriting. Curious.

Once I was back in the house, I opened the package. Out slides a Chinese Whispers CD with a sticky note attached.

"Hey Patrick

We were recently analyzing our 2010 online sales. I noticed that you had sent me a note asking me to sign your CD. Nobody ever attached a note to their order before, so I've never looked for one.

I feel terrible that I may have appeared to ignore your request. Sorry for the delay. Better late than never I suppose.


I peeled off the sticky note to reveal a personally signed CD of Chinese Whispers.

She needn't have worried; it didn't bother me at all. Taking care of a single fan's inconsequential request a year after a CD purchase makes me appreciate the gesture even more.

Alison Scott is a class act.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 3

Welcome to The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 3. Volumes 1 and 2 are this blog's most popular posts by far, so I hope many, many of you enjoy this list.

The first two lists were designed to introduce my sister to a wider variety of good music. Volume 3 is designed to appeal to anyone on the internet who stumbles by.  I realize that some of you will recognize a few of the songs or at least a few of the artists, but I hope there are enough obscure tunes and musicians in here to expand every reader's horizons several times.

Without further ado, hear are The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Volume 3.

Mother's Finest - Baby Love (1978)
writer: Joyce Kennedy, Glenn Murdock, Jerry Seay, Barry Borden, Gary Moore, Martin Keck
album: Another Mother Further

This is not a cover of the Supremes' 'Baby Love.' It's better. Well, you decide. Mother's Finest was from Georgia and 'Baby Love' was a regional hit way back when. When I lived in Atlanta in the 90s, people would start dancing in their chairs the moment the opening notes came from the jukebox. It's a rocking, soulful blast of adrenaline that deserves to be played loudly and often.

Boz Scaggs - You Got My Letter (1994)
writer: Boz Scaggs
album: Some Change

Boz Scaggs has always been hard to pin down. Even his three biggest hits, 'Lowdown,' 'Lido Shuffle,' and 'Look What You've Done to Me' don't even share a common genre (Jazz-Blues, Power Pop and Ballad, respectively). He continued that trend with his 1994 album Some Change. 'You Got My Letter' has a country feel to the rhythm section but the instruments are jazzy while the vocals are pure blues.

Like I said, Boz is hard to pin down but he's made some great music over the last 40 years and 'You Got My Letter' is right up there, with a great beat and that unmistakable voice. I get the feeling that if played live, his band would just want to keep playing the song for 20 minutes or so. And I'd let them.

Bering Strait - Porushka-Paranya (2003)
writer: traditional
album: Bering Strait

I dare you to not get up and dance or at least tap your foot when listening to 'Porushka-Paranya.' It's like hoe-down music on speed. It's also in Russian, a duet between the two female voices of the now defunct band Bering Strait. The first voice you hear is Lydia Salnikova, who is one of my Facebook friends. Really. The other is Natasha Borzilova, and both are currently trying for solo careers in English-language music. Neither is being terribly successful, which I do not understand at all. Their music is country-tinged and very good, but not selling great guns. Except to me.

'Porushka-Paranya' may be in Russian, a language I do not speak, but is really in the universal language of bluegrass. And fun. And joy. And as weak as my description of 'Porushka-Paranya' is, I really wish I could play a sample to convince you right now. Hi, Lydia!

Sonny Landreth - Bad Weather (1992)
writer: Sonny Landreth
album: Outward Bound

Sonny Landreth is a blues musician from Louisiana. He has a unique style, both in his singing and the way he plays his axe. He uses a slide on his left hand but also finger-picks with his right. Its's probably trippy to watch him play and it's certainly a joy to listen to.

From early in his career, 'Bad Weather' is a good example of Landreth's talent with some wild guitar, great beat and infectious lyrics. And if you can tell the caliber of a musician by the company he keeps, you will occasionally see the name Mark Knopfler listed in the credits of Sonny's albums as a BACK UP musician.

As a Louisiana resident, Landreth had to record a song about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Check out his 2008 song, 'Blue Tarp Blues,' perhaps the definitive song on the subject.

Jon Astley - Jane's Getting Serious (1987)
writer: Jon Astley
album: Everybody Loves the Pilot (Except the Crew)

Jon Astley doesn't even qualify for one-hit wonder status as 'Jane's Getting Serious' - his most successful release - didn't hit the top 40 at all but it did get a lot of play on rock stations. You can, I suppose, guess the subject of the song. It's layered with some funky percussion and a cool vocal arrangement that reinforces the bewilderment of the singer.

Winifred Shaw - The Lullaby of Broadway (1935)
writer: Harry Warren, Al Dubin
As shown in Gold Diggers of 1935

Oh, you've heard 'The Lullaby of Broadway' before, but never the original version. Written for the Busby Berkely movie, Gold Diggers of 1935, it must have been racy in its day, lauding Manhattan babies that party all night and sleep all day, and have sugar daddies buy their favors. How scandalous!

In the movie, the song is used to introduce one of Berkeley's patented musical numbers. The stage curtain opens. An up-tempo, full orchestra tune - the one you recognize - plays. A small white disc appears at the extreme rear of the stage. The singer, not yet visible, begins singing the lyrics that will become iconic. The disc becomes larger. After about half a minute, you realize the growing disc is actually the singer's face, and the camera is dollying in towards her. By the time the song ends - it's barely two minutes long - the singer's face fills the screen, and she sings the last part in extreme - extreme - close up. The movie then goes off on an extended production number that is as complex as Shaw's song was simple, at one point having hundreds of dancers synchronized inside a restaurant, and tap dancers viewed from underneath a glass stage.

Many people have sung 'The Lullaby of Broadway,' but only Shaw really captured it - the only one that could call it original. The fidelity is a bit thin for the modern ear, but it's a wonderful throwback.

Pink Martini - Lilly (2004)
writer: China Forbes, Thomas Lauderdale

First, my history with Pink Martini. Until I heard 'Lilly' in the background of a movie a while back, I had none. No history. Never heard of them. I downloaded 'Lilly,' then used Wikipedia to see who they were. Pink Martini's genre is World Music. I guess that means they have a brass section, extra percussion and occassionally sing in languages other than English. Lead singer China Forbes is in my music collection with exactly one other song - the pop-kitsch theme to the 1996 movie Clueless.

A few months ago, Scott Simon interviewed the band on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday, and introduced them by saying that regular WESAT listeners need no introduction to Pink Martini. Waitaminute. I listen to Weekend Edition every Saturday and have for over a decade. Either Mr Simon was exagerating or I'm just not retaining information in my old age.

'Lilly' is arranged in a 1940s-era saloon style, rhythmic, silky-smooth and brassy. I can picture it being sung in a smoky Rick's Cafe Americain by a band in tuxedos. Lilly is a bad girl - a classic and beloved temptress. Witness the opening lyrics:

"Lilly comes when you stop to call her
Lilly runs when you look away
Lilly leaves kisses on your collar
Lilly, Lilly, Lilly, Lilly, stay!"

I've had a few Lilly's in my life. I could use another one once in a while. The song - unlike the titular babe - is a keeper.

Quarterflash - Crazy Quilt (2008)
writer: Marv Ross
album: Goodbye Uncle Buzz

I put Quarterflash songs in the previous volumes of The Best Songs You've Never Heard and I did it for a reason. They're very good. For the past 30 years I have not been able to understand why the band never caught on with the pop music public. In 2008, the leaders of Quarterflash put out a solo album and slapped a disclaimer on the label admitting that they were the only members of Quarterflash to appear on the record. A classy thing to do.

The melody of 'Crazy Quilt' caught my ear first. It's bouncy and kind of happy. Rindy Ross' vocals are unmistakable. It starts out with the singer telling us that she's worried about her friend, a quilter, who obsesses over her quilts, driving herself crazy trying to make them perfect. In the third verse, the singer tells us about herself and uses the same words to describe how she obsesses over the songs she writes. In other words, we're all part of the same crazy quilt.

Unlike most Quarterflash songs, where the instrumental break features a saxophone solo, 'Crazy Quilt' uses what I believe to be a flute, probably played by Rindy Ross. It's melodic and very soothing. 'Crazy Quilt' would fit right in with the music on any Adult Contemporary radio station.

My sister-in-law CJ is a quilter. Unlike the crazy quilter in the song, CJ makes quilts in copious quantities - she doesn't have time to obsess, and they all look fine to me. After I discovered 'Crazy Quilt,' I gave her a copy to see if she'd enjoy a cute and melodic song about her hobby/lifestyle. When she gave it back, she just shrugged. We don't talk about music anymore.

Henry Lee Summer - Hey Baby (1989)
album: I've Got Everything

'Hey Baby' is the only song in my collection by Henry Lee Summer. It hit number 18 on the pop charts so some of you may have heard it. 'Hey Baby' is your basic three-chord uptempo rocker about, what else, trying to land a babe. It could easily be mistaken for a Bryan Adams or John Mellencamp song, in the best possible way.

Ellen Reid - Anybody Will Do (2001)
writer: Ellen Reid, Greg Wells
album: Cinderellen

Ellen Reid is usually the back-up singer for Crash Test Dummies, a band I find unlistenable unless Ellen is singing lead. 'Anybody Will Do' is from her only solo album to date, and the only song from that album I've been able to find. Ellen has a great style and voice, and I would love to have more of her in my collection.

Deadeye Dick - Marguerite (1994)
writer: Caleb Guillotte
album: A Different Story

Like many people, I thought Deadeye Dick recorded only one song, the gimmick-laden but totally wonderful 'New Age Girl.' Nine years ago, I was perusing my buddy Joel's CD collection and saw that he had the album where 'New Age Girl' came from. I decided to rip a high-quality version of 'New Age Girl,' and, since it required no extra effort, ripped a copy of the full album and boy am I glad I did. The entire album is superb.

Deadeye Dick is a remarkably tight band and Caleb Guillotte is a fantastic singer and songwriter. 'Marguerite' is an uptempo pop song with great lyrics and wonderful harmonies. I relistened just prior to sitting down to write this and I'll be dog-goned if the song isn't about missing a woman who died. Even without that extra meaning, perhaps in spite of the morose undertone, it's still a great, catchy tune.

Kathy Mattea - Quarter Moon (1991)
writer: Bob Millard
album: Time Passes By

Unlike Pink Martini, Kathy Mattea truly needs no introduction. Time Passes By was her sixth LP, going top 10 on the country charts and top 100 pop, but who really listened to little old track 7? 'Quarter Moon' doesn't fit within the rest of the Mattea canon - it's a bluesy, soulful tune about someone with nothing to lose.

"Quarter Moon better than none when you travel the night road
Quarter Moon better than none when you carry a light load"

Kathy's never been shy about branching out from country but this is her only dive into the blues pool that I'm aware of. I kind of wish there were more. In 'Quarter Moon,' her powerful voice is subdued and she uses just a simple accoustic arrangement for the music. Simple, elegant and fantastic.

India Arie - Ghetto (2009)
writer: Branden Burch, India Arie Simpson
accoustic version as aired on NPR, recorded in Studio 4A

India Arie needs no promotion from me. She's had four top ten albums and is no stranger to the R&B singles chart. Yet, when she was promoting Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics on Weekend Edition Sunday in 2009, I had never heard of her. As part of the interview, she did a live version of 'Ghetto,' a song on the album that wasn't released as a single. With just a rhythm guitar for backing, her soulful delivery blew me away. It's a very politically astute song as well, making the statement that the impoverished areas of the third world look an awfully lot like the ghettos and slums of the United States.

To find this version, go to Search with these keywords: India.Arie: 'Love And Politics,' Live In Studio. Watch the performance of 'Ghetto' recorded March 8, 2009, and/or listen to the whole interview.

Alison Scott - Crazy Game (2007)
writer: Alison Scott
album: Wish on the Moon

I've mentioned Alison Scott before, but for those too lazy to follow this link, she's a Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter working in any number of styles. I thought she did blues at first, then jazz, then pop, then who knows what. She even insists on rapping sometimes. No matter what style we call it, she plays catchy, soulful stuff that is downright irresistable.

'Crazy Game' was the first Ali song I heard and it's still my favorite. I could have picked any number of songs for this list from her latest LP, Chinese Whispers, such as 'So Why?,' 'All the Good's Gone,' 'Long Way Down' or 'When the Needle Hits the Groove,' but for today, 'Crazy Game' is the one. Anyone who has ever heard a good song, and if you're reading this you obviously have, then you'll recognize Alison Scott's 'Crazy Game' as an immediately memorable, great song.

Steve Lukather - Stab in the Back (2008)
writer: Steve Lukather, Randy Goodrum
album: Ever Changing Times

I've pledged to write up this song without going off on a tangent about how Steve Lukather is one of the best guitarists in the history of the instrument, so give me a minute.

OK. Luke, as he is known to his fans, was the lead guitarist for Toto and started releasing solo work starting in the late 1980s, during his Toto downtime. Fast forward to 2008, when he releases his first solo album in ten years. Its style is all over the road, something Luke fans seem to appreciate. The song that grabbed my ear first was 'Stab in the Back.' It's an allegory for music deals where the artist gets screwed but more importantly, it's a chance for a couple of patented Luke solos. The man can play.

'Stab in the Back' is a very jazzy tune, with melodic vocals and some almost whimsical guitar licks. If the lyrics didn't contain mentions of cell phones and voice mail, you'd think it was a song off a Steely Dan album from the 1970s. It's that good.

Susanna Hoffs - So Much for Love [edit] (1991)
writer: John Hanes, Patricia Gilbert, Peter Dunne, Hilary Hanes
album: When You're a Boy

In the Summer of 2008, I decided to flesh out my collection of artists that I appreciated but didn't possess their entire discography. Susanna Hoffs was one of those. You may know her as one of the Bangles. I picked up her 1991 album cheap - it may have been a penny - and loaded it on my music player. It's a fairly funky album but on my first listen-to, I wasn't impressed. On the second listen, though, something clicked.

At that time I was living in a sub-let apartment in a should-have-been condemned building/slum across the street from my office. It was literally a three-minute cube-to-hovel walk. On a hot June or July day, walking back to the office from lunch, cut 7 from When You're a Boy started playing. The third verse caught my attention.

"I got a contract to protect my labor
I got it worded so it always works out in my favor
Got no loose ends to untangle
I got a written guarantee that covers every angle
So much, so much for love"

Until you listen for yourself, you have to imagine those words being sung by the voice that sang 'Manic Monday,' 'Eternal Flame' and the last verse of 'Walk Like an Egyptian.' It's very cynical, very funky and very fun. I think Susanna's record company missed out by not releasing 'So Much for Love' as a single 20 years ago.

You may have noticed the word "edit" in the title above. After maybe a dozen listens, I realized the song was broken. Like many pop songs, 'So Much for Love' was arranged in the format of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. I used my WAV editor, found a couple of natural edit points and killed the first chorus, changing v-c-v-c-v-c to v-v-c-v-c. The song flows better and builds up more musical tension this way, but if you don't have the ability to edit music files, hey, the stock version is still a great song.

Kay Hanley - Satellite (2002)
writer: Kay Hanley
album: Cherry Marmalade

I love Kay Hanley's voice. It hits a resonate frequency deep within and brings me great joy. I don't always love her song selection and her propensity to drop the F-bomb makes me a little uneasy, but what can you do? Instinct tells me to put my favorite Kay song on this list, but the purpose of The Best Songs You've Never Heard is to expose you to great songs, not force you to like my favorites, even if they are sometimes one in the same. Having given it that much thought, I have chosen a Kay Hanley song that demonstrates her amazing singing and songwriting ability, even if it's not quite my actual favorite Kay song.

Which brings us to 'Satellite,' from her first solo LP. She sings in a straight-forward pop style, with easy to understand lyrics and a chorus that is catchier than chicken pox at day care. I picked 'Satellite' in part because it uses overdubbing both to give her voice depth and so she can sing harmony-back up vocals herself. Those harmonies pop 'Satellite' up to a whole 'nother level of pop song.

The song is a fairly opaque look at a break-up, one with dumper's remorse, I guess. The second thoughts allow Kay to sing with a little more emotion than on many of her songs, yet 'Satellite' is ultimately a happy sounding, up-tempo song. And you just have to love a song where the lyrics rhyme "black coat" with "Veuve Cliquot." I had to look it up - Veuve Cliquot is a brand of champagne. No, I have no idea what the word Satellite means in the context of the lyrics - it sounds like a person's name. No, she doesn't drop the F-bomb in this song.

Joan Osborne - What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? (2007)
writer: William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, James Dean
album: Breakfast in Bed
DVD: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

You've obviously heard the song 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?' This cover version was created for the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the story of the musicians behind the incredible success of Motown Records in the 1960s. The musicians playing on this cover are (mostly) the same ones that played on Jimmy Ruffin's original version in 1966. Who woulda thought that Joan Osborne had so much soul?

I recommend watching the whole movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, but at the very least, check out Joan's version of 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?' beginning at the 1:11 point in the movie. It's better than the original.

Steve Forbert - On the Streets of This Town (1988)
writer: Steve Forbert

Everybody has heard Forbert's 'Romeo's Tune,' with its infectious piano and his sandpaper voice, but 'On the Streets of This Town' is a better song. It's a simple moving-on ballad with a sparse four-part arrangement that makes the most of that rough voice.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd - Everybody Gets the Blues (1995)
writer: Angel Michael
album: Ledbetter Heights

I'll close with one of the best feel-good songs in the history of recorded music. It's from Kenny Wayne Shepherd's early, hit-making days, but 'Everybody Gets the Blues' was not released as a single. It's a powerful, fast, exciting song that is a celebration. If something's got you down, it won't seem so bad after you listen to 'Everybody Gets the Blues.'

And that concludes volume 3. I won't promise a volume 4, certainly not anytime soon. I will make an offer to burn a CD of this list for those of you who know me personally. For the rest, you will have to seek out the music through regular channels. I guarantee that many, no, most, no, ALL of the songs here are worth seeking out.