Sunday, February 28, 2010

"I Boast No More" - Sandra McCracken

For a variety of reasons, I have quite a fascination with church hymns. Growing up in a Baptist church, every song we sang on Sunday mornings came from a hymnal. It was like this well into my teen years, even when praise and worship music was becoming more modern and popular. Sure we eventually incorporated new songs into our services, but at least two or three selections every Sunday were still from the hymnal. At the time they seemed kind of dusty and archaic to me because I liked some loud bass and some pounding drums and I wanted to use distortion pedals on my guitar. But thankfully those old songs got rooted deep into my soul and I eventually learned to love the depth and purity I found in the lyrics. I love collecting old hymnals and I get a lot of inspiration from reading them. Those hymn writers didn’t pull any punches and their up and downs, their joys and trials, were hard earned and authentic. When you find out some of the stories behind their songs and learn about the lives most of the hymn writers had it makes their words even more powerful. Even if you may not subscribe to the same faith or views, you wouldn’t be able to deny that these people turned their struggles into something beautiful by tapping into something real and revolutionary.

Today there are a lot of songwriters who are continuing in this tradition by updating the music for old hymns and also writing their own. I have to admit that musically I enjoy these much better than the solo piano versions I grew up on. The most important part is still the lyrics though. That’s where the weight of the hymns are at. One of the modern hymn writers who seems to always nail this idea is Sandra McCracken. She is an incredibly talented singer/songwriter and in addition to her other great folksy, relational, love and life songs, she reworks old hymns and creates new ones. In between her other records, she released an entire album of hymns in 2005 called The Builder and the Architect and it contains both originals and renovations. The fact that it’s hard to tell which ones are hers and which ones were written in the 1700’s is just a testament to how well she can write and how great the instrumentation is. I’ve seen Sandra in concert quite a few times and whether she is performing in a college chapel service or a downtown bar she is able to bring a freshness and a reverence to any moment in any venue. Sandra just finished recording a new hymns album, In Feast Or Fallow, which will be released sometime in the next month or so. You can download a free 3-song sampler of the new album from NoiseTrade here.

For an example of the hymns side of her artistry, here’s her updated version of Isaac Watts’ “I Boast No More” from The Builder and the Architect. She is joined on it by roots music legend Buddy Miller on vocals and guitar. You know with THAT seal of approval she’s got to be doing something right!

"I Boast No More" - Sandra McCracken (The Builder and the Architect)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Fat Albert Theme" - Dig

Hey, hey, hey! No matter how old I get, Saturday mornings will always be made for cereal and television. Sure Fruity Pebbles may need to be swapped out for All-Bran one day, but I’ll always strive to observe this hallowed ritual. Of all the great Saturday morning programming I’ve consumed during my lifetime, there are some that really stick out. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, G.I. Joe, WWF Rock N’ Wrestling, Saved By The Bell, Ewoks, Camp Candy, He-Man, The Smurfs, Ghostbusters, Transformers, A Pup Named Scooby Doo, and Monchichis, just to a name a few. One of those Saturday morning gems is engrained a little deeper though thanks to some serious reinforcement via the Clayton County public school system. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a show that was as socially conscious as it was fun. Along side all the corny jokes and funky music were lessons about all sorts of issues like staying in school, respecting your parents, being honest, hanging out with the right crowd and staying away from drugs and guns. My elementary school seemed to have an unending collection of Fat Albert episodes and usually a week or two didn’t go by without us watching one. Especially if any specific issues came up in class! A kid who wrote on his desk might get us the vandalism episode, a cigarette found on school property might get us the smoking episode and there were multiple episodes that dealt with racism for any playground scuffles that may have ensued. Bill Cosby taught me quite a lot about good manners, tolerance, courtesy, and respect through his portly alter ego. Not to mention he showed me that making people laugh can charm the ladies, calm a situation or even keep you from getting beat up!

I’m pretty sure we were all clueless to the fact that we were watching reruns from the 1970’s, even though the clothes and music should’ve given it away! Almost every episode showcased the Junkyard Gang’s musical abilities via trash cans, brooms, bicycle tires, and discarded furniture and they could jam! I don’t think our teachers truly appreciated our creative pursuits when they found us hanging out in the dumpster area attempting to put together a Fat Albert tribute band. To this day I can still do a pretty good Mushmouth though.

In 1995 a cool CD called Saturday Morning Cartoon’s Greatest Hits came out. Its basically 19 tracks of alternative bands covering TV theme songs and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. It’s really fun to listen to and I highly recommend it! Replacing rusty car parts with loud guitars, here’s Dig with their take on the “Fat Albert Theme”.

"Fat Albert Theme" - Dig (Saturday Morning Cartoon's Greatest Hits)

Friday, February 26, 2010

"Hey Porter" - Johnny Cash

Put on your favorite black shirt because today is Johnny Cash’s birthday. He would’ve been 78 had he not passed away in 2003. Anyone not familiar with Johnny Cash should take some time and check out his life story. What a man and what a voice! My love for Johnny Cash, and any old-school country music for that matter, was passed down to me from my dad. He was born and raised in Texas and anytime spent in the truck with him involved either AM country radio or The Gaither Vocal Band. Thanks to him, I like to put on some Johnny, Hank, Waylon, Patsy, George, Merle, Willie, or Kris and think about how hard these guys worked in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s to get their music out. Especially the ones like Johnny who refused to fit into anyone’s box. My dad used to always make it a point to tell me how the “outlaws” would rather play their brand of music than conform to someone else’s pressures. Those Texans sure know a thing or two about pride.

“Hey Porter” was one of the first songs Johnny Cash recorded for Sam Phillips at the legendary Sun Records in Memphis. It was released as a single in 1955 and can be found on most of Johnny’s greatest hits collections. He wrote it on his way home from Germany where he was stationed in the Air Force. After years overseas, he was ready to get back to Arkansas and his love of the South can clearly be heard in the lyrics, just like many of his other songs. Also, I'm just a sucker for "train songs". The song can be about a train or even just mention a train and I'm immediately drawn to it. This is one of many "train songs" in his collection and just about no one does them better! His distinctive voice and guitar playing is what made him stand out to me as a child. No one sounded like him and no one played that “boom chicka boom” like him and his band. I’ve got a variety of DVDs from his concerts over the years and he never lost a step or tried to change things up. His songs sounded exactly the way they did 30-40 years ago when they first came out; simple, engaging and fun to listen to.

In the ‘90’s, producer Rick Rubin rekindled interest in Johnny’s career with a series of albums called American Recordings. Made up of unusual covers and imaginative originals, these albums are a great final chapter to his life. This week his final album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, was released. Who knows if any other recordings lay in a vault somewhere; but if not, we’ve got a lifetime of his material to keep us singing. Here’s one of my favorites from the very beginning of his career.

"Hey Porter" - Johnny Cash (Hey Porter single)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Say I Won't (Recognize)" - The Gaslight Anthem

Of bands that have come out in the last few years, The Gaslight Anthem is probably my favorite. Man, there are not enough words to convey how awesome they are! These New Jersey boys know how to mix together the best elements of rock, punk, soul and blues to create an original sound full of energy and swagger. With their cranked guitars, powerful bass, relentless drums and intense vocal delivery, they invite you to join them for a high-energy, rock and roll tour de force that never lets up, even on the slower tracks. Lead singer, rhythm guitarist and main songwriter Brian Fallon is proud to wear his influences on his sleeve without ever falling into a lazy imitation of them. If you take just a cursory glance through his lyrics you’ll see his musical heritage on full display. It’s like a sonic treasure hunt! His heroes get lyrical winks, both obvious and subtle, in almost every song and it never comes across as forced or hokey. The man just knows how to write a good song and he draws from those who came before him who also knew what they were doing. The Gaslight Anthem is intent on constructing a rock and roll shrine while also adding their own bricks at the same time.

I was lucky enough to see them this past October at Mercy Lounge and they are ridiculously good live. Some bands have trouble recreating the magic in concert but they somehow upstaged their own record! Every song was tight, loud and full of emotion. The crowd, me included, was singing every word of every song at the top of their lungs. It’s hard to passively watch a Gaslight Anthem show. Even if you have never heard of them before, you’d somehow find your body moving and your fist in the air by the second or third song. They walked out on stage to “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by The Clash, rocked us non-stop for a little over an hour and then closed with “Refugee” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It was the best show I’ve been to in a while, maybe best ever! The only drawback on the night was that Amanda was feeling horrible and only heard one song before having to go lay down in the car. I can’t wait to have the chance to see them again and hopefully be able to share it with her!

The Gaslight Anthem is currently in the studio finishing things up for their new album, American Slang, which is set for a June 15 release. I’m really looking forward to hearing some new stuff from them! Fingers crossed for a tour that finds its way to Nashville again! You can stream some of their songs, watch some of their videos and find out more about them at Go check ‘em out. You won’t be disappointed!

Although picking a favorite song of theirs is like picking a favorite breath of the day, here’s mine. “Say I Won’t (Recognize)” from their Señor and the Queen EP is a rocking tip of the hat to soul singer and Civil Rights pioneer Sam Cooke.

"Say I Won't (Recognize)" - The Gaslight Anthem (Señor and the Queen)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Purple Rain" - Prince

Great movie. Great soundtrack. Great song.

By 1984, Prince had already released 5 albums when he decided to try his hand at acting in Purple Rain. Although he wasn’t bad as “The Kid,” what he did on the soundtrack outshines the movie. Purple Rain contains some of his greatest stuff like “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and an epic 8 minute version of “Purple Rain.” Never one to stick to any defined genre, Prince attempted to incorporate elements of R&B, pop, soul, rock, gospel, psychedelia, choral and orchestral music into “Purple Rain”. Recipe for disaster or musical genius? By the time he gets to the first chorus, there is no doubt that he knows what he is doing. Although the strings and some other minor overdubs were added later in the studio, the bulk of “Purple Rain” was recorded live and in one take at the legendary First Avenue club. This was quite unheard of in the 80’s, at least for an album not billed as “live”, as most record labels were looking for slick, polished recordings.

“Purple Rain” is a classic slice of Prince’s “Minneapolis Sound” but for me it will always be “the couple skate song.” The roller skating rink where I grew up, Sparkles, played a big part in my elementary and middle school years. School skating parties, Saturday hangouts, birthday parties and random summer days were all celebrated under the cheesy lights and carpeted walls of Sparkles. When it came time to light up the Couple Skate sign, which seemed to be about every hour on the hour, “Purple Rain” was the song of choice every third or fourth time, even years after the song came out. Every time those distinctive guitar chords rang out, the lights would dim and us poor schlubs would clear the rink for whoever was in a relationship that week. Since being husky, awkward and “grody” was not exactly pleasing to the ladies, I was always forced to watch this spectacle from the sidelines. But there was no single tear making its way down my chubby cheeks, oh no! I used this time for a variety of different tasks like placing a request with the DJ to play some Beastie Boys, grabbing some more Lemonheads from the concession stand, finding some new hiding places from the bullies two grades above me, or just pondering what exactly it meant to “bathe in the purple rain.” Even though I had countless opportunities throughout those years, sadly I never did get to couple skate to “Purple Rain.” I guess I’ll have to put it on my musical bucket list, right above “figure out all the lyrics to Frankie Smith’s ‘Double Dutch Bus.’”

Luckily my childhood shortcomings did not scar me from being able to still love this song. Such a classic! To save you some time and me some bandwidth, I’m posting the 7” single version of “Purple Rain” which is shorter and omits the piano and string sections at the end. I dare you to try not to sing along!

"Purple Rain" - Prince (Purple Rain)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"All I Want Is You" - U2

Well I might as well just start this thing off with a biggie. One of the greatest blendings of magical moment and music that I have ever had took place all the way back on November 26, 1997 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, courtesy of U2 and the coolest girl I have ever known.

But first, a little back story. As a kid growing up in the 80’s, most of my exposure to cool music was thanks to MTV. If a song had an interesting video, it boosted the chances of you liking the band, thereby causing you to bug your parents to buy their stuff. “All I Want Is You” by U2 was certainly no exception. This black and white video involving a circus on the beach, a trapeze swinger and a love struck little person with a bad haircut looked like some sort of French film a college student would take his artsy girlfriend to. In a sea of run-of-the-mill concert footage style videos, this one stood out like a mysterious, brooding sore thumb. The only sore spot I have with this video is that I still don’t really know who is supposed to have died at the end! But still, the seed had been planted enough that Rattle and Hum became the first U2 album I owned. Rattle and Hum was a split of live concert and studio cuts and “All I Want Is You” closed the album perfectly. Through years of listening to Rattle and Hum and the inclusion of “All I Want Is You” in Reality Bites, one of my absolute favorite movies of the ‘90’s, the seed was constantly getting watered. When I was in 8th grade I went to a friend’s basketball game and met this really cool, insanely funny girl named Amanda. We ended up going to the same high school and quickly became best friends. After YEARS of flirting I finally got the guts to ask her out our senior year and our first date was November 1, 1997. Once she hooked me, she really knew how to reel me in by getting tickets for us to see U2! This girl was good! So that brings us to the night of the concert.

Although we went with some friends, I’m pretty sure we were in our own little world the whole night. After going back to get something in the car, we (thankfully) missed the opener, Smash Mouth, which neither one of us liked anyways. We got to our seats while they were finishing setting up the stage for U2. (This was the PopMart Tour after all, so preparations had to be made for the GIGANTIC video screen, the 100 foot long martini olive and the mirrorballed lemon from which they emerged for the encore.) We had an awesome time rocking out to the fast ones, holding hands during the slow ones, laughing at the guy holding up his crutches while yelling “BONO!!!” and singing at the top of our lungs. Little did I know that they would pull out that, at the time, 9-year old gem “All I Want Is You” just for us! As soon as those muted chords started playing, I immediately knew that this song had been swirling around in me for so long because it was just waiting for the right girl to come along. Without hesitation I pulled Amanda close and wrapped my arms around her while we let the song play over us. It was one of THOSE moments. The kind that take up residence in you and end up getting retold at 50th wedding anniversary parties. I “may” have even serenaded her a little, without drowning out Bono of course! I’m pretty sure I didn’t even let her go through the next few songs.

Amanda and I will be married 10 years this May and this song has been with us the whole time. Whether we’re dancing in the living room, cozying up through the closing credits of the Rattle and Hum movie or putting it on mixtapes and ringtones, “All I Want Is You” is always showing up and will forever hold a special place in our relationship.

"All I Want Is You" - U2 (Rattle and Hum)