Book Report: Making Records By Phil Ramone & Charles L. Granata

making-records-by-phil-ramone-and-charles-l-granataI usually start a post like this commenting on where or when I got the book I’m reading, which is, in this case, Phil Ramone’s Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music with Charles L. Granata. Honestly? I can’t remember in this case. The book came out in 2007 and I’ve had it in my garage for a while, so maybe it came from the discount area of Barnes & Noble or…who knows? What does matter, is that I moved this to the top of the To Read pile because, well, I wanted to.

I love reading books about music like Sonic Boom or Off My Rocker because everyone who was super into music has wildly unique stories about not just the making of records, but the people they worked with. As it happens, Phil Ramone not only helped revolutionize how records were made, but also worked on records by some of the most iconic and beloved musicians in the history of music including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Elton John and plenty of others.

Continue reading Book Report: Making Records By Phil Ramone & Charles L. Granata

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Great In ’88 – A Few Memories Of The Year’s Top Pop Hits

I’m wrapping up this week looking back at 1988 with a few videos from that year that I have fond memories of. This was several years before I really got into music, but I was still of the world and hearing the pop hits of the day. I didn’t watch MTV back then, but I think there was a video show on Nickelodeon or maybe USA that catered to kid-friendly pop. I intended to write about an album from this year that I came to later in life like Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking or Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, but I’m not sure if I’ve absorbed either album enough to really write about them.

Back when I was 5, I didn’t know who George Harrison was. Heck, I probably didn’t even know who The Beatles were, but I knew that I liked “Got My Mind Set On You.” From doing the tiniest bit of research possible, I’ve discovered something else I didn’t know, this song was a cover. Harrison recorded in for his 1987 album Cloud Nine, but it wound up being the third most popular song on the Billboard Hot 100 the following year. I also had no idea that there were two versions of the video, the one above set in an arcade and the one below which finds everything coming alive in Harrison’s study like a far more lighthearted version of Evil Dead. It’s the latter I remember from being a kid.

The 45-year-old Harrison became an MTV star years after being in the biggest band the world has ever seen, which is pretty impressive. I specifically remember seeing this video while out visiting people with my Grandma in Cleveland. I’m sure I’d seen the video before or at least heard the song, but we were in a place that my memory tells me was like a huge log cabin house, but people lived there, people with teenaged children, so MTV was on. This was one of the videos playing…

And, as it happens, George Michael’s “Faith” was one of the others. That song was the number one most popular song that year, which makes sense ’cause it’s super catchy. The single helped Michael push Wham even further in the rear-view mirror and  transformed him into the “bad boy” sex symbol he would be know as for a decade or so.

When it came to the late 80s pop war between Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, my allegiances firmly lied with the latter. “I Think We’re Alone Now” is just impossible to beat. But that jam came out in ’87 and Tiff’s big hit of this year was “Could’ve Been” which is okay, but not as fun as Debbie’s “Shake Your Love.” The Billboard charts don’t agree with me, though, as Tiffany’s track clocked in at the 8 spot for the year while Gibson’s was at 22. Unlike the other videos on the list, I don’t remember this one was well, but that song was EVERYWHERE.

Finally, you can’t talk about the late 80s without talking about Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” off of Appetite For Destruction from the previous year. I eventually picked this record up at a used CD store in the late 90s, but even a decade later it hadn’t lost it’s punch and power. I try not to play “What if?” too often, but I can’t help wondering what this band could have evolved into had they kept the wheels on the bus (and their sanity) to make a prolonged go at it.

Listening to these songs and watching the videos was a huge trip down memory lane. Some of the things I wrote about in this week’s review of 1988 were familiar to me then like the Transformers toy commercial and playing Mario 2, but most were things I came to much later like Animal Man, Green Arrow, Not Of This Earth and Bloodsport. It’s kind of nice to end with some tunes like this that I remember so vividly from that year.

The Music Box: Nada Surf’s Let Go (2002) & The Drams’ Jubilee Drive (2006)

nada surf let go Picking discs out of a box and giving them an uninformed listen!

After a long pause between Music Box posts (the last one was in February), I’m back with not one, but two random listens to records I actually really enjoyed. This morning, I wasn’t feeling podcasts and wanted something to match the cool, cloudy day we’ve got going on here in New York. So, I plunged my hand into the box of CDs my buddy Jesse has sent me and pulled out Nada Surf’s 2002 album Let Go. Like many people in their 30s, I was familiar with the band from their 90s hit “Popular,” but that’s as far as my experience went, so listening to Let Go was basically like listening to a new band.

As it turned out, it was basically the perfect record for this mellow morning. While never getting morose or melodramatic, lead singer and guitarist Matthew Caws took me through a variety of songs that matched this morning’s mood perfectly. Check out the “Inside Of Love” video to see what I mean. Most songs feature his melodic voice over nicely strummed guitars, but things do get a little more rocking on tracks like “Hi-Speed Soul” and “The Way You Wear Your Head” which I appreciate. Those tracks kind of wake you up a little bit and make you pay attention to the record, which can very easily slip into background noise.

That might not sound like a big compliment, but it’s a huge one from me. Some days you just need a cool record to feel while you’re doing other things. I’ve listened to Let Go twice now while doing my morning writing and taking care of the kids. It never become obtrusive, but was always there keeping things calm. Sometimes when it comes to records like this, they can be easily forgotten because they don’t necessarily smack you in the face, but I think I’ll be utilizing Nada Surf’s Let Go plenty and will probably get even more listens out of it when I move it to my car. Yup, I still rock the CD wallet-visor thingy.

the drams jubilee dive Listening to and enjoying Let Go reminded me that I actually pulled out a record a week or so ago by a band called The Drams called Jubilee Drive that I also liked. Unlike Nada Surf, though, I’d never heard of these guys in my life. So, as I do, I just popped the disc in my computer and gave it a listen. According to Wikipedia, The Drams actually started out as another band I’d heard of but am not very familiar with called Slobberbone. As of now, Jubilee Drive is their one and only record.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who lead singer Brent Best sounded like and decided to give up the quest because he’s got a little Stephen Kellogg in him along with a variety of other elements. At the end of the day, though, he has his own unique thing going on and I like the sound of it. In other words, the record feels like a mix of post-Replacement, non-grunge 90s music with a few hints of 70s southern rock. Some of the more modern southern rock bands I’ve listened to get a little too droney and boring for me, but The Drams keep the tempos going at just the right speed for my taste.

All of which is a clumsy way of saying I probably haven’t heard a record quite like this before and I’m really glad I gave it a shot. While not nearly as mellow as Nada Surf’s record, this one will make for a great tooling around CD to keep in my car which will give me even more opportunities to absorb it. The driving beats and noodling on songs like “Unhinged” will always be the kind of thing I want to listen to over and over again.

The Music Box: Lotusflow3r & Tambourine

prince-lotusflower3-mplsound-elixer1 Prince is an artist I’ve never been overly interested in. I missed out on the Purple Rain-era (I knew the Milhouse line “So this is what it’s like when doves cry,” long before I knew the song) and by the time I was paying attention to pop music, he was in the middle of changing his name to a symbol and other silly activities I didn’t care about. A few years back, I found Purple Rain for a few bucks at a mall record store and decided to give it a shot. It’s been a while, but I wasn’t impressed. My memory is that the singles were as solid as they’ve always been, but the other tracks were pretty unimpressive.

So, when my pal Jesse sent me 2009’s three disc set of Lotusflow3r, MPLSound and Bria Valente Elixr for my birthday I wasn’t sure what to think. Then, I hit a point last week where I wasn’t feeling podcasts and figured I’d give it a shot, especially after seeing the artist’s recent appearance on New Girl. Holy crap, these are great records!

My problem with Purple Rain — again, if memory serves, which it only does about half the time — was that the non-hit songs felt stale, antiseptic and maybe too produced or electronic. I’ll give it another listen and see if those thoughts still hold up, but that’s what I went into these two records thinking. Instead, I was treated to an awesomely funky, guitar-filled pair of discs packed with songs I can see myself listening to over and over again. From the opening guitar calisthenics of the first track “From The Lotus” to the killer “Crimson & Clover” cover and beyond, I was sold right away and kept getting surprised by how much I loved these two records.

Originally, I skipped over Elixer, but after listening to these albums for a second time and writing most of this post, I figured I should give the third part of this trilogy a listen. Bria Valente has one of those classic female R&B voices that those of us who came up in the late 80s and early 90s remember as being super prominent. Those records weren’t my thing back then, but I found myself enjoying these tracks for their mix of quality vocals and diverse backing tracks that go from slow jams to funkadelic and back again. As far as I’m concerned, the funkier this record goes the better everyone sounds. I’m not sure how often I’ll be jonesing for this kind of listening experience, but I like keeping it around just in case.

tift merritt tamourine After intentionally listening to the Prince discs, I figured it would be a good time to reach into The Music Box and go the random route again. This time I pulled out Tift Merritt’s 2004 album Tambourine. As with many of the Music Box discs, I knew nothing about this going in, popped it on and gave it a listen.

Merritt’s sound reminded me a lot of Sheryl Crow. I’m not sure if that’s altogether fair but they’re both women singing country-tinged songs about their life experiences, so that’s where my head was at. With that comparison in mind — and the fact that they do sound sonically similar at times — I had trouble really getting into these songs. I think the person-playing-guitar-and-singing-quietly thing just isn’t all that interesting to me in the first place. I love that people do it, but it’s not always something I want to listen to unless the songs are super original, hit me in a truly emotional place or do something really interesting with the backing tracks.

When Merritt and company pick things up on tracks like “Wait It Out” and the title track, I’m in, but those wound up being a bit too far and few between for me to keep this one in the collection. Hopefully someone at the library will find it and dig the heck out of it though!

My Favorite New Records Of 2013

Well, this list turned out to be easier than I expected. The way I compile these things every year is I go into my iTunes and organize the tracks by release year and then narrow down which albums deserve a spot on the list. 2013 was an interesting year because I not only cut back on my album purchases — almost all of which are done via Amazon’s MP3 site these days — but also apparently didn’t go for much in the way of new music because I only bought two records that came out in the 2013 calendar year! And, as it happens, I like them both very much. So, without further ado, here are both of my favorite records from 2013.

Volume 3 by She & Him (2013)

I feel like something of a broken record, but I’ve been a fan of Zooey Deschanel since I first saw her in Elf. Several years later she and M. Ward started a group called She & Him. I was sold already because a major reason I like Elf so much is because of her singing voice. Since then they’ve release two more regular records and a Christmas album, which is one of a dozen such records I praised last year. In fact, She & Him Volume 2 made my list of favorite new records of 2010-, so it’s not much of a surprise that their next effort not only made its way into my collection but onto my list.

I didn’t go back and listen to the other records, but after giving this one a more recent listen, I want to say 3 might be my favorite She & Him offering. Deschanel doesn’t seem to be singing as many songs that don’t do her voice any favors and M. Ward is in there creating tracks that feel like what they are: updated girl group numbers. I especially like when he gets kind of twangy and noodley on tracks like “I Could Have Been Your Girl.”

These are just fun, nice, breezy pop songs about all the best pop song subjects: love, unrequited love and lost love. If you’re looking for a mellow record to relax with, I think She & Him Volume 3 is a pretty great option. But, it’s not like this record is all fluff. I actually really got into the heart of “Together” and a few other tracks that have themes I can easily tap into.

This album does something I kind of love, it reminds me of a party. You know how parties kick off loud and great with everyone having fun, hit a crescendo at some point and then end with a few tired/drunk people sitting around talking quietly? I like when albums share that similar progression. You’ve got a lot of the peppier pop songs in the beginning and then end with slower, even more mellow tracks like “Shadow Of Love” that I can easily imagine playing in the background of a clean-up scene at the end of a party movie.

Save Rock And Roll by Fall Out Boy (2013)

My other favorite record of 2013 is another one that’s not much of a surprise. I’ve expressed my love of Fall Out Boy’s rock sensibilities before, so I was all over the idea of a new record from them after their hiatus (no one really believed they broke up, right?). Save Rock And Roll might have a pretty brazen title, but there is a bit of truth to it. I don’t want to be that guy, but as a very casual observer of pop music, I’m not seeing a lot of bands actually getting their music out between all the pop and hip hop tracks. And yet you’ve got FOB whose “The Phoenix” is already an instant sports stadium and commercial hit. How can you not get pumped up to this song? Between that and “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” they’ve got two of the most prevalent guitar-based tracks I can remember in a while which is fantastic because I also happen to dig them both.

Also, I’m a huge sucker for songs about staying young and awesome like “Alone Together,” which clearly means there’s still a pretty large portion of my psyche that’s stuck in my more carefree days. But, hey, why not? Those days were a lot of fun and I like songs that remind me of them. I could easily go through track by track and talk about how I couldn’t stop stomping my foot while listening or how I love dancing around with the kiddo to this record, but I won’t (anymore than I already have, I guess).

Unlike the other records, this one actually features a number of guest appearances from Foxes, Big Sean, Courtney Love and Elton John. I don’t really know Foxes or Big Sean, but I thought they both worked well into “Just One Yesterday” and “The Mighty Fall” respectively. And, guys, Elton John and Fall Out Boy! It sounds crazy on paper but makes a lot of sense resulting in a pretty great title track.

My biggest problem with the record is that I really hate Courtney Love. I was far from excited when I heard she was on the record and while she’s as awful as always, she doesn’t really have much to do in “Rat A Tat” aside from some strange newscaster-esque rants and one bit towards the end that try to ruin the song, but don’t. I can’t tell you how glad I am that she’s not in the mix when it comes to that awesome chorus.

After a four year hiatus, I think FOB came out swinging with a collection of songs that stand up there with a lot of my favorites. Keep it up fellas! Aging dudes like myself still need music to rock out to and I hear the kids dig you too, so that’s good. While writing about Save, I was reading the Wiki page and realized I hadn’t picked up the short EP they did with Ryan Adams called PAX AM Days. I had some extra iTunes gift card scratch and picked it up, but haven’t actually listened to it yet, so maybe it’ll make next  year’s list!

The Music Box: Human Nature By America (1998)

America Human Nature

Picking one disc out of a box and giving it an uninformed listen!

I haven’t had the best luck with The Music Box selections. Schleprock was pretty mundane pop punk and Joseph Arthur’s And The Thieves Are Gone… wasn’t my thing, but I did really enjoy Gas Giants. This week’s selection, though, was straight-up awful. I don’t think I’ve ever cringed or wrinkled my nose so much while listening to a record ever. In fact, I probably would have just called it quits with this one, thrown the CD away and moved on, but I wanted to keep the column going for this week, so here we go.

As with all the other posts so far, I didn’t do any research before listening to this record which might be the most “adult contemporary” thing of all time. I knew the name America and after a song or two, realized it was probably the “A Horse With No Name,” band, but didn’t confirm that to be the case until I looked them up on Wikipedia. Even with that classic song in the past, I couldn’t enjoy this record in the present.

Maybe it’s because this is just not my kind of music, but I could not escape the idea that this record was one of two things: one, a bad attempt to copy some kind of new wave folk formula to get Baby Boomers grooving or, two, an incredibly sincere, yet clueless attempt. I kept thinking of David Brent from the original Office. He really thinks he’s doing great things, but it’s clear to the audience that he is not. There was just something about this collection of songs that felt a little too put-on and manufactured, but I can’t quite place why and I’m not listening again without a good reason (ie a paycheck).

Most of the slow burn, jangly nonsense could be written off as a once-prominent band growing old with their audience, but then you get to “Hidden Talent” and things get super creepy. Two lines into the song, one of my musical sins gets committed when an adult man refers to anyone but his daughter as “little girl.” It’s sung in that Michael McDonald-ish, easily mocked kind of voice that usually devolves into throaty “Bur bur bur bur-bur-bur-bur” any time you do an impression of it. So that tipped me off to some grossness, which made me look up the lyrics.

A basic listen might indicate that this is just a guy trying to tell a young lady that she’s got a lot of potential she just hasn’t tapped yet, but I’m thinking this song is about a creepy old dude who wants to tap a young lady, revealing her true sex potential in the sweaty process. It goes from “I’m just trying to make you understand/All the ways you can affect this man” in the first verse to “Hidden talent (hidden talent, yeah)/Affair without warning/Hidden talent, mmm (mmm).”

Seriously, there’s no other way to read this song’s intent. Had that “little girl” portion been excised from the proceedings — as it should have been — I would have gotten a less intense predatory vibe. If this song is just a guy singing to a lady his own age, it’s not so bad, but you’re primed for an age discrepancy right from the beginning and just when you think it might be more of a mentor-y song, then you get “affair without warning.”

Alright, I’m done thinking about this record for the rest of forever.

The Music Box: Gas Giants From Beyond The Back Burner (1999)

gas giants from beyond the back burner Picking one disc out of a box and giving it an uninformed listen!

When I first got this box of CDs from my pal Jesse, one of the ones that really popped out to me was Gas Giants From Beyond The Back Burner. It’s not because I knew about this band or had heard about this record, it’s because the cover and some art in the booklet was drawn by Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled, Shaolin Cowboy), one of the all-time greatest comic book artists of all time.

So, when I reached into the box and came out with this record, I was pretty interested. From the front, it looks like it might be a metal record (possibly nu-metal, given the era) and by the back it looks almost like a record for kids. And yet, when I hit play on my iTunes, I was surprised to find myself absorbing more of a pop rock record in the vein of The Replacements. I was even more surprised to realize that I completely recognized the lead singer, but couldn’t place him. I figured he was from a band like Seven Mary Three or one of those other mid-to-late 90s rock bands.

The voice thing wasn’t too distracting and actually acted as kind of a gateway of familiarity for me into this record. I mean, it already sounded like a lot of the music I heard on Detroit’s 89X or Toledo’s BUZZ 106.5 while doing my homework in the late 90s and early 00s. It’s that era-specific rock music that’s just the slightest bit distorted (or grunge-y, if you’re nasty), but never gets too far into that arena.

Overall, I really enjoyed this record. Listening to it didn’t blow my mind. It wasn’t like discovering this long-lost treasure of amazing music from a bygone era. But it was a really fun experience because the songs were quality, the band was solid and, as I’ve said, there was an indirect link to my youth. So, while it wasn’t a lost treasure, it was like stumbling on to a book in a series that you didn’t know you were missing that’s also pretty good. I don’t know if a younger listener would enjoy the record as much. Am I enjoying it because of the nostalgia factor or based solely on quality? It’s both, really, I don’t think they can be separated.

So, after giving it a listen, I finally scratched the itch and looked the band up. The lead singer, Robin Wilson, is the guy from Gin Blossoms! Apparently that band broke up in 1997. Wilson and drummer Phil Rhodes started Gas Giants with Daniel Henzerling, who also played with the Blossoms, and Mickey Ferrel. They cut just this one album, released “Quitter” as the single and broke up in 2001. After reading all that, I went back and listened to the single again and I’m honestly not sure if it lives in my memory or not. I was even more surprised that the band has almost zero presence on YouTube, hence the lame video above.

Unlike some of the other Music Box attempts, I’m fully on board with Gas Giants. I even put the CD in my car so I can get to know it even better. That’s a big step up from some of those other records’ fate: sitting on the to-donate pile in the corner of our living room.