Archive for Music

If you’re lost, I’m right behind. #PlagueSongs, no. 15

You’ll know Everything But the Girl’s Amplified Heart (1994) for its hit single “Missing.” But take a listen to a deeper cut from that record: “We Walk the Same Line” (Really, do listen to the original: Tracey Thorn’s alto is far more pleasing than my tenor.)

The lyrics’ evocation of love and worry resonate in this era of COVID-19 and uprisings against racist violence. Will the people you love return home safely? As Thorn sings, “I don’t need reminding / how loud the phone can ring / when you’re waiting for news.” Bringing us into the perspective of a person who is concerned and waiting, she then sings about how “that big old moon / lights every corner of the room.”

I appreciate, too, the tone of understanding. As she sings in the first verse, “And I bet you could tell me / how slowly four follows three.” She knows that you know what sleepless waiting is like. She understands you, too.

The declaration of faith — sung as much to the listener as to herself, I think — affirms that need we have right now, also expressed in “Lean on Me” (Plague Song no. 9). We need to hold each other up.

I don’t know enough about music to explain why the F7 chord works so well here, but it does. “We Walk the Same Line” is never too far away from an F7 or a G chord. They recur the most frequently — in both the verse and the chorus. At least in this song, landing on the F7 deepens the emotional experience a little bit, as when it comes on and lingers after “news” (in the line “when you’re waiting for news”).

Here’s a home demo that I heard for the first time while composing this blog post.

I’m struck by how similar it is to the final version. Even at the demo stage, Thorn and Ben Watt already had the lyrics and arrangement very clearly worked out.

Keep the faith, everyone. I’ll be back again next week.

Are you seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? I continue to compile this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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My neighbor and my friend. #PlagueSongs, no. 14

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was one of the kindest, most empathetic people in human history. We need more of his kindness and care in the world. That is one reason why this week’s Plague Song is the theme to his children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001).

I think, these days, fans of the show are thinking of this 1969 episode where Mr. Rogers and François Clemmons (as his character “Officer Clemmons”) put their feet in the same wading pool. Lest this seem a small gesture, remember that U.S. public pools were segregated and, when forced to integrate, many cities simply withdrew funding from their public pools. This is one reason why far fewer African Americans know how to swim today.

Another reason I recorded this song is that, during this time of quarantine, I have seen far more of my own neighborhood than I usually do. Nearly every evening for the past 94 days, I have taken a walk through my neighborhood — and surrounding neighborhoods. I think many of us are seeing more of our neighbors these days. At present, these past three months mark the longest period of time I’ve been at home since April 2017. When I reach four months of quarantine, that will mark the longest period I’ve been at home for at least ten years.

Here’s Fred Rogers himself, performing the theme, from later in the run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I say “later in the run” of the show because my personal memory of the theme brings to mind a younger Mr. Rogers, from the early 1970s. And that brings me to a third reason for choosing this song: like “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (the third in this Plague Songs series), “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a song my mother still remembers. If I start singing it, she will sing along and will recall at least some of the lyrics. When I played it for her on Sunday (via Skype), she sang some of the beginning with me, and smiled. These days, songs from her childhood and my childhood yield the strongest spark of recognition.

A fourth reason (and, yes, I’ll stop after #4) for this song is that singing it makes me happy. Though I only started learning it on Friday (guided by this excellent video tutorial), I was not at all anxious about having a passable version for my Monday morning recording. I found the C dim 7 chord a bit tricky — I land on it well about 50% of the time, and not in the above video. But playing the song puts me in Fred Rogers’ headspace — a loving, patient, and forgiving place. He would be glad that I was enjoying his song, and would not mind if I strummed the C dim 7 chord slightly late.

I hope you enjoyed hearing this song as much as I enjoyed playing it for you.

Friends and neighbors, are you seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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This is the time. #PlagueSongs, no. 13.

For my first punk “plague song,” here’s “There Is No Time,” from Lou Reed, one of the godfathers of punk. I chose it because it’s an urgent call to action.

The song is two decades and many musical experiments after his Velvet Underground days, where he explores some of the sonic territory later embraced by punk. But New York (1989) — the album on which this song appears — is a lean, powerful rock record. And this track is its most punk. In some ways, it’s more early Clash or Ramones than it is VU.

I identify with its urgency, its directness, and its capacity to surprise. I mean, it’s in the form of a manifesto (another reason I like it), but — despite the claim that “This is no time for learned speech” — it has lines like “This is no time for circumlocution.” But also lines like these: “This is no time to swallow anger. / This is no time to ignore hate.” And “This is a time for action / Because the future’s within reach.”

Doing Lou Reed’s Sprechstimme without a microphone was … not entirely successful. When I sing, my voice carries above the sound of the guitar. But playing loud punky guitar without amplifying my speak-singing means you have to listen a bit more closely. In the video, you see less of the guitar and more of my head because I’m trying to get my mouth closer to my iPhone’s microphone. As I say, not as effective as I’d hoped.

Apart from the inadequate amplification, it’s a fun song to play — exactly five chords that repeat in the same order (chorus included!). The main challenge here was getting the lyrics in the right order. They’re memorable, but figuring out their internal logic — why the “no time for private vendettas” verse might follow the “no time to swallow anger” verse — was my challenge.

Reed’s original is easily one of my top five Lou Reed songs — which is saying something, given that he wrote “Sweet Jane,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love,” and “Turning Time Around.” Anyway. Here’s the late Mr. Reed himself, backed by Mike Rathke on guitar, Rob Wasserman on upright electric bass, and Fred Maher on drums.

Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome!

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No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11

Given that I’ve played all of these on an acoustic guitar, you’d think I’d have covered a country song by now. But this song, co-written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose, is the first.

Williams recorded “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive” in June 1952, the single was released in November 1952, and Williams died January 1, 1953 at the age of 29. The song hit #1 on the country charts that month. It was the last song released in his lifetime.

I think my favorite couplet in the song is:

And brother, if I stepped on a worn-out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails.

I love the layers of humor embedded in those two dozen words. A dime is the smallest-sized US coin — to even notice that you were stepping on it indicates not just holes in your shoes but (likely) no socks on your feet. And there’s a comic fatalism in betting half of the ten-cent piece you’ve just found, when your odds are only 50-50 of guessing right. Merely noticing a regular dime beneath one’s feet would be remarkable; accurately guessing which side of a worn-out dime is up is, quite literally, a toss-up.

That said, the absurdity of a lawyer proving that you weren’t “born” but only “hatched” is funny on a couple of levels, too. Is it a commentary on a shifty lawyer or a shifty singer? That is, did the lawyer “prove” something impossible about Williams, or is Williams wryly acknowledging that his relationship to the “distant uncle” was “only hatched” — a plan he hatched, to claim the inheritance?

The song has been covered by many, including the Delta Rhythm Boys in December 1952.

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1995.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore in 2005.

In 2006, the Little Willies (featuring Norah Jones and Richard Julian on vocals) recorded a version.

Steve Earle did a version in 2011.

And I’m sure there are many other versions out there!

Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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In the end, they’ll be the only ones there. #PlagueSongs, no. 10

If you haven’t really listened to the lyrics of Hanson’s “MMMBop,” you might be surprised to see me cover it as a Plague Song. In fact, I rather hope you are surprised by the choice. (Who expects to see a middle-aged professor performing a teen-pop smash from 1997?)

As you listen to the lyrics, do note that the Hanson brothers — Isaac, Taylor, and Zac — are singing about the fragility of human relationships, and their necessity in the face of mortality. Musically, it’s an upbeat, three-chord pop song. Lyrically, it advises you to “hold on to the ones who really care. In the end, they’ll be the only ones there.” When the song was released, the brothers were between the ages of 11 and 16. And, unlike most of the other songs on Middle of Nowhere, they wrote this song — the album’s biggest hit — themselves.

One thing I love about learning even an apparently simple song (such as this) is discovering that it’s always a bit trickier than I at first think. Getting in all (or most) of the “yeahs” and “ohhs” was like memorizing a nonsense poem, a sensation further enhanced by the nonsensical chorus. I also love the fact that such a joyful, exuberant song considers mortality and the vital but sometimes tenuous bonds of affection upon which we all depend.

Here are Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson in the song’s music video (1997).

Here’s the Fabulous Pink Flamingos’ cover (2007), the version which made me reconsider the song.

Here’s the Postmodern Jukebox cover (2016), the arrangement of which highlights the 1950s doo-wop that inspired Hanson to write the song.

And, yes, as you have already noticed (via the number at the top of this blog post), we are now at Plague Song number 10. When I started, I thought, oh, I’ll be doing this until maybe late May… early June? Now, I realize that I will be recording a weekly Plague Song until maybe 2021 sometime? I truly have no idea.

But I do hope you’re enjoying my attempt to push a little hope into the world. And I hope it inspires you to create some of your own. Sing. Dance. Write. Rap. Recite a poem. Perform a scene. Draw. Paint. Sculpt. Bake. Cook. Cultivate your garden. Build something.

As readers of Leo Lionni’s Frederick (1967) already know, art creates hope. And we can all use our creative talents — whatever they may be — to that end. So, let’s do it!

Seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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If you just call me. #PlagueSongs, no. 9

Some of Bill Withers’ songs seem always to have existed. It is as if they were always out there in the ether, but needed him to bring them into the world. “Grandma’s Hands,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Lean on Me” — the song I’m performing for this week’s #PlagueSong.

Here’s the late, great Mr. Bill Withers himself, performing the song in 1973.

There are many cover versions of this song. Club Nouveau’s 1987 hit cover version may be the best known. But rather than populate this blog post with cover versions (as I’ve done for many previous “Plague Songs” posts), I’ll let you seek your favorites.

I prefer here focusing only on the songwriter, who passed away at the end of March — not from COVID-19, but from heart complications. RIP Bill Withers (1938-2020). And thanks for the music.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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So far away, but still so near. #PlagueSongs, no. 8

Day 53 of quarantine, and I’m covering… Robyn! On a related note, my apologies to Robyn and her fans.

As in all previous posts in this series, I strongly recommend you check out the original version — and, indeed, the cover versions by actual musicians. The song is far, far better than my performance conveys. Here’s the original audio. This is my favorite version, and the basis for my cover.

The music video, 2010. This is a different mix than the above version.

Lovely, spare, sad version recorded at the BBC Live Lounge in 2010.

Live performance from 2011. (Remember live concerts?)

There are more covers of this than I had realized. Here’s Kings of Leon’s 2013 cover, performed on the BBC Live Lounge.

An arrangement and performance by Pentatonix, 2017.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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Kick at the darkness. #PlagueSongs, no. 7

This week, a song from a different dangerous time that speaks eloquently to our present one.

“Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of two hits from Bruce Cockburn’s Stealing Fire (1984). The other is “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” “Lovers…” was the bigger hit in his native Canada, and “… Rocket Launcher” was the hit in the U.S. But “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of Cockburn’s best-known songs. Barneaked Ladies’ 1991 cover of the song was the band’s first hit — #16 on the Canadian charts. U2 quotes the “kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” lyric in “God Part II.” My own cover (such as it is) owes more to Cockburn’s acoustic version from Columbia Records Radio Hour, Vol. 1 (1995) than to the delightfully 1980s Stealing Fire version.

The 1984 music video, which is… very 1984.

Beautiful live acoustic performance from 2011.

Music video for Barenaked Ladies’ 1991 cover.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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Be an optimist instead. #PlagueSongs, no. 6

The final song on the Kinks’ Give the People What They Want (1981) is also one of the most hopeful songs in the band’s oeuvre. It has long been a favorite of mine, but I only just learned it for this Plague Songs series.

Unlike previous entries in this series, I had to record this on my iPhone. When using iMovie, either it froze/crashed … or the performer failed. So, that’s why the look and sound here is very slightly different than previous Plague Songs.

Would you like to hear a better version of the song? Of course you would! Here’s the Kinks’ original.

Here’s a great cover by Dar Williams from 1997.

Here’s Fountains of Wayne’s 2001 cover, introduced by Conan O’Brien in 2020, following the death of Adam Schlesinger (from COVID-19) on the first of this month.

And Pearl Jam!

Here’s a live Pearl Jam version, in which Eddie Vedder misses a few lyrics — but, hey, everyone’s enjoying themselves… and isn’t that what “Better Things” is all about?

BONUS this week! The Munich Blue Notes perform — in quarantine, from their home offices — Enya’s “May It Be.”

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. #PlagueSongs, no. 5

🤦🏼‍♂️ After last week’s #EpicSkaFail (my apologies to music-lovers everywhere), I’ve chosen a song that I can perform adequately.

Composed by Ritchie Cordell, “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a big hit for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1967.

The song was again a major hit for Tiffany in 1987 — the singer’s biggest hit, in fact.

I’m more partial to the Tommy James version, but Tiffany’s has its fans. And these are just the best-known versions. Lene Lovich did a cool new-wave cover in 1978.

There’s also the Rubinoos’ 1977 power-pop version, Snuff’s 1989 punk cover, and Girls Aloud’s 2006 slick pop performance, among others.

Beyond offering you the silliness of a middle-aged man singing a teen anthem, I chose this song to remind you that you are not alone. We may be physically separate, but we can still be together — via phone, video-call, texting, emails, physical mail, or even by talking to a friend or neighbor from a safe distance. Chat from the balcony of your apartment building, or across the fence, or when you see them out walking. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. But we can be — and are — still here for one another.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may well have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

BONUS! Below is my personal mix of happy songs — the playlist that I turn to for cheery music. Many genres, and (as per my mix-making rules) only one song per artist. As of this writing, there are 116 songs and over 6 hours of music, including: The Muppets, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Eat World, Digable Planets, They Might Be Giants, P.O.S., R.E.M., Das EFX, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ennio Morricone, Ramones, Nina Simone, Paul Simon, the Clash, Beastie Boys, the Beatles, Blackalicious, Groucho Marx, Vince Guaraldi, Chet Baker, Robert Preston, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, the Mills Brothers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lizzo, Metric, Dick Dale, Jack White, Big Audio Dynamite, Pizzicato Five, Jurassic 5, the Jackson 5, the O’Jays, the Dixie Cups, Barenaked Ladies, Billie Holiday, Maurice Chevalier, Bruce Cockburn, Fats Waller, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Toots & The Maytals, Sly & The Family Stone, David Bowie and Queen.

🥳 Incidentally, today is my one-month quaranniversary. I started quarantining on March 14th. So, happy quaranniversary to me, happy quaranniversary to me… 🎶

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