Music & Spoken Word
The Best of Burt Bacharach
Hipp-O Records, (A & M/MCA)
A funny thing happened to me when I was growing up, my parents played music that I actually liked. One of their favorites was Burt Bacharach. They also played stuff that I thought was overblown mush, but there was always something snappy and cool about Burt’s music that went beyond the usual middle brow fare. The best of his stuff had an economy and cleverness to it that was instantly engaging. He gave adult pop a contemporary voice. The romanticism of his melodies and partner Hal David’s lyrics was not lost on this impressionable little listener. It’s not every artist who can say that his work has been covered by Love, The Beatles, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Surely some of the current crop of “sensitive rock guys” must have absorbed his music. Artists such as: Elliot Smith, Jon Brion, Matthew Sweet, and Elvis C., just to name a few. Mr. Costello even made an album with him. It was pretty good too. It’s appropriate that the current Burt revival includes this sparkling new collection, “The Best Of Burt Bacharach-The Millennium Collection.” Sadly, there is no Dusty, Dionne, or Karen. These are mostly instrumental takes of his hits, but this allows me to savor his flair for arrangements that were at turns elegant and grand. While “Don’t Make Me Over” features a full orchestra, the strings on “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” are far more restrained. Ukelele adds much color to the track, and it also provides an example of Burt’s surprising instrumental choices. “Raindrops” also features celeste, clarinet, flute, and french horn to great effect. As one instrument drops out, another deftly comes in to carry the melody along. Vocals are shared mostly by session singers, but Burt also chimes in with a phrase or two. Their efforts are most notable on “One Less Bell To Answer” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, “What The World Needs Now”, and a sultry, dusky take on “This Guy’s In Love”.
Is genius pain? An unbearable burden? I can’t say, but Burt Bacharach has made career out of making it look easy, and we’re richer because of it.
THE PETULA CLARK ANTHOLOGY
From Downtown To Sunset Boulevard
Hipp-O Records, (MCA)
While galumphing around the ‘Net looking for background material for this review, I was surprised to find the following quote about Petula Clark uttered in 1967 by, of all people, the pianist savant Glenn Gould:
“To a teen-age audience whose social-sexual awareness dovetailed with [her 60’s songs] release dates, Petula … would provide gratifying reassurance of post-adolescent survival. Everything about her onstage, on-mike manner belies the aggressive proclamations of the lyrics. Face, figure, discreet gyrations, but, above all, that voice, fiercely loyal to its one great octave, indulging none but the most circumspect slides and filigree, vibrato so tight and fast as to be nonexistent … ”
Now, while I was not social-sexually aware of anything in 1967, I actually remember the Sixties because I was too young to take drugs. Petula Clark evokes sweet girlhood memories of clear-voiced (Gould is dead-on about her vibrato), cream-complected femme vocalists from England like Julia Andrews (what a damned tragedy that she’s lost her voice), Lulu, Mary Hopkins (“Those Were The Days” anyone?), and okay, yeah, the young Marianne Faithfull. Because my parents were a little too vigilant in monitoring my radio and TV habits, I can only recall the tamer Sixties–the Sixties of gentle sitcoms like “The Patty Duke Show” and “The Doris Day Show,” those Jacques Cousteau documentaries narrated by Rod Serling, and variety shows! By variety shows, I mean the real thing: Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams (my childhood favorite), medley-drenched spectaculars with Elvis, Sinatra, Steisand, and those pesky evenings with John Denver. Alas, genuine variety shows died out in the wee Eighties with the old Donny and Marie.
At about the same time, variety on the radio bit the biggie. Maybe I’m getting cranky now that I’ve turned forty, but I used to get far more musical variety from Boss Radio 93 KHJ in the late Sixties and early Seventies (that’s one radio station) than I get today with my car stereo buttons set on six different stations to achieve the same degree of variety. Pop music on television and the radio was clearly more varietal and far less ghettoized by format than it is today. You could catch an ABC tribute to Rodgers and Hart and see the likes of Petula Clark sharing the stage with The Supremes, Count Basie and His Orchestra, and Bobby Darin. Petula Clark was quite the variety queen here in the states from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies, and back then, variety literally meant variety. On the radio, Clark’s sound rang out pleasantly loud and clear from the crowded field of British and American rock in all its fascinating permutations, folk, the Motown sound, Bacharach and Herb Alpert-style popsters, surf music, bubblegum, The Comeback Elvis, Tom Jones, and such middle-of-the-road faves as the early Streisand, Al Hirt, Dean Martin, even Louie Armstrong. It’s hard to believe that music used to be such a happily mixed bag.
“THE PETULA CLARK ANTHOLOGY: Downtown To Sunset Boulevard” is jam packed with 41 cuts, ranging from such chart toppers as “Downtown” and “This Is My Song” to tunes from her motion pictures like “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” to favorite clips from her immensely popular TV specials and onward to her new life on Broadway. Having recorded over 1,000 songs, Clark has worked with a staggering array of heavy hitters from the last 40 years of pop music history: Michel LeGrand, Quincy Jones, Bob Crewe (“Music to Watch Girls By,” anyone?), Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Francis Lai, Mike Curb, and-as arranger of my favorite cut on the disc, the Sondheimish “Walk Through The World”-an up-and-coming American composer named John Williams (who is, by the way, classical music’s first billionaire). Clark’s principal collaborator, however, has been songwriter Tony Hatch, who wrote most of her monster hits: “Downtown,” “I Know A Place,” “Call Me,” “A Sign Of The Times,” and “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love.” One charming song that Clark and Hatch penned together, “You’re The One,” became a delightful one-hit wonder for the Vogues. I actually prefer Clark’s fresh, energetic version to the likable Vogues cover.
Bearing in mind what Gould observed in Clark’s discrete slides and filigree (ornamentations that in lesser singers are politely termed “pop stylings), it is remarkable to hear how her phrasing on earlier tunes like “This Is My Song” hints at the newer style of Broadway singing by others (Yvonne Elliman, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley) who would later cement the showstoppers in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals (three of which are covered in Clark’s collection). On stage, Clark followed in the formidable footsteps of Glenn Close and Patti LuPone (both of whose singing styles are far less pop and far more traditional Broadway) in “Sunset Boulevard,” and Clark belts with the best of them. I’d sure love to hear her cover “Memory” someday.
There can be no quibbles with Clark’s still astonishing instrument. Her voice remains crystalline, dynamic, ever-youthful, and warm. The voice is an ever fixed mark throughout this collection, which spans from 1964 to 1996, and it never fails to please. What is interesting is to hear how arrangements change with the times, even if her vocal style remains a constant. “Color My World,” which was recorded in 1966, rings with sitars at the opening. The country ballad “Loving Arms” from 1974 sounds like an early Olivia Newton John twanger from the same year. Another C&W; flavored tune, “Natural Love” from 1981, just screams Juice Newton. I really did not like the silly arrangement of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (replete with castanets) until I read Clark’s notes that this version was originally recorded in French. If you imagine the vocal line in French bracketed by the cheesy orchestration, it makes perfect sense. The French and their Canadian counterparts (my people, by the way) generally produce risible pop songs (“Je T’Aime” anyone? France Jolie’s “Come To Me”? The Singing Nun?). And in 1991, Clark’s “Two Lives” sounds suspiciously like something Madonna could have unleashed in between image makeovers. But first and foremost, there will always be her eternally cheerful signature tune, “Downtown.” As my good friend Fred Dewey reminisced to me, “”Downtown” made riding the subway and buses very exciting. It made me feel like I was participating in an exciting new kind of energy. I love Pet Clark. I almost bought moon boots!”
I close with some interesting Petula Clark trivia.
–Her career spans over 47 years. A child star, Clark was known as the British Shirley Temple, entertained British troops during World War II.
–A song Petula Clark originally recorded in French, later became Little Peggy March’s one-hit wonder “I Will Follow Him.”
–Her top five ballad “This Is My Song” was written by (gasp) Charlie Chaplin. Who knew?
–During Clark’s first TV special for NBC in 1968, a major advertiser threatened to pull sponsorship because Clark touched Harry Belafonte during a duet.
–During the 1971 Academy Awards broadcast, Clark sang two nominated songs (“For All We Know” and “Thank You Very Much”) with the able vocal assist of (egad) Ricardo Montalban, Burt Lancaster, and Sally Kellerman.
–Clark starred with Fred Astaire in the musical flick “Finian’s Rainbow,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
–Clark was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in 1969 for her performance in the film “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
–And in 1998, the Queen awarded our heroine the Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal for “bringing so much joy over the years.”
For these and other tidbits, as well as a generous and soul-satisfying review of Petula Clark’s amazing career, “The Petula Clark Anthology” delivers the goods. Being the “greatest hits” collector that I am, I couldn’t do without this superb CD. I also recommend a visit to her informative (and very pink) website: http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/4016/pettv.html
RAY CONDO AND HIS RICHOCHETS
High & Wild
Ray Condo and His Ricochets play old style country swing with such purity that it’s beyond retro. The innocence and the instrumentation are straight out of the `50’s, as if the second half of the century never occurred. The authenticity is aided by the song selection of classic jazz and country, including works by Lester Young, Mose Allison and Cole Porter (they turn in an incredibly tasty version of “What is This Thing Called Love?” The performances are very tasteful, with a deft touch on the instruments. No heavy handed rocking here, just shimmering beautifully across the songs. Yet they manage to pack a good dose of punch and excitement into the tunes. Of course, there are limits to how much nostalgia one can take, but High & Wild is great for a trip down memory land, even if these are memories most of us have never had.
G. Murray Thomas
Outta My Way
“In 1966 Paul McCartney said after listening to PET SOUNDS (the Beach Boys) that he and John Lennon were so moved, that they came up with the “Sergeant Pepper” album. ‘I played John the album so much that we could not escape its influence. I have never been moved by an album as to play it non stop for days,’ said McCartney. In 1999 I had the same experience. If you get a chance, go get the album, “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys- it will blow you away!” So says Adam Paskowitz in the liner notes to his bands latest effort OUTTA MY WAY, PET SOUNDS it most definitely is not, but then again, neither was “Sergeant Pepper”. What’s key here is the influence, and you have to take your hat off to Adam for admitting it, and aspiring to them. In fact, some of the highlights of the album include samples from the Beach Boys “Here Today” and “Caroline, No” on “Outta My Way” and “No Sad Story”. The best thing about The Flys has always been their Beach Boy like harmonies, which was key to the success of their first hit “Got You (Where I Want You)”. Elements of these sophisticated harmonics connect the band to the great SoCal tradition of surf, cars, girls, and Brian Wilson without dating them or making the music corny. Let’s face it, The Flys are more genuinely a surf band then the Beach Boys ever were. Here it’s gritty, punchier, more in your face, with intense rhythms and crunchy guitars. It all works as long as they keep sight of the melody and harmony. Often they stray, but when they’re on, with songs like “No Sad Story” the combination is genius. When you hear it, you wanna slam and join a gospel choir at the same time. On “My Day” they slow down a bit and let you hear how really beautiful they can be. At times the album suffers from loss of direction, but it’s worth listening through to get to the incredible “Hawaiian Dreams” which is the most obviously “Pet Sounds” influenced, but with a Hawaiian twist. For this, the band flew to Maui to record ukulele player, Baud Kanae, to end the album with their own take on classic Hawaiian sounds. The song meanders like a lazy summer day, complete with the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the smell of pineapple, the grunts and moans of sumo wrestlers. Brian would be happy.
This greatest hits package presents Half Pint as a versatile master of reggae, who deserves to be much better known on these shores. Half Pint generally performs sunny, bouncy reggae, but covers a number of stylistic bases along the way. On “Winsome” he is a toastmaster; on “Tell Me” he’s talking politics, and “Hold On Dub” is just that, a wonderfully echoey bit of dub. Half Pint isn’t an innovator, he doesn’t add anything new to any of these styles, but he performs them with a cheery manner and tight rhythm, making this a powerful collection.
G. Murray Thomas
Sonnet presents a dozen of Shakespeare’s better known sonnets in a context of modern and medieval song. Each cut features a sonnet read by an actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company, followed by a musical interlude. Although the potential for something trite or overbearing is strong, the result is quite successful, a very pleasant way to appreciate the Bard’s words.
The actors (Sheila Allen, Belinda Davison, John McEnery and David Rintoul) read their sonnets with true feeling, bringing out the actual meanings of the words, without loosing their musicality. They don’t get caught in the sing-song trap so common to poetry recitations; they perform the sonnets as if they were actually talking to their subjects. The music, mostly lite jazz composed by Trammell Starks, plus a couple of Baroque pieces, works wonderfully with the sonnets. The melodies create an open-minded mood suitable for appreciating poetry, and the lyrics, written and sung by Felicia Sorensen, illuminate the sonnets without overwhelming or detracting from them. The interludes give a pleasant pause to contemplate the sonnets’ meanings, while lightly elaborating upon it. The result is an excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s poetry.
G. Murray Thomas
Grazing in the Grass
Accused of putting out a more `mature’ album by the British press, Supergrass took exception complaining that the comment made it seem as if their two previous releases were somehow immature. One would think this would be nothing to complain about since both albums went platinum in the UK, with “I Should Coco” hitting number one. On their third release, Supergrass has certainly taken a step back from the intensity of their first two albums and released an album that is in many ways bigger, a bit more complex and equally satisfying. According to the liner notes, the new and improved Supergrass includes percussion, strings, bells, whistles and bicycle pumps. They are certainly a band that knows the meaning of “groove”, knows how to rock and have a good time (so much so apparently, that Steven Speilberg hit them up to do a TV show based around the bands antics).
Falling into the Brit-pop tradition of early Stones, with a hint of Bowie, the new album is full of monster hooks and excellent vibes. This is evident from the first strains of the lead off track “Moving”. It starts in simple, guitar and vocals, building up to a foot stomper with heavy keys and hand claps. The chorus itself is a Beatles like refrain warning, “There’s a low low feeling inside me/if I need somebody to help me/I’ll keep you in mind.” The second cut “Your Love” keeps the stakes high and starts kickin’ from the onset. “Mary” and “Pumpin’ On Your Stereo” are enough, in themselves, to check the album out. They are so incredibly infectious, they grab hold from the first notes. Enough can’t be said about “Pumpin…”, which is very much Bowie era Iggy. From the first lines, “Life is a cigarette/you smoke till the end”, to the hand claps and the Motown beat, you know it’s a hit. Already #11 in the UK, it is the first Supergrass cut to garner the band airplay in the US and rotation on MTV. It especially satisfying when you realize that they’re not actually singing “Can you hear us pumpin’ on your stereo…” but, more in line with the primal groove of the number, they sing, “Can you hear us humpin’…”. Maybe they have matured a bit but they certainly haven’t lost their edge.
Randy Weeks wants to be a songwriter in the roots rock tradition of Dave Alvin and Jeff Buckley. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have the chops. There are some pleasant melodies on Madeline, such as the title cut, which has a nice, threatening tone to it. However, there is nothing too striking, and lyrically, Weeks goes straight for the obvious, and nails it dead center every time. I don’t know when I’ve heard so many hackneyed rhymes on once disc. These lines from “Baby, You’ve Got to Choose,” are, sadly, quite typical: “I bring you flowers/ and pretty things/ we talk for hours/ don’t that mean a thing?”
Still, there are hints of potential here, just not what Weeks is aiming for. While it doesn’t look good for a career as a powerful, trend-setting solo artist, he will probably end up raking in the bucks writing tripe for top 40 radio. I have already heard someone else’s version of “Can’t Let Go” (one of the stronger tunes here) on the air. As long as the general record buying public continues in their bland, obvious taste, Weeks will probably have many more hits.
G. Murray Thomas