Tom Petty – An American Treasure

There’s a story they tell about Tom Petty breaking his hand in frustration during the recording of the track “Rebels” on the Heartbreakers’ album Southern Accents. Continually comparing their recording with his original demo, Petty left the studio after their latest attempt and punched the wall. This story is a lesson for perfectionists everywhere, because the truth was that there was nothing wrong with their latest take. Eventually the problem was “fixed” by replacing the organic human drums with a drum machine.

Well, it was the 80s.

I never really liked Southern Accents, because it sounded like it was made in the 80s. As much as I love Springsteen, I listen to Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love with gritted teeth (ears?) because record production in the 80s was a shitshow. The perfect storm of novel new studio toys and the dreaded click track. The grid. I mean, I’ve seen them do “Don’t Come Around Here No More” with a live drummer, so I blame bloody Dave Stewart for the drum machine nonsense.

My personal theory is that people had been whispering in Tom Petty’s ear since 1979 that Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch wasn’t very good, or at least not very subtle. Step forward, Jimmy Iovine. I don’t think Petty himself believed that, but I can see how it might have been easy to blame Stan rather than, say, the drugs when things weren’t going well in the studio. So when it came to recording his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, Petty used a session drummer. And then again on Wildflowers, after which Stan was out, replaced by Wildflowers session guy Steve Ferrone.

I can imagine that Stan was the kind of guy who wants to go on partying when everyone else wants to go to bed. Or wants to go on partying when everyone else wants to start looking after themselves and heads to rehab.

Anyway, this collection. You get to hear “Rebels” before it was ruined, which is nice, though not “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, which I’ve realised I can’t watch these days without crying.

The conceit here is that this is a journey through Tom Petty’s career not including the long established live set standards, the familiar signposts of “American Girl” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Free Fallin’”, “Learning to Fly” etc. This isn’t even as-selected-by-Tom-himself outtakes, because that was the 1995 boxed set Playback. Instead, this feels like a last trawl through the archives by his friends and family — those who, unhampered by Petty’s perfectionism, can say, here, this stuff is worth a listen.

In other words, don’t start here if you’re new to Tom Petty.

You get to hear the version just-before-they-nailed-it of many songs, versions perhaps with slightly less push, or sometimes with just a little bit more air and swing. Or you hear a live version which uses a different approach than they eventually settled on; or just outtakes which for whatever reason didn’t make the final release.

Over four hours and ten minutes, you hear Petty and his group evolve from that ebullient and prickly bar band of the late 70s to the sardonic and bewhiskered elder statesmen of latter days. Available in two versions, Deluxe and non-, I’d say that the 26 track non-Deluxe would probably suffice for most.

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Top 25 Playlist (Part 3: 8–1)

Here’s the final part of my Top 25 most played tracks in my current iTunes library. I suspect my oldest daughter is responsible for #3 being where it is! But the joint number ones are between them my theme song.

Part 1 of this entry is here. Part 2 is here.

8. Girl Crush – Little Big Town (79)

7. Leavin’ in Your Eyes – Little Big Town (80)

6. Rock Me On the Water – Keb’ Mo’ (81)

4= She’s My Kind of Rain – Tim McGraw (82)

4= Engine to Turn – Tift Merritt (82)

3. Baggage Claim – Miranda Lambert (89)

1= The Pretender – Jackson Browne (100)

1= Running on Empty – Bob Schneider (100)

Top 25 Playlist (Part 2: 16 – 9)

Here’s part 2 of my Top 25 Most Played tracks in my current iTunes library.

Part 1 of this entry is here. Part 3 is here.

16. Night Moves – Bob Seger (71)

15. I Won’t Dance – Sinatra (Nelson Riddle) (72)

14. I Won’t Dance – Sinatra/Basie (Neil Hefti) (73)

11= Portland, Maine – Tim McGraw (74)

11= Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt (74)

11= That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke (74)

10. Sober – Little Big Town (76)

9. Come Fly With Me – Sinatra/Basie live at The Sands (77)

The Top 25 Playlist (Part 1, 25–17)

I created a Smart playlist in iTunes, of the top 25 highest-rated tunes, and this is what came up. I should add that this is only the top 25 in this particular iTunes library on this particular Mac, so it’s a mere snapshot of recent-ish activity. I think some on-device plays might have updated the count, but I’m not sure. Definitely the #3 is not put there by my plays alone.

What’s clear is that my favourite records can be condensed down to a very few artists and albums. Give me Tim McGraw, Tift Merritt, Jackson Browne*, Little Big Town, and Frank Sinatra, and I’m good to go.

The all out winner is the song, “I Won’t Dance”, which has over 140 plays over two different versions, both equally good.

*A couple of the songs come from that Jackson Browne tribute album.

25. Fire Away – Chris Stapleton (62 plays)

 

24. Diamond Rings and Old Barstools – Tim McGraw (63)

23. I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Sinatra/Basie live at the Sands (65)

19= Shut Up Train – Little Big Town (66)

19= That’s Life – Frank Sinatra (66)

19= Evil Woman (Stripped Down Mix) – ELO (66)

19= Onto Something Good – Ashley Monroe (66)

17= Tupelo Honey – Jim Horn with Vince Gill (70)

17= Your Bright Baby Blues – Jackson Browne (70)

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

 

Ryan Culwell – The Last American

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is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

Sinatra’s career crisis

911218946-612x612Since watching a DVD (a gift from my daughter) with three of Sinatra’s late-60s TV specials on it, I’ve been pondering the crisis that clearly took hold of him when he hit the age of 50.

I can look at this period now with the personal experience of having hit 55 last year, which was the age at which Sinatra announced his (first) “retirement” in 1971. Much as I’d like to retire myself, this was in hindsight an astonishingly young age for an entertainer to announce the end.

It was the TV special featuring easy listening vocal group The 5th Dimension, and Sinatra (jokingly) adopting their Liberace-style costume that got me thinking. This was his clear attempt (in 1968) to get down with the kids and perform music that was somehow more contemporary and relevant than his usual fare. He had absolutely no need to do this, of course, but he was acting out a very public mid-life crisis (his short marriage to Mia Farrow, 30 years younger than him, had just ended) that was culminating, before our very eyes in him perching awkwardly on a stool in a Nehru jacket and beads.

The following year, 1969, his final TV special was just him and a swing orchestra, doing the old stuff, and reminiscing (hilariously) about his Hollywood career, which he was also giving up on.

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Beads, Frank?

For me, the crisis that led to his premature retirement started towards the end of his Capitol contract and the beginning of the Reprise years, which I’ve written about before. In 1961/2, his Capitol contract overlapped with Reprise, so that he was recording albums simultaneously for two labels, phoning in performances to fulfil his obligations to one whilst also trying to embark on something new with the other. The cognitive dissonance must have been extreme.

NehruNo6

That late-60s Nehru look in full

And what was Reprise for, really? A little bigger piece of the pie? Sure, and why not? Which is why so much of the Reprise material consists of re-recordings of his classics from Columbia and Capitol in order to tap the lucrative Greatest Hits market. But give or take the three albums he recorded with Count Basie (including the live one), not much of what he recorded for Reprise was particularly good. And some of it was desperate.

He knew that popular music was changing and he wanted to matter, but at the same time, he hated rock music. He was casting around for new songwriters, but he didn’t know this new material in the way he knew that Great American Songbook. I always thought it was a dead giveaway when he performed George Harrison’s “Something” on one occasion, but credited it to Lennon and McCartney. Anyway, this stuff is painful to listen to. He drags on the beat, his timing is off, he doesn’t swing.

There are four albums that lead up to the retirement.

SinatraCyclesCycles comes first, in Christmas 1968. He’s just turned 53. He’s pictured on the album cover sitting on a suitcase and holding the bridge of his nose, as if to say, either, “What have I done?” or “This stuff stinks” – or both! This is an album that features “contemporary” songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell (!), Jimmy Webb, and John Hartford. It was as close as he came to recording a 60s country pop record. It wasn’t a disaster: #2 in the Easy Listening chart, #18 in the Billboard 200 chart.

Then, just three months later, comes his late career motherlode, My Way, which is another pop album, with its title track a version of a French-style chanson, “Comme d’Habitude”, rewritten/reimagined by Paul Anka. Sinatra reportedly didn’t like “My Way” which thus became a millstone around his neck. I personally have always hated the fact that this is the one “everyone” knows. Other tracks on the record include more Jimmy Webb, a song by Ray Charles, a Stevie Wonder number, “Mrs Robinson” and “Yesterday”. Another decent chart performance, #11 in the US and #2 in the UK, but I strongly suspect that Sinatra absolutely loathed this material.

Just five months later, still in 1969, he released A Man Alone, which consisted of songs (or poems?) by Rod McKuen (sort of set to music). Sinatra is still only 53, but this now seems like a man who has given up on life. To quote the Wikipedia: “Despite his popular appeal, McKuen’s work was never taken seriously by critics or academics.” This album hit #30 in the US and #18 in the UK. My mum had a copy. It was terrible.

Finally, Sinatra takes a good long break, sits down and has a Big Think, and a wholeWatertown(1970album) seven months later, he releases an experimental concept album called Watertown. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes and told the story of a broken man from the titular town. It reached #101 in the Billboard charts, but inexplicably hit #14 in the UK. I don’t remember my mum having it.

(Christ knows what was happening in the UK in 1970. Ted Heath. Jeremy Thorpe. For further context, I’ve previously noted that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, also released in 1970, didn’t chart in the UK at all.)

Anyway, Watertown is a flop, Sinatra is done, and the next thing you know, he’s announcing his retirement. Which seems now to be a bit of a flounce, but the voice was still strong in a way that it wouldn’t be later. I think he felt he’d run out of material to record, and couldn’t very well re-record all the good stuff for a 3rd or 4th time. But we know now, in a way people didn’t back then, that he could have given up recording and stuck to the live work. The audience would have continued to be there.

Sinatra’s mid-life crisis lasted at least 5 years, but that core period, 1968-1970, was the hardest for him, I think. My own mid-life crisis seems trivial in comparison. But you want to scream at him, Slow down, Frank! No need for three or even two albums a year. Just wait, the pendulum will swing back your way.

Fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen last released a studio album four years ago.

Wonderboom

wonder - 1Concerned as I am about privacy and the abuse of that privacy by companies like Amazon and Google, I was never in the market for a smart speaker. I was of course more interested in the Apple HomePod, but it’s not a product that would fit my particular life.

For example, the idea that you would have a speaker, or a pair of speakers, plugged into the mains in a room that you would listen to music in, is not something that happens round here. If music (or a podcast or the BBC Radio player) is on, it’s because I’m up and about, moving between rooms. I don’t want my speaker to be tethered to a particular spot. I have this anyway: there’s a decent speaker box sitting under the TV I can use for music in the living room (almost never), and I’ve got a pair of great music speakers in the conservatory with a Bluetooth adapter plugged into the back (used more often, but still relatively rarely).

What I most often want is a speaker that can move with me, or can be paired up with another speaker and play simultaneously in two rooms. Multi-room audio is something you can have up at the higher end, but again, something plugged into the mains in one place is not a scenario that would work for me.

So I want my speaker to be portable, truly wireless, and fairly robust. Which is where the UE Wonderboom comes in. I was skeptical that something as small as this could sound good, but it really sounds pretty decent. Whatever artificial means they use to boost the bass works very well for the kind of music I listen to. It doesn’t sound weird or get on your nerves after a while. It’s good for voices, and it’s good for country music and 60s/70s rock and soul.

It sounds great and is loud enough that I’ve rarely had it above 50% volume, and the battery life is very good indeed. In terms of range, you can take your phone quite a considerable distance away without losing the connection. This is ideal for me, for example, at our place in France, where I am frequently preparing food in the kitchen, then walking around to tend the barbecue in the garden.

I got my first one a year or so ago, and it impressed me enough that I wanted to get a second so as to pair them up. Which I now have. Pairing is a simple matter of holding down the central logo button for three seconds, until you hear one of its noises, and then waiting for 10 seconds or so while the speakers pair. The volume is automatically equalised between the two speakers, and you can control it with either speaker or your connected device. And you don’t have to download a special app to achieve any of this. Smart.

Now you can have stereo, which is fine, but the real beauty is in having the “radio on in every room” effect, where I can have one in the kitchen, and one out in the conservatory or the garden. And because it’s Bluetooth and not Airplay, no wifi network is required, which is great in France, because we don’t have wifi there.

Amazon sell a pair of these for £123, but you can buy two separately for about £60 each, and if you monitor the price you can do even better.

This, for me, is the perfect combination of sound quality and convenient portability, and I couldn’t be happier really.