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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Music Appreciation, Or, I’m Taking The Day Off

It is a huge news day today, what with death and confirmation on everyone’s mind…and I’m not going to do anything about it—well, not today, anyway.

Instead, I’m taking the day off to bring you something more compelling: a music appreciation class, with recordings old and new, and just right for your summer soundtrack.

And if that’s not enough…by an amazing coincidence, we also get to talk about the (I never even know it existed) McRice burger, and, just for a summer bonus, we even have a smoking hot male model to grab your attention.

It’s all about fun today, so let’s get right to having some.

The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place,
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face

--From “Three Years She Grew”, by William Wordsworth

So here’s what’s going to happen: I put together a playlist of songs with the idea of getting you to listen to artists that you may not know, either because you’re not an old geezer like me—or because you are.

Some of the songs will be “that song” from an artist, but other songs are designed to get you to explore the larger body of work that an artist has brought to the table; I’ll be telling you about those as we go along.

I’ll give ‘em to you in the same order as I used to assemble the playlist—and they do fit together, in this order, quite well, even to the point that if you set up for continuous play, the last and first songs also “match”.

Grizzly Bear is getting real big this year, so much so that they had a song in a Super Bowl commercial, and I’m just crazy about the song “Knife”.

If you can imagine modern doo-wop and 50’s guitar licks getting together in a very understated way, that’s this song. The version I used comes from a live performance they did at KEXP’s Seattle studios; you can hear it here, along with four other songs they did that day. There’s a disc available with that performance, but it’s the sort of thing you’d really rather find in a used CD store; there’s also a Grizzly Bear page at RCRD LBL with free and legal downloads of other songs. (The “original” version of the song is on the Yellow House album.)

Now here’s a trippy story: William DeVaughn was a Washington, DC sewer designer (he trained as a draftsman) who nailed it on the first try with Be Thankful For What You’ve Got, which has become one of the greatest soul recordings ever.

Over the intervening 35 years it’s reported that he has been in and out of the industry; Wikipedia reports he returned to working at the drafting table. His own website,, is just a “placeholder” site today, suggesting he’s again inactive “in the biz”.

Remember the smoking hot male model? He’s also named William Devaughn (no capitalized “V”), and he became famous first for being on Pinoy Big Brother, then his McDonald’s McRice burger commercials (“modern rice for modern times”) in the Philippines.

He models today, which explains this picture of him in a “banana hammock”—and if you’re reading this at The Bilerico Project…well, trust me on this one, you probably do want to go click on the link…and, you know, when the straight guy in the room tells you to go check out the nearly naked man picture, you really should.

But now, back to music: there are few voices that ever graced a stage that can outshine Aretha Franklin’s, and Night Life is one of those songs that were just made for her and a horn section to absolutely own.

If you don’t know her yet, learn about her, now: start with the popular stuff, like “Spanish Harlem”, but understand that the real treasures are a bit less well known, with “Drown in My Own Tears” or “Good To Me As I Am To You” or “Son of a Preacher Man” (yes, Virginia, Aretha did it, too) being at the truly soulful heart of her collection.

Are you old enough to remember Timbuk 3? The video for The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades was hugely popular on MTV, back in those halcyon days when MTV played music videos, but the next album, “Eden Alley”…that’s the one. It’s full of great songs; my favorite among several is Easy, which is a complex, layered mix of guitar, vocal, percussion, and harmonica that I just can’t hear often enough.

CBGB was the jumping off point for punk legends like the Ramones—but it was also the spot where the Talking Heads found their groove. This is another one of those bands who have a whole shelf of “hidden gems” (check out the spectacular “Fear of Music” or “Stop Making Sense” albums sometime); we’re going with Mind today. It’s rhythmic, it’s a great big “wall of sound” production…and it has a hypnotic quality about it that has you kind of wishing the song didn’t end so soon.

If you haven’t really listened to a lot of new music since Nirvana, then you don’t know about Gorillaz. We need to fix that instantly.

Gorillaz is an odd amalgam of cartoon characters that were created to form a framework upon which a variety of songs that tell stories about the character's adventures could be hung; that’s an imperfect explanation of what they do, but not a bad one.

The songs themselves evolve over time, with “Clint Eastwood” being an excellent example. I have four different version of the song, each much different than the other; the Phi Life Cypher version, for my money, being one of the best rap performances you’ll find anywhere.

Today we reach out to the title track from the Demon Days album (start about 2:15 into this video for the full effect), which is an orchestral and choral piece, believe it or not; the London Community Gospel Choir provides the vocals, which is something they’ve done a lot of over the years.

Meat Beat Manifesto is another one of those bands that the older of you have never heard of—and again, we need to fix that. For whatever reason, these Brit bands manage to really grab reggae by the horns, and the “…In Dub” album does it better than most.

Super Soul Dub is exactly that: a super-duper dubstyle song that will take you away from Babylon and have you feelin’ irie in no time at all.

From the new to the old: Sarah Vaughn is one of the great voices of the 20th Century, “Fever” is one of the greatest songs of any century, and the two were combined, with some help from producer Adam Freeland, to create a modern, very danceable version of an old classic originally made famous by Peggy Lee.

Verve Records, the jazz label, has been reissuing some of their classic singles in paired CD releases, the “Verve/Unmixed 3” and “Verve/Remixed 3” pair, within which reside the original and new versions of this song, are my favorite so far.

I am forever guilty of letting these stories get too long, and we’re already at about 1000 words, and we’re only halfway through this lesson…and all of that means we’re going to need a Part Two, tomorrow.

So far, we’ve covered a lot of ground; tomorrow we have more dance, more reggae (in English and French), a bit of reworked Beatles, one of the greatest jazz songs ever, and a 50-year-old classic from the guy many people credit with inventing the electric guitar.

It’s a beautiful day, so go get outside, have some fun, check out the new music…and we’ll see you back here next time.

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