Cover photo courtesy of OnlyDrops.
This weekend I’m in Pai, Thailand, gorging on the best Mexican food in Asia, drinking good, strong coffee, riding motorbikes with friends, and pretending I’m starring in the Thai version of Easy Rider.
Which is to say that life is good, my friends, as you can see from this week’s playlist:
1.) Johnny Burnette – “Train Kept-A Rollin'”[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufzRV3xspYA&spfreload=10]
I recently finished reading Nick Tosches’ excellent history Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock n’ Roll, which piqued my interest in the 1950’s rockabilly scene beyond the usual suspects (eg. Elvis, Jerry Lee, etc.).
I’d heard the Yardbirds’ version of “Train Kept-A Rollin,” but it’s got nothing on the original. Burnette sounds genuinely deranged here, and on the verge of losing control entirely. When he sings I juuuust couldn’t let her go! you believe him, and don’t really want to know what may happen next.
Dig that guitar part, too–almost puts me in mind of early Talking Heads records. It’s incredible how experimental a lot of these 50’s guitarists were.
There was a lot of very strange, almost unsettling-but-ultimately-invigorating records like this cut in the 40’s and 50’s. These guys didn’t need excessive echo, Autotune, or any post-production to make their performances impactful. The older I get the more I appreciate records like this that linger with you long after the songs ends… Songs that wake you up in the middle of the night, inspiring strange dreams, and bizarre visions.
2.) Jerry Lee Lewis – “Mean Woman Blues” [Live][youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qE-EI3JXnFE&spfreload=10]
This week I learned that The Killer may actually be a killer.
I’ve grown to be a huge Jerry Lee Lewis fan over the past year. I’d always liked his music, until I discovered his Live at the Star Club album and that “like” turned into “love.” It is, quite simply, the greatest live record in the history of rock n’ roll, bustling with unbridled energy, unhinged lunacy, and a raw, primal darkness.
This is the reason Moms and Dads all over America were freaked out by rock n’ roll when it first broke back in the 50’s. Elvis was subversive, but he wasn’t nearly as dangerous or destructive as Jerry Lee; you can actually hear the devil with every yell, purr, and growl.
So I’m struggling with the fact that one of my musical heroes might be a murderer. I want to emphasize “might,” as the death of Jerry’s third (fourth?) wife is by no means an open and shut case, but still… it doesn’t look good.
As I put together ideas for a longer article about Jerry Lee, misogyny, and what happens when your idols become human, all too human, this opening cut from Live at the Star Club has been in my high rotation.
3.) Bobby Womack – “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbbZ_k1Z8gU&spfreload=10]
It seems odd that this was Bobby Womack’s biggest hit. It’s a repetitive, hypnotic thing, with a bit of spoken word thrown in for good measure. It’s a weird record… great, but weird.
I haven’t heard many vocal performances that are convincing as this one… I don’t know what was happening in the man’s personal life at the time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his woman did him some serious wrong around the time this was recorded. Brilliant guitar part as well–subdued, economical, and suits the vibe of the track to a “T.”
I don’t think we’d have D’Angelo’s brilliant Voodoo record (one of my all-time favourites) without “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”
4.) Nat King Cole – “When I Fall In Love”[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfAb0gNPy6s&spfreload=10]
I’ll come out and say it: Gordon Jenkins was, and is, the greatest arranger in the history of popular music. His work with Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole is impeccable, and (I’m sure) sounds as vital and thrilling today as it did fifty years ago. Put simply: no one knew how to work an orchestra like Jenkins.
Nat King Cole and Jenkins’ 1957 album Love Is The Thing is gorgeous from start to finish, and I find “When I Fall In Love” particularly moving. Match Jenkins’ soaring, yet sensitive strings with Cole’s spot-on enunciation, and pure-as-the-morning-dew tone, and you have something so beautiful it hurts. Pop music does not get better than this.
5.) Ariana Grande ft. The Weeknd – “Love Me Harder”[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5qU7p7yOY8&spfreload=10]
A short while ago there’s no way in hell I would have called myself an Ariana Grande fan, but “Love Me Harder” changed that. One of the best records of the year, and a major step forward for Grande, this is the rare example of a modern pop song that’s naughty without being embarrassing (unlike J. Lo’s cringeworthy “Booty,” or anything Nicki Minaj put out in 2014).
What really makes this one stand out is the forward-thinking production (equally suited for the car or the club), wholly aside from Grande’s excellent performance (though she needs to learn how to use her voice live–she’s frequently guilty of over singing), and a nice contribution from The Weeknd.
Speaking of The Weeknd: his broody doing-drugs-at-3-am-with-cheap-prostitutes shtick is starting to get old. I’m sure with the right producer he could make a killer upbeat pop record, maintaining an aesthetic that stays true to his artistic comfort zone (think Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home.” The Weeknd could churn out stuff like that in his sleep.) If I was his agent, I’d be trying to nudge him in that direction, especially after the success of “Love Me Harder.”