Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

With the World Series starting tonight, what better time for a baseball playlist?

Baseball has a special place in American culture.

In a country with so little history, at least relatively speaking, this is a game that has passed from father to son, and one that embraces its past as a way of renewing itself and keeping itself new.

It is held in a regard like no other sport in the country, a regard that means that, even thought the NFL has risen to eclipse it as the most popular league, baseball can keep a straight face while referring to itself as America's pasttime.

That status is reflected in the number of songs written about baseball. As we've covered before, writing songs about sport is dangerous territory, but baseball seems to be safer ground than most, as evidenced by the tracks here.

So as the New York Yankees get ready to take on the Philadelphia Phillies, slip yourself into the right mood by listening to these.

John Fogerty - Centerfield (Centerfield, 1985)

The quintessential baseball song, heard all summer long at ballparks big and small across America. It might not be a patch on some of the great Creedence classics, but this track has probably earned Fogerty more than many others in terms of royalties. And it's the only place to start this list.

The Baseball Project - Harvey Haddix (Vol 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails, 2008)

This supergroup, featuring Peter Buck, Steve McCaughey, Linda Pitmon and Steve Wynn, was, as you can tell by their name, formed exclusively to pay homage to the great game of baseball. Their only album to date was a mixed bag, often filled with dirge, but this one has always stood out for me. The perfect game - in which the pitcher allows not a single man to reach base - is that rarest of baseball achievements - there have been only 18 in the history of the game, and pitching is much harder today than it once was in the so-called "dead-ball era". But that list has never included Harvey Haddix, who went further than just nine innings, tossing 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Milwaukee Braves in 1959. But he was denied his place in history as none of his team-mates could score either, and the Pirates ultimately lost the game in the 13th, meaning Haddix's line did not fit the strict definition of a perfect game.

The Felice Brothers - Cooperstown (Yonder Is The Clock, 2009)

A musical biography of Ty Cobb, the Detroit Tigers great, sounds like a concept too awkward to pull off, but the Felice Brothers once again show off their superb storytelling ability in this beautiful track from their latest album. Tracing Cobb's life from rural Georgia to "the great Hall of Fame" in Cooperstown, its a song that evokes some wonderful imagery. Cobb, a menace on the diamond, has "a game like a war machine", his achievements measured when "the scoreboard sweetly hums". But my favourite line comes when looking at his never-say-die attitude: "I'm on First/And you're on Third/And the wolves are all between/And everyone's sure that the game is over." Of course, Cobb comes through, "And tomorrow, you'll surely know who's won."

The Be Good Tanyas - For The Turnstiles (Hello Love, 2003)

I've posted Neil Young's original on here before, so here's a nice wee cover of the classic. Interpreted as a lament of the way the music industry chews up and spits out musicians, Young used the imagery of minor league baseball players, men who either failed to make the majors or who's skills let them down before they retired, they are "left to die on the diamond".

The Hold Steady - Take Me Out To The Ballgame (Unreleased, 2007)

This track could have had a great deal more resonance on here had not the Twins been eliminated early in the play-offs. Although known as a Brooklyn band, the Hold Steady's roots are in Minneapolis, and they salute the Minnesota Twins here with their own take on the baseball standard, recorded in 2007 for the team to use at the Metrodome and then made available as a free internet download. The Twins lost to the Yankees in the first round.

Whiskeytown - Empty Baseball Park (Faithless Street Expanded Edition, 1998)

We'll finish here, with the track that lent its name to what became known as Whiskeytown's Baseball Park Sessions, released on the repackaged Faithless Street. This song places baseball back in its most natural setting, the community facility in the American small town. When the first pitch is thrown at the grand cathedral in the Bronx tonight, baseball will be on its greatest stage - it seems fitting to end with a celebration of its most humble.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

These United States of America (Part Two)

After an array of technical issues, welcome to part two of somewhere around seven of this here United States compilation.

We're still in the north east, at least broadly speaking, and this was perhaps the hardest part to put into any kind of order, not least as our voting panel on this project made me put in a whole bunch of jazz and even a touch of swing to stop me defining every corner of the country through, er, country.

Some of these tracks really don't sit together, but well, I tried...

(Florida) Modest Mouse - Florida (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, 2007)

A guest-appearance frenzy from Modest Mouse, this features not only ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who worked with the band on this entire album, but also Shins man James Mercer on backing vocals.

(Pennsylvania) Glenn Miller - Pennsylvania 6-5000 (Moonlight Serenade, 1939)

Our first significant change of pace with a touch of war-time big band from Mr Miller. But there is a confession - this song is not truly about Pennsylvania, as it is about the phone number Pennsylvania 6-5000, the oldest continually used phone number in New York City - that of the Hotel Pennsylvania, the colossal hotel built downtown above Penn Station and opened as what was then the largest hotel in the world in 1919.

(Vermont) Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong - Moonlight In Vermont (Ella and Louis, 1956)

Maintaining the jazz theme is this fine version of the John Blackburn/Karl Suessdorf-penned standard, and one of the better known versions to boot.

(New York) Billy Joel - New York State of Mind (Turnstiles, 1976)

Trying to find a song about New York state and not New York City initially proved a challenge, and although we eventually came up with two or three, none of them were as good a suggestion as this pun-tastic nomination. It doesn't hurt that it's also a fine song.

(Illinois) Sufjan Stevens - Come On! Feel The Illinoise! (Illinoise, 2005)

Sufjan was never going to take too long to find his way into a project like this. While it seems now that his crazy notion of recording an album for every US state is not going to get any further than just Michigan and Illinois, we can only applaud the man's ambition. No one else seems to have ideas like Sufjan, who has now just released an entire album paying homage to an interstate.

(Connecticut) Carly Simon - The Wives Are In Connecticut (Spoiled Girl, 1985)

After careful analysis, I've identified this as the worst song on this compilation. But, well, it's Connecticut. There's not a great deal to say, evidently.

(Massachusetts) The Bee Gees - Massachusetts (Horizontal, 1968)

If Carly Simon is the worst song here, this is the second worst. Let's just move quickly through this section.

(Rhode Island) Ike & Tina Turner - Sweet Rhode Island Red (Nutbush City Limits, 1973)

We couldn't end on two such bum notes, so here's a fine slice of funk from Ike and Tina before we go.

Anyhow, part three, in which we move south of the Mason-Dixon line, and thus deep into the land of country music, will be up later in the week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

These United States of America (Part One)

So a while back we came up with the idea of making a compilation with one track for each of the 50 US states. It proved harder than it was meant to be. While a million and one songs have been written about places like California and Tennessee, try finding anything on South Dakota. Heck, even New York was hard given that everything is written about the city, and not the state.

But we got there in the end. The rules, only broken a couple of times, were fairly simple. The song had to be about the state, and not a specific city in it, and we could only use a given artist once (sorry, Sufjan Stevens).

The compilation was then split into three sections, the east, the west, and the southlands. The south was everything below the Mason-Dixon line, plus a few out west to boost numbers. East and west is everything left, split by the Great Mississippi. After that, I tried to put them in some sort of order that made sense musically, if not geographically.

Here then, is part one.

(Ohio) - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Ohio (Ohio, 1970)

This is my all-time favourite record. This is what rock 'n roll should do. It's angry, its political, and it comes straight from the heart. Recorded only 11 days after the event - the shooting of four student protesters at Kent State University - that inspired it, Young wasted no time in committing his feelings to music. Bands can spend all the time they want rehearsing, re-recording, mixing and polishing records, but this is how it should be done. An absolute killer riff doesn't hurt either. Did he just have that waiting around for the right lyrics?

(Maryland) - Fox Force Five - Maryland (Previously unreleased, 2009)

Written and recorded especially for this project by Manchester's own Fox Force Five. Dom Farrell admits he's never been to Maryland, but that didn't put him off accepting the challenge of writing a song about it.

(Delaware) - Airport Girl - Between Delta and Delaware (Honey, I'm An Artist, 2001)

Once my suggestion of Dean Martin's 'What Did Delaware' had been shot down as being just plain ridiculous, we settled on this. They hail from Nottingham, but boast an American sound - countrified Pavement is the description I'm going for. The only puzzle then is why they have so consistently failed to crack America.

(Maine) - Jonathan Richman - New England (Home of the Hits: The Beserkley Story, 2000)

Okay, so we really couldn't find anything about Maine. Nothing at all. The best we could do was this, a lesser-known work from Massachusetts' own Mr Richman, which includes the lyrics "I have seen old Israel's arid plain/It's magnificent but so's Maine". The only other thing Maine makes me think of musically is the Kings of Leon's The Runner ("She's got a birthmark the shape of Maine"). Together it's not a massive musical legacy, but one that probably sums this state up. It's just not worth writing songs about.

(Indiana) - Scott Miller - Sin In Indiana (Appalachian Refugee Demo Sessions, 2008)

Mr Miller has rarely left the south for his songwriting inspiration in the past, so it's not clear exactly why he's chosen to pick on Indiana on his new album, but here it is in a song written while touring the Midwest. This is a demo version, but the final master has since been released on his fifth album, For Crying Out Loud.

(New Jersey) - Tom Waits - Jersey Girl (Heartattack and Vine, 1980)

Once we'd made the controversial decision that Bruce Springsteen would not get his home state, Tom Waits stepped in with this powerful ballad, written for his then-future wife. Hey, it's at least a song Bruce has covered a lot. It features all the hallmarks of a true Jersey song - borrowing from The Drifters' Under The Boardwalk and speaking of the shoreline carnivals that once littered that corner of the country.

(Michigan) - Red Hot Chili Peppers - Especially in Michigan (Stadium Arcadium, 2006)

It seems wrong to use the Peppers for anywhere besides California, but ultimately they had too much competition for the rights to their home state. Instead, they cash in the sun and sand of SoCal for the grit of Michigan. It's not clear which part of the state they were singing about in lyrics like "Double chins and bowling pins/Unholy presbyterians/Land is full of medicine/I find it when I'm slippin in/Into Michigan" but either way, this is one of the better songs on the hit-and-miss Stadium Arcadium

(New Hampshire) Sonic Youth - New Hampshire (Sonic Nurse, 2004)

I'm going to admit that Sonic Youth remain a major black spot in my collection. I'm working on it, thanks to the help a buying guide prepared by my mate, but I'd not got as far as Sonic Nurse until I heard this. I'm sold.

Look out for Part Two later this week.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Extended Play

The long, slow death of the single is well documented. You can get in the charts these days by selling a hundred or so copies. I've seriously considered grunting on a record for a couple of minutes, buying up 200 copies myself, and waiting for the radio play to follow. Someone somewhere would probably also decide it was art.

But the industry has responded to the death of the single by breathing life back into an old favourite. The EP is back. Everywhere I look it seems people are releasing EPs. In a lot of cases, they are new, up-and-coming bands for whom the format is a perfect way to get material out there before the album is ready. But for some of the others, and I'm looking at The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and Elvis Perkins here, you wonder if its not just a marketing gimmick, selling what is essentially a single as an EP to boost sales. You don't tend to buy the single if you already have the album, but an EP? Well, that sounds more interesting. Heck, I know it works on me.

Anyway, all I know is that I've bought a ton of EPs of late. Here's the best of 'em.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Falling Over (Higher Than The Stars EP, 2009)

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart were one of the most refreshing arrivals of 2009, taking us all back to that old-school indie of our youths (or slightly before). With an early winter tour planned, they obviously felt the need to stick something new out in for the form of the Higher Than The Stars EP. The title track itself has a slightly more stripped down feel than the album, the trademark buzz guitars largely gone, but the rest suggests there is plenty more to come of the sound that made their debut so addictive.

Emmy The Great - Canopes and Drapes (The Edward EP, 2009)

These songs were recorded before Emmy's debut album, "long-lost songs" that Emmy claims were forgotten about until fans kept asking for them at gigs. She even reckons she had to look on the internet to check the lyrics to them. Looking at said lyrics, all I can say is that, given how much we've come to like and respect Emmy, we really hope she wasn't all that upset the day S Club 7 split...

Peggy Sue - Lover Gone (The Lover Gone EP, 2009)

Put this right at the top of the list of albums I can't wait for. I'll let the song explain why. Peggy Sue have been big on the EP format, kickstarting their career with three so far, the Body Parts EP (with Left With Pictures, more of whom below), the First Aid EP, and then this, the Lover Gone EP. All we need now is that album...

Beth Jeans Houghton - Hot Toast (Hot Toast Vol. 1, 2009)

Put this in second place behind Peggy Sue on the hotly anticipated albums list. Newcastle's pop diva (who comes with one of the more, er, inventive biographies of late is in the studio recording right now, apparently, so it shouldn't be too long. In the meantime, the best we have is this five-track EP.

Left With Pictures - Secretly (Secretly EP, 2009)

The debut album from these London folksters is due any time now. If it contains even just a few slices of the delicious hooks that have dominated their singles and this here EP so far, it should be well worth the wait.

Elvis Perkins - Gypsy Davy (The Doomsday EP, 2009)

The Doomsday EP is one that would seem to qualify as just a rebranded single. Where you used to do a CD1 and CD2, here it all is together. Aside from Doomsday itself, everything is essentially a b-side, not least the extended, slowed down version of Doomsday. This is the pick of the other selections and, while good, its not good enough to live on the (rather excellent) album.

Treetop Flyers - Mountain Song (To Bury The Past EP, 2009)

This is a lovely slice of Americana which reminds me of my beloved Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I'm not sure if you're supposed to be this good at Southern Rock if you're from London, but there you go.

Bon Iver - Beach Baby (Blood Bank EP, 2009)

This strikes me as a more genuine use of an EP by an established artist. While still basking in the success of "For Emma, Forever Ago", Bon Iver used Blood Bank to introduce several new ideas, and to record his first music feating a full backing band.

The Deep Vibration - Oklahoma City Woman Blues (Veracruz EP)

If this five-track EP was designed to pique interest in the Nashville foursome, it worked on me. Of course, I'm not hard to sell on alt-country.

PS - While I'm on, this should be the final apology for it going quiet on here for a while. Starting in the next couple of days, coming in about seven or eight parts, will be a compilation I've been making for a while now, featuring a track for each of the 50 US states. Once that is out of the way, we'll begin counting down towards a very exciting project planned for December - the musical advent calendar. Much more to come on this soon...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

When The Trees Are Stripped Bare

Summer may end in August, but it never really feels like autumn begins until October.

Check your calendars. Welcome to the autumn. Looking out of the window, I'm seeing a tree of green leaves and thinking maybe it's not hit full stride just yet, but we all know what is coming. It's a sleepy time of year; hibernation begins, the nights start to close in, and the buzz of wildlife slows to a quiet hum.

So we mark this changing of the seasons with a melancholy set of songs. The greens of summer are changing to the browns of autumn, and our landscape adopts another kind of beauty. These songs seem to capture the mood.

The Be Good Tanyas - Scattered Leaves (Hello Love, 2006)

Lambchop - Autumn's Vicar (Is A Woman, 2002)

The Small Faces - The Autumn Stone (The Autumn Stone, 1969)

Willy Mason - When The Leaves Have Fallen (If The Ocean Gets Rough, 2007)

U2 - October (October, 1981)