The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to the second installment of this feature, which I spontaneously launched last Sunday. Now I guess I gotta keep feeding the bear! 🙂 The good news is in music the possibilities are endless. With that being said, let’s start it nice and easy, before we finish it nice and rough!

Donald Fagen/I.G.Y.

I’d like to kick things off with some smooth pop jazz from the great Donald Fagen, who together with Walter Becker was the mastermind behind one of my favorite music acts of all time, Steely Dan. I.G.Y., which stands for International Geophysical Year, is the opener to Fagen’s solo debut album The Nightfly. Released in October 1982, it remains my favorite Fagen solo effort. I.G.Y., which ran from  July 1957 to December 1958, was a global project to promote collaboration among the world’s scientists. The tune, written by Fagen, also became The Nightfly’s lead single in September 1982.

Paul Simon/Train in the Distance

For some reason, that Paul Simon song randomly popped into my head the other day, so what could be a better selection for this feature? Of course, this may pose the question what’s going to happen when something like Itsy Bitsy Spider suddenly comes to my mind – well, I guess we have to wait and see. As for Train in the Distance, I’ve always dug this tune. Simon wrote and recorded it for his sixth solo album Hearts and Bones from November 1983. Interestingly, the track wasn’t released as a single…Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true/Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true…Love the soothing sound of that song and the great image of the sound of a distant train.

Sade/Smooth Operator

Let’s do another smoothie – after all, it’s Sunday morning! Smooth Operator was the first Sade tune I recall hearing on the radio in Germany back in the ’80s. It’s on the British songwriter and vocalist’s smash debut album Diamond Life from July 1984. Sade, also professionally known as Sade Adu, began her career as a model before becoming a backing vocalist in a British band called Pride. Subsequently, she and three other members of the band, Paul Anthony Cook, Paul Denman and Stuart Matthewman, left to form a group named after her, Sade. Co-written by Ray St. John, another member of Pride, and Sade, Smooth Operator also appeared separately as a single in September 1984 and became a major international hit. Yes, the tune about a con man and pimp sounds like gentleman club music. I still love Sade’s soulful singing and the smooth jazzy sound.

World Party/Ship of Fools

My dear long-time music friend from Germany reminded me of this great tune yesterday, which is a perfect fit to our crazy times. Ship of Fools was the debut single by World Party, released in January 1987. World Party was the name of a music solo project by Welsh multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and record producer Karl Wallinger. He started it in 1986 after his departure as keyboarder of The Waterboys. Ship of Fools, written by Wallinger, was also included on World Party’s 1986 debut album Private Revolution. Wallinger’s love of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and other ’60s music is quite evident, both sonically and visually. In fact, the vocals on Ship of Fools at times remind a bit of Mick Jagger. In 2001, Wallinger was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which required surgery and put his music career to a near-full stop for five years. He was able to resume touring in 2006, though no additional World Party albums have appeared since Wallinger’s dangerous health episode. Based on World Party’s website, the project appears to have been on hiatus since 2015. No idea what Wallinger is doing these days.

Leon Russell/Crystal Closet Queen

Let’s get it going with some great rock & roll from Leon Russell. When my streaming music provider recently served up Crystal Closet Queen as a listening suggestion, I decided right away to feature this tune in my next Sunday Six installment. Why? Coz I can! Plus, that’s the beauty of a feature about random songs. Composed by Russell, the tune is from his second solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which came out in May 1971. This really cooks!

The Spencer Davis Group/Gimme Some Lovin’

To wrap up this collection, what’s even better than a rocker like Crystal Closet Queen? Yep, you guessed it correctly – more rock! I’ve always loved this gem by The Spencer Davis Group. When then-18-year-old Steve Winwood hits and holds those keys of his mighty Hammond B3, it still sends chills through my spine, not to mention his amazing soulful voice! Co-written by Winwood, Spencer Davis and Steve’s older brother Muff Winwood, Gimme Some Lovin’ appeared as a non-album single in October 1966 and became one of the band’s biggest hits. The title is also a good motto we should all embrace, especially these days.

Sources: Wikipedia; World Party website; YouTube

My Playlist: Steely Dan

Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.

Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a “bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops.” Becker was playing bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).

Steely Dan: The Very Best Of | Music | Entertainment | Express.co.uk
Steely Dan in 1972 (from left): Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder

In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career.

In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.

UPDATED] Walter Becker Estate Issues Statement Regarding Donald Fagen  Lawsuit
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.

At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebook page, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!

I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.

Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.

Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.

Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.

By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.

Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.

This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’s Mount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.

Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.

February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.

If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.

Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 2 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

This is second and last installment of my two-part year in review. In case you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Celebrating new music one song at a time

With more than 150 songs highlighted since the launch of the Best of What’s New feature, I find it impossible to call out the best tunes. As I wrote in the inaugural March 21 post, While I don’t see myself starting to write about electronic dance music or Neue Deutsche Haerte a la Rammstein, I’m hoping to keep these posts a bit eclectic. I realize the characterization “best” is pretty subjective. If a song speaks to me, it’s fair game. I should perhaps have added that I don’t need to like other tunes by an artist to include them. It’s literally about the specific song.

Best of What’s New installments have featured tunes ranging from prominent artists like Sheryl Crow, The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty to lesser known acts like rock bands Brother Man and Mondo Silicone and Austin, Texas-based band leader Joe Sparacino, aka. Dr. Joe. Frequently, these posts triggered new album reviews, e.g., LeRoux (One of Those Days), Mick Hayes (My Claim to Fame) and Niedeckens BAP (Alles Fliesst). Following are four songs I discovered in the context of Best of What’s New.

Dr. Joe: Believer

From Dr. Joe’s websiteBased in Austin TX but raised on a farm outside Salina, Kansas, band leader Joe Sparacino spent his early childhood learning piano from a southern gospel choir matron and listening to his family’s old vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Leon Russell and James Booker. Released on April 10, Believer was Dr. Joe’s then-latest single and it’s cooking!

The Reverberations: Under Your Spell

The Reverberations are a five-piece band from Portland, Ore. Their Bandcamp profile characterizes their music as “’60s influenced psychedelic jangle.” I’d call it psychedelic garage rock. Under Your Spell, the B-side to their single Palm Reader released May 28, features some cool Byrds-ey guitars and nice keyboard work. Did I mention it’s also got a quite catchy melody? And check out the lovely psychedelic cover art – super cool all around! For more on this great band, you can read my review of their February 2019 album Changes, their most recent full-fledged studio release.

Kat Riggins: No Sale

Kat Riggins is a blues artist hailing from Miami. According to her website, She travels the world with the sole mission of keeping the blues alive and thriving through her Blues Revival Movement. She has been vocally compared to Koko Taylor, Etta James and Tina Turner to name a few. The nice blues rocker No Sale, which has a bit of a ZZ Top vibe, is from Riggins’ fourth album Cry Out released on August 14. That woman’s got it!

Greta Van Fleet: Age of Machine

Age of Machine is the second single from Greta Van Fleet’s next album The Battle at Garden’s Gate, which is scheduled for April 16, 2021. I think this kickass rocker provides more evidence the young band has evolved their style, moving away from their initial Led Zeppelin-influenced sound. Looking forward to the album!

Live music in the year of the pandemic…

Except for two tribute band concerts in January, pretty measly for the ‘King of the Tribute Band,’ I didn’t go to any live gigs this year. Shows for which I had tickets, including The Temptations and The Four Tops, Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band, and Steely Dan with special guest Steve Winwood, were rescheduled until April, June and July 2021, respectively. Perhaps with the exception of the last concert, I hope all other shows will be rescheduled a second time and moved back to the second half of the year. For somebody who loves live music and over the past 4-5 years has gotten into the habit of seeing an average 20-30 shows per year (counting lower cost tribute band and free summer type concerts), seizing live concerts it’s a bitter but necessary pill to swallow until this lethal pandemic is behind us.

I ended up watching two live concerts via Internet stream: Southern Avenue at Instrumenthead Live Studio in Nashville, Tenn. last week, and Mike Campbell’s band The Dirty Knobs at the Troubador in Los Angeles in late November. It was fun and also a nice opportunity to support music via voluntary donations in lieu of buying official tickets, but no virtual experience can replace the real deal.

Some final musings…

While my primary motivation for the blog has always been the joy I get from writing about a topic I love, i.e., music, it’s nice to see continued growth in visitor traffic, followers and feedback. Just like in 2019, the most popular post remained my January 2018 piece about Bad Company’s live CD/DVD collection from their May 15, 2016 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre; personally, I find the post average at best. By comparison, my July 12, 2020 post about the mellotron, which I’m proud of, received less than one percent of traffic than the Bad Company post. Perhaps, it was too geeky! 🙂 It’s funny how these things sometimes go.

I’d like to thank all visitors of the blog. If you’re here for the first time, you’re welcome back anytime. If you’re a regular, I hope you keep coming back. I also enjoy receiving comments, including different opinions. All I ever ask is to keep things civil.

Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with a great song by Southern Avenue they also played during the above noted virtual concert. I feel it’s a great message, especially during these crazy times: Don’t Give Up, from their eponymous debut album released in February 2017. Since I couldn’t capture footage from the above gig, here’s an alternative I can offer: a clip I recorded during a show at The Wonder Bar, a small venue in Asbury Park, N.J. in July 2019.

Sources: Christian’s Music Music Musings; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

While McCartney III kept me busy yesterday, Paul McCartney’s new album wasn’t the only great new music. Ringo Starr also released a new single. I wonder how many times has it happened before that two ex-Beatles come out with new music during the same week! But wait, there’s more.

How about an indie rock band from LA and a young R&B artist and producer from South Korea? Or a prolific Australian rock band I had never heard of before, which apparently is considered to be one of the most genre-hopping bands of all time.

Last but not least, this latest Best of What’s New installment also features a longtime New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician, who is perhaps best known for having performed the music of Steely Dan for more than 26 years, faithfully capturing the vocals of Donald Fagen.

The Wrecks/Static

The Wrecks are a band from the Los Angeles area, which was formed in 2016. Apple Music’s profile describes their music as exuberant, melodic, emo- and punk-influenced indie rock. The group found early success with their 2016 breakout single, “Favorite Liar,” and after a pair of EPs signed to the Big Noise label for their 2020 full-length Infinitely Ordinary. Hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, singer/guitarist Nick Anderson, guitarist Nick Schmidt, guitarist Westen Weiss, bassist Aaron Kelley, and drummer Billy Nally had barely formed when they chanced on the opportunity for a few covert days in a local studio. In just three hectic days, they recorded their 2016 debut EP, We Are the Wrecks, which featured the catchy single “Favorite Liar.” The song picked up steam online and helped the Wrecks land some key gigs opening for Paramore and the Struts along with festival slots at Lollapalooza and BottleRock. A second EP, Panic Vertigo, arrived in 2018, followed in 2020 by the Wrecks’ first LP, Infinitely Ordinary, on the Big Noise imprint. Static, co-written by Anderson and Schmidt, is the title track of The Wrecks’ new EP, which appeared yesterday. Admittedly, it falls outside my core wheelhouse, but my pop ear can’t deny it’s catchy.

Mike Caputo/Maya Lee

Unless you’ve read my blog for a long time, you probably haven’t heard of New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician Mike Caputo. Mike has been active for over 50 years. According to a bio on his website, A vocalist who plays keyboards and drums, Mike was signed to ABC Dunhill records at 15 years old after playing the Cafe Wha? in NYC in 1967. From that point he performed as a lead vocalist and either drummer, or keyboardist in a variety of local bands in the club circuit. Performing 5 to 6 nights a week playing Pop, Progressive, Jazz, R&B, Funk and his own Original Compositions, led him to more studio experience at Private Stock Records in the 70’s...Mike is also a published writer who wrote lyrics and melody for “A Question Of  Time” by B.J. Thomas from the album “Once I Loved” and “Manhattan Blue” for Rich Cecere’e Big Band. For the past more than 26 years, he has performed the music of Steely Dan, faithfully capturing the voice of Donald Fagen. His current project Good Stuff also features music of Gino Vannelli, Stevie Wonder and Sting, all artists who influenced him. Mike’s also a dear friend, and I’ve been to many of his shows. This doesn’t mean I’m featuring Maya Lee, a song he recently wrote, to do him a favor. In fact, he has no idea what’s coming at him! 🙂 When I saw this tune on Facebook the other day, I immediately dug it. It’s got a great smooth pop jazzy sound – and, yes, I can definitely hear some Donald Fagen/Steely Dan in here. I also really like the bass and guitar work, provided by Scott Hogan and Don Regan, respectively, who are also members of Good Stuff.

Ringo Starr/Here’s to the Nights

It turns out Paul McCartney wasn’t the only ex-Beatle who was busy working on new music during the pandemic. His former band mate Ringo Starr released Here’s to the Nights on Wednesday (December 16), the lead single from his forthcoming EP Zoom In scheduled for March 19, 2021. An announcement on his website notes, As this crazy year comes to a close, Ringo is offering a song of peace, love and friendship – “Here’s To The Nights” available today as a single…Written by Diane Warren, Ringo is joined by his friends, some longtime and some new, including: Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae, Eric Burton (Black Pumas), Sheryl Crow, FINNEAS, Dave Grohl, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Jenny Lewis, Steve Lukather, Chris Stapleton and Yola. Of course, I can see cynics dismissing this as an aging pop star getting a little help from celebrity musician friends. While it’s coming out just prior to the holidays, I don’t think this is about making a quick buck. Instead, I fully buy Ringo’s statement: “This is the kind of song we all want to sing along to, and it was so great how many wonderful musicians joined in. I wanted it out in time for New Years because it feels like a good song to end a tough year on. So here’s to the nights we won’t remember and the friends we won’t forget – and I am wishing everyone peace and love for 2021.”

Miso/Let It Go

Here’s another selection that’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but there’s just something about Miso, a 28-year-old R&B artist and producer from South Korea. According to a mini bio on last.fm, Miso lived in England during her childhood. Her songs are characterized by a very peculiar modern and soft beat. Her name has often been associated with artists like DEAN and she has worked with CRUSH too – no idea who these artists are. Let It Go, for which Miso wrote both the music and lyrics, is from her new EP Metanoia released December 14. I guess it’s mostly her voice that drew me in. And check out that cool bassline! This tune definitely has something.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard/If Not Now, Then When?

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (what a name!) are an Australian rock band founded in 2010 in Melbourne. Initially, they started as a group of friends jamming together until a mutual friend asked them to play at a show – sounds like the rest is history. The current line-up features Stu Mackenzie (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, flute), Ambrose Kenny-Smith (vocals, harmonica, keyboards), Cook Craig (guitar, bass, vocals), Joey Walker (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals), Lucas Harwood (bass, keyboards) and Michael “Cavs” Cavanagh (drums, percussion). Their profile on Apple Music notes they have built a reputation as one of the most prolific and adventurous genre-hopping bands of all time. Their debut studio album 12 Bar Bruise appeared in September 2012. And, yes, this band has been pretty prolific indeed ever since, releasing 15 additional studio albums, six live albums, two EPs, one compilation and more than 40 singles. If Not Now, Then When? is their latest single that came out on December 10. This is just a cool tune. The groove and the falsetto vocals remind me a bit of Prince. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ringo Starr website; last.fm; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s hard to believe another week has flown by. I’m happy to present my latest picks of newly released music. This time, the collection features red dirt country (yes, apparently that’s a music genre), a beautiful melodic acoustic tune by a New York rock band, an indie rock artist from New Zealand, a longtime singer-songwriter taking on an iconic Steely Dan tune, as well as an artist who has been associated with various genres like new wave, post-punk, R&B, rap and indie rock – or is it perhaps music folks trying to slap a label on him? Let’s get to it!

Zach Bryan/Quiet, Heavy Dreams

Zach Bryan is a young singer-songwriter hailing from Oklahoma. An artist profile on Apple Music calls him a plaintive, quivering country troubadour indebted to the literary side of Red Dirt Country. According to Wikipedia, red dirt is a music genre named after the color of soil found in Oklahoma, which includes elements of Americana, folk, alt-country and a few other genres. Soon after receiving his first guitar as a 14-year-old, Bryan learned how to play and started writing songs. Later he followed in the footsteps of his family and enlisted in the Navy. But he didn’t give up music, and during a break in Jacksonville, Fla., Bryan and his friends spontaneously decided to record some tunes that would become his 2019 debut album DeAnn. Encouraged by a favorable reception among red dirt fans, he recorded his follow-on Elisabeth that appeared in May this year. Quiet, Heavy Dreams is the title track of Bryan’s new EP released today (November 27). His voice and the bare bones approach drew me in.

Bayside/Light Me Up

Bayside are a rock band named after the neighborhood in Queens, New York, where they were founded in October 2000 by lead vocalist Anthony Raneri and his childhood friend Mike Kozak (drums). Kozak left the following year to form his own group. Bayside released their debut album Sirens and Condolences in January 2004. The eponymous sophomore album from August 2005 was the band’s first to chart in the U.S., peaking at no. 153 on the Billboard 200. They have since released six additional full-length albums. Their catalog also features a live album and 10 EPs. The band’s line-up has changed various times over the years and currently includes Jack O’Shea (lead guitar, backing vocals), Nick Ghanbarian (bass, backing vocals) and Chris Guglielmo (drums, percussion), along with Raneri, the only remaining original member. Light Me Up is a single credited to all members of the band, released on November 20. It’s from Bayside’s upcoming 11th EP Acoustic Volume Three, which is scheduled for December 11. Check out the melodic sound of this tune and the harmony singing – love it!

KennyHoopla/Estella (feat. Travis Barker)

KennyHoopla is a 23-year-old Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter who was born as Kenneth La’ron in Cleveland. According to his Apple Music artist profile, he emerged out of the midwestern underground in the latter years of the 2010s with a series of buzz-worthy singles that merged aspects of new wave, post-punk, and R&B...Hoopla began making music at a young age, influenced by acts like Funeral Suits, Passion Pit, and the Drums…His early tracks were loosely labeled rap, though his dark-toned, guitar-based songs and aching contemplative vocals had more in common with indie rock and alt-R&B. He gained traction both regionally and online with 2017’s “Waves//” single and its 2018 follow-up, “Sickness.” Admittedly, I had never of heard of these tunes or KennyHoopla before. With so many genres flying around in the above profile, it also appears to be tricky to characterize his music. I’ve said it before and say it again: It all comes down to whether music speaks to you, not the genre. And there’s something about Hoopla’s new single Estella, which came out on November 20, featuring Travis Barker, drummer of American pop rock band Blink-182. At just under two minutes, it could almost be a contemporary version of a Ramones tune.

Emily Edrosa/Drinking During the Day

Emily Edrosa is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Auckland, New Zealand. According to a bio on the website of her record label Park The Van, Edrosa had fronted New Zealand indie rock band Street Chant for 10 years before she decided to relocate to Los Angeles in 2016 and start over. While living there, she continued to work on songs that ended up on her new solo record Another Wave Is Coming released November 20. Edrosa wrote the parts for all instruments. Except for the drums, which were provided by Bosh Rothman (U.S.) and New Zealand peers Alex Freer and Liz Stokes, she also played all instruments by herself. A review of the album in No Depression notes Edrosa recently returned to New Zealand. Here’s Drinking During the Day. Check out the neat transition from mid tempo to a slower pace starting at around 2:24 minutes with a somewhat Beatle-esque guitar part – pretty cool!

Bill Callahan/Deacon Blues (feat. Bill Mackay)

Let me preface this last clip by saying that Steely Dan are one of my all-time favorite bands and their album Aja from September 1977 is music perfection to my ears. As such, I think covering Deacon Blues, one of the album’s tracks that also happens to be my favorite Dan tune, does take a good deal of self-confidence. American singer-songwriter and guitarist Bill Callahan, who has been around for three decades, not only decided to take on the challenge but turn the jazz pop-oriented original co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker into a stripped back acoustic version. In addition to Callahan, this cover only features composer and guitarist Bill MacKay and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the adopted artist name of American singer-songwriter Joseph Will Oldham. With no horns and most other instruments that are on Steely Dan’s original and Callahan’s voice sounding much closer to Yusuf/Cat Stevens than Donald Fagen, this is quite different. I imagine not all Dan fans may be with me here, but I think Callahan did an amazing job, making an iconic tune truly his own.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Park The Van website; No Depression; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chĂ©vere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Steve Winwood/Gimme Some Lovin’

It’s safe to assume not all visitors of the blog are on Facebook, given the platform clearly is a mixed blessing, so my apologies in advance to those who may not be able to watch this clip of Steve Winwood performing a socially distanced, yet smoking hot version of Gimme Some Lovin’. When I saw the footage on my Facebook this morning, it literally made my day, since I also had just learned that the Winwood & Steely Dan concert I was supposed to see this July 10 has been rescheduled for July 3, 2021.

Don’t get me wrong, as bummed as I am, undoubtedly, the concert organizer made the right decision, as the country is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Given nobody knows yet how much additional damage the hastened re-opening we’re currently witnessing will do, it simply would have been irresponsible to ask folks to convene at PNC Bank Arts Center, a great outdoor amphitheater-type venue in Holmdel, N.J., which holds more than 17,000 people between seats and the lawn area.

The video was posted on Winwood’s Facebook page with the comment, “Looking forward to touring with this band and to seeing you all soon” – SW.” If I were Winwood, I sure as heck would be excited about these musicians as well – they truly rock and include Nate Williams (bass), Tristan Banks (drums), Paul Booth (piano, backing vocals) and Edward Sanz (congas). Obviously, Winwood provides lead vocals and his roaring Hammond. As an aside, he also is a pretty good guitarist, which I had not fully appreciated until I saw him live for the first time four or five years ago.

Gimme Some Lovin’ was co-written by Steve Winwood, his older brother Muff Winwood and Spencer Davis, and released as a single in October 1966. It became the second major hit for the Spencer Davis Group. BTW, Windwood was 18 years at the time. Today, 54 years later, he sounds as great as ever.

Sources: Wikipedia; Steve Winwood Facebook page

In Appreciation of Healthcare Professionals

Not a day goes by that you don’t see stories on TV and in other news outlets, reporting about the incredible work healthcare professionals are doing around the U.S. to care for people who are sick from the coronavirus. Last night, I caught a segment on CNN, which really got to me. For a change, I wished it was fake news, but it wasn’t!

A CNN anchor interviewed two women who are working as hospital nurses in New York City: A 20-year-old and another nurse who I guess was in her ’50s – hard to tell! Both looked extremely exhausted. The older nurse was working despite having some COVID-19 symptoms herself. Why was she still coming to work? ‘Because that’s what we do,’ she said. In the beginning, the 20-year-old tried to put on an optimistic face as best as she could, but it was obvious she was scared to death. She had just written her will and admitted she had cried a lot over the past week.

Twenty years old and feeling compelled to write her will? That’s only two years older than my son! And this is happening in America in the 21st century?

Both women pleaded with government officials that healthcare workers be provided with the protective equipment they need to continue caring for patients while reducing the risk of getting sick themselves. I have to say I never thought I would witness something like this in the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world. WTF!

It’s beyond my comprehension why certain so-called leaders at the state and federal level don’t use their full authorities to help contain the spread of the virus and fight it with all means they have at their disposal. This is not a time to question scientists or view things through an ideological lens. People are dying all around us, for crying out loud!

I’ll stop the rant here to get to the essence of the post – music, more specifically songs that in a broader sense are about doctors. Admittedly, I have to stress the word “broader” here. In any case, the idea is to give a shoutout and honor the selfless work healthcare professionals are doing across the U.S. every day. Typically for lousy pay!

Steely Dan/Dr. WuDonald Fagen & Walter Becker; Katy Lied (1975)

Bruce Springsteen/The Lady and the DoctorBruce Springstein; Before the Fame (1997)

Jethro Tull/Doctor to My DiseaseIan Anderson; Catfish Rising (1991)

Robert Palmer/Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)Moon Martin; Secrets (1979)

Jackson Browne/Doctor, My EyesJackson Browne; Jackson Browne (1972)

Blue Ă–yster Cult/Dr. MusicJoe Bouchard, Donald Roeser & Richard Meltzer; Mirrors (1979)

Counting Crows/HospitalCoby Brown; Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) (2012)

Doobie Brothers/The DoctorTom Johnston, Charlie Midnight & Eddie Schwartz; Cycles (1989)

Black Sabbath/Rock ‘n’ Roll DoctorTony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward & Ozzy Osbourne; Technical Ecstasy (1976)

The Fray/How to Save a LifeIsaac Slade & Joe King; How to Safe a Life (2005)

Sources: Wikipedia; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Donald Fagen/The Nightfly

The other day, I found myself listening to Donald Fagen’s excellent solo debut album The Nightfly. More frequent visitors of the blog know I dig Steely Dan big time, so one wonders what took me so long to write about this record released in October 1982. Well, to my defense, I included The Nightfly in a previous post about Fagen’s 70th birthday in January 2018 but haven’t dedicated an entire piece to this gem. Until now.

In many ways, The Nightfly mirrors previous Steely Dan albums. To start with, the producer was Gary Katz, who also had produced all of the Dan’s seven records that had appeared by then. Driven by Fagen’s and Katz’s perfectionism and some technical challenges, The Nightfly took eight months to record, about on par with the Aja album, though shorter than Gaucho, Steely Dan’s final album prior to their 20-year recording hiatus. Like previous Steely Dan records, The Nightfly featured an army of top-notch session musicians. Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jeff Porcaro (drums), Rick Derringer (guitar) and many other of these guys had played on Steely Dan albums.

Donald Fagen_The Nightfly Back Cover

But one musician was absent: Fagen’s long-time collaborator Walter Becker. While initially, Fagen thought he could easily handle the song-writing by himself, there came a point when he began to struggle. After the album’s release, he developed a full-blown writer’s block. It would take more than 11 years for his second solo album Kamakiriad to come out. That record was produced by Becker and was the first time he and Fagen collaborated since their breakup in 1981. Another key difference compared to Steely Dan albums were the largely autobiographical lyrics. Many of the songs incorporated topics from Fagen’s childhood in suburban New Jersey. Unlike most Steely Dan albums that were recorded live, for The Nightfly, Fagen opted to overdub each part separately.

Let’s get to some music. I was going to skip the excellent opener I.G.Y., since it was included in my above-mentioned post on Fagen’s 70th birthday. But as one of the album’s standouts, I simply couldn’t resist. I.G.Y, which stands for International Geophysical Year, captures America’s widespread optimistic vision about the country’s future in the late 1950s. The song includes concepts like undersea rail, solar-powered cities and public space travel – and a good dose of sarcasm. I.G.Y. also became the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is Donald Fagen’s only solo top 40 single on that chart.

According to Wikipedia, the title of the next song Green Flower Street was inspired by the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street. During his childhood, Fagen became a huge jazz fan. It’s no coincidence that the album’s cover pictures him as a radio DJ with a turntable and a copy of 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders.

Ruby Baby is the only cover on the album. Co-written by music songwriting machine Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the tune was first recorded by The Drifters in 1956. Fagen’s take is jazzier than the original doo-wop version. It also was released as the record’s third and final single.

Another great tune is New Frontier. The title was taken from a quote by John F. Kennedy, who said during his acceptance speech for the Presidential nomination in 1960: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.” The lyrics are about teenage romance, which prompted a Wall Street Journal reporter to speculate the title may be a humorous metaphor to sex and adulthood. Here’s the song’s official video clip, which combines animation and live action, and is considered an early classic played on MTV. The tune also appeared separately as a single.

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use

This is the first verse from the album’s title track, which captures Fagen’s fascination with jazz during his teenage years and his dream to become a late-night radio DJ. It’s the final tune I’d like to call out.

During a British radio segment about The Nightfly, which apparently aired around the time of Fagen’s 70’s birthday and featured archive interview soundbites of him from 1982, he commented: “I guess I’m 34 now, and I started to think back about how I came to be a musician. And in exploring that, I started thinking about the late ’50s and early ’60s when I first started listening to jazz and rhythm and blues and that kind of music. And that’s the kind of music that formed a lot of my attitudes at the time, not only the music but the whole culture connected with jazz and late-night radio and hipster culture and all those things, which I thought of as an alternative to the rather bland life I was leading out in the suburbs near New York City. So that theme runs through most all of the songs in the album.”

The Nightfly was not only a standout musically, but also technologically. It is one of the earliest fully digitally recorded albums. In fact, it brought to a successful conclusion Fagen’s and Katz’s previous experimentation with digital recording on Steely Dan’s Gaucho, which ended up being an analog record. But it wasn’t an easy feat and led to various challenges with the digital recording machines. In a 1983 story by Billboard magazine, Fagen said, “I was ready to transfer to analog and give it up on several occasions, but my engineering staff kept talking me into it.”

The album was positively received by music critics. It was also nominated for seven Grammy Awards in 1983. While performing worse commercially than Dan’s Gaucho, The Nightfly still was certified platinum in the U.S. and the UK. It climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard 200, making it Fagen’s second-best chart performing solo album after Kamakiriad, which peaked at no. 10 on that chart.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Billboard Magazine; YouTube