Favourite Songs #5

Published February 11, 2011

It's been Motown Week here at Casa Palm. Which means that I've been playing my self-compiled 14-disc CD set of Motown favourites.

Along with a friend of mine I visited the original Motown recording studios in Detroit a few years ago. I still can't get over the fact that I've actually been where the majority of all those classic songs were recorded, even if the guided tour had a completely embarrassing moment where "the guys" all had to sing 'My Girl' a cappella. Completely inappropriate for me and my traveling companion, quite apart from the fact that we didn't really come there to sing, but to to gawk at the studio and marvel at all the wonderful music created in there. But, as the guide pointed out, we had now sung in the Motown recording studio, and no-one will ever be able to take that away from us.

But back to the songs. How could I choose five favourites out of the betweeen 350 and 400 songs featured in my "box set"? I guess I will just point out five slightly lesser-known gems for your discovery or re-discovery.

Does Your Mama Know About Me by Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers
Popular music history is full of strange anomalies. Bobby Taylor's claim to fame seems to be that he brought the Jackson Five to Motown's attention, and band member and co-writer of this tune, Tommy Chong, is mainly known for being half of stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong. As all sensible people will agree, they should both be best known for this lovely slice of soul balladry. Sounds like Philly soul before it even existed. Was this really recorded in Detroit?

Can I Get A Witness by Marvin Gaye
It's said about some singers that they could sing the phone book and people would still be completely captivated. For me, Marvin Gaye is one of the few singers who could probably get away with that. 'Can I Get A Witness' is not exactly a "hidden gem", but, hey, this energetic 1963 recording is less famous than 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine'. And by the way, shouldn't all pop TV look like this?

Midnight Johnny by Liz Lands
The sound in the youtube clip of this 1964 single is quite distorted, but hopefully the quality of this should-have-been-a-massive-hit shines through anyway. You could also try this crackly old vinyl clip and get a Liz Lands history lesson as a bonus.

I Can't Give Back The Love I Feel For You by Rita Wright
Better known, perhaps, as Syreeta, the singer was married to Stevie Wonder in the early 1970s and enjoyed a fruitful musical collaboration with him. Her biggest hit as a performer was, I believe, the Billy Preston duet 'With You I'm Born Again', but this, her debut Motown single, must surely rank as one of the best things she ever did. This youtube "vintage vinyl" clip is a little tinny, so I recommend that you seek it out on iTunes or wherever.

All I Do Is Think About You by Tammi Terrell
This song has a complicated history. It was first released by its composer, Stevie Wonder, on his Hotter Than July album in 1980. A lovely version, to be sure. But what a revelation to finally get to hear this original interpretation of the song, recorded in late 1965 and early 1966 but not released until 2002. The Motown vaults seem to be brimming with brilliant recordings that for one reason or another were never released at the time.

Lock up your children - Christmas music ahead!

Published December 04, 2010

While looking for some Swedish Christmas music on iTunes, as one sometimes does at this time of year, I chanced upon this album of choral recordings of Yuletide songs. But they've all been marked as EXPLICIT! What do you think, dear reader, is it safe to download, or has Helsingborgs Kammarkör gone all gangsta on us?


Favourite Songs #4

Published November 28, 2010

Sowing The Seeds Of Love by Tears For Fears
This Eighties band made only three albums before their commercial fortunes dwindled. Listening to them today, it's striking how well most of their hits have stood the test of time. Although one sometimes wish that they had gone on a little less about primal scream therapy and "shouting about it", this lovely slice of pop-psychedelia was a well-deserved hit back in 1989.

Brother's Gonna Work It Out by Willie Hutch
I've had a compilation double-CD entitled Can You Dig It? The Music and Politics of Black Action Films in my Amazon wish list for a long time, but a few weeks ago I finally went ahead and bought it. And boy, oh boy what a wonderful album. For me, most compilation albums never get it quite right - I always want to add or subtract a number of tracks - but this colletcton of "blaxploitation" soundtrack music is perfect. There's nothing here I don't love. The highlighted track is but one of many, well, highlights.

Time Is Tight by Booker T and the MGs
One more track from the Can You Dig It? compilation. Much of the music on this collection is unfamiliar to me, but this lovely slice of late-Sixties instrumental soul is one I remember from way back. One of the strenghts of the compilation is that it contextualizes these soundtrack excerpts to give a well-rounded feel of the genre and also tells a little story through the sequencing of the tracks.

Jacques Derrida by Scritti Politti
I've going back to the Eighties quite a lot in recent months. This song, taking its title from a French philosopher, no less, is from Scritti Politti's 1982 album Songs To Remember, released before their hit-making period of the mid-Eighties. Although I generally prefer those later songs, this one has a quirky appeal to me and it was the first song I started humming when I woke up this morning, which must mean something.

Slow by Rumer
Gasp! A track actually released in 2010! In my list of current favourites! I don't know about the rest of her output, but at least on this Bacharach-esque song Rumer offers that rare combination of a well-produced, solid song and the ability to sing it without neither over-wailing nor making the indie-performers mistake of trying to sound like a little girl. Rumer is a woman and doesn't pretend like she's not.

Listen to the songs here.

Favourite songs #3

Published November 15, 2010

Oops, the entire weekend went by and I neglected to publish a favourite songs list. Well, better late than never, I guess. And let this list also cover this current week since I already know I won't have the time to publish another list until about two weeks from now. So, without further ado then...

To Love by Carole King
This past week has been Carole King week here at Casa Palm. So easy to take for granted, but what an amazing output of great songs during the Sixties - in partnership with then-husband Gerry Goffin for myriads of Brill Building clients - and the Seventies, when her solo career took off. 'To Love', from 1970's Writer album, is perhaps not her greatest composition, but right now the laid-back country rock feeling of this song is exactly what I need.

Chicago by Sufjan Stevens
I don't listen to a lot of new music these days, but every now and then I stumble across something that catches my fancy. I'm usually not so partial to some of the indie-mannerisms displayed in this performance, but a great sing-a-long chorus gets me every time. I do realise that this song, released in 2005, isn't exactly "new", but it's certainly newer than 'To Love'. Plus it's great.

Open Your Window by Harry Nilsson
I can't say that watching the Harry Nilsson documentary that I blogged about recently encouraged me to "dig out my old Harry Nilsson albums" because I listen to them all the time anyway. Let's just say I dug them out an "extra" time. My favourite album is probably 1969's Harry, from which this track is taken. It showcases his song writing skills, as well as his wondrous early-years voice.

Ride by Prefab Sprout
A track from one of my all-time favourite bands. 'Ride' was released on last year's Let's Change The World With Music album, actually recorded as a set of demos in the early 1990s. I have a feeling the album, although garnering mostly very positive reviews, didn't make much of a dent on the world's albums charts, which is really a shame. Anyway, I bought it and this is one of its highlights.

The Moonbeam Song by Harry Nilsson
Oh, what the hell, let's include one more Nilsson track in the list. This comes from Nilsson Schmilsson, his greatest commercial success, featuring, as it does, the hits 'Without You' (as later warbled to death by Mariah Carey) and 'Coconut' (featured over the end credits in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs). In the bonus material included with DVD version of the Nilsson documentary, album producer Richard Perry states that he never understood what this song was about. Certainly, the lyrics are a piece of whimsy, but who cares when the melody, the arrangement and the vocals are so gorgeous?

Listen to the songs on Spotify.


The life of Harry Nilsson chronicled on new DVD

Published November 12, 2010

In July 2007 I visited Los Angeles for the first time. Two days after arriving I was browsing through a listings magazine when I chanced upon an item informing me that, if I had known about it, I could have attended a screening of a film entitled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? I stifled a scream of frustration. For this was a film I had known about for quite some time, and I had also read on the Internet that the producers had a hard time finding a DVD distribution deal for the film. Thus, living in Stockhom, chances were slim that I'd ever get to see this film.

I have been a Harry Nilsson fan for many years. To me, he had one of the best voices in rock and he wrote some of the most amazing songs I've ever heard. His early albums are jaw-droppingly awesome and up to the early Seventies he did little wrong.

His career was kind of strange. Although he was an excellent song writer, his biggest hits - Everybody's Talkin' and Without You - were written by other people, while other acts achieved hits with songs written by him (Three Dog Night's version of One, for instance). Just a few years into his recording career, he recorded an entire album of songs by Randy Newman - Nilsson Sings Newman, actually one of his best albums - and in 1973, a couple of years after achieving a US number one with Without You, he chose to record an album of standards, A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. After that it was a downhill slide into alcoholism and drug abuse, and his career never regained its momentum.

The documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson? has now finally been released on DVD, and I spent the afternoon today watching it. With the help of family, friends and collaborators the film tells the full story of his life and career in a truly compelling way. It's an honest account of the good times as well as the bad, and clearly a labour of love on part of the film-makers.

I found it particularly interesting to see how the film acknowledged that what has sometimes been interpreted as self-deprecating humour was actually a matter of severe self-loathing. For me, the cracks were beginning to show as early as the 1971 Nilsson Schmilsson album (which featured the hits Without You and Coconut). Wonderful as it is, there is often something lazy and throwaway about it, so different from the meticulous care and energy that went into his earlier work. And on the following album, Son Of Schmilsson, it's quite clear that something's wrong: including a short reprise of the most beautiful song on the album, Remember (Christmas), and ending it with a loud burp, to me signals a serious lack of self-esteem rather than a sense of fun.

His best albums were made between 1967 and 1970: his voice was at its prime, he worked with a wonderful arranger - George Tipton - his vocal overdubs were inventive and adventurous, and most of the songs were outstanding. For the record, my favourite albums, as complete listening experiences are Harry (1969) and Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), but Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968) are also not to be missed. If you're a fan of melodic pop music, do yourself a favour and check out Harry Nilsson's recorded work. And if you're already a fan, make sure that you pick up a copy of the documentary - you won't regret it.

Click here to read a recent and very interesting interview with the film's writer-director, John Scheinfeld.