I Love that Song! #14: “Mrs. Vandebilt” by Paul McCartney and Wings

alanBy Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio
(Originally posted 12.01.16)

So you’re in the jungle, you’re living in a tent, you have zero financial obligations, you have all the time in the world, and you just plain don’t care. Is this a call for celebration?

paul mccartney and wings mrs. vandebiltRight off the bat, I’m probably being too literal, trying to make sense of the lyrics of Band on the Run’s “Mrs. Vandebilt,” one of the great showcases for Paul McCartney’s runaway bass inflections, because that first verse is a slightly-changed, tumbling tip of the hat to British comedian Charlie Chester. Which is really here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

Which is not to say that there is any scheme being practiced within this delicious tour de Macca, other than the crafting of yet another insanely catchy slice of pop and roll by one of the masters of the insanely catchy slice of pop and roll form. “Take things as they come to you!”, McCartney seems to be saying in these lyrics, which might be the case if you’re looking to make a case, but I submit to you that the lyrics could well be carefully positioned red herrings unless you don’t believe in such things and, really, well, that’s kind of getting off the case at hand.

“Mrs. Vandebilt” is a four-on-the-floor, beat-buoyed road trip driven by one of, if not the, world’s most inventive bass players. And don’t argue with me, now! We must not have dissension among the ranks!

“Mrs. Vandebilt” is all about the ever-present, runaway bass line and, of course, the up-and-down, go-high-then-low-then-high-again melody line. The first 72 seconds, and really most of this track, bear this out, painted as they are with just a few aural brushstrokes–rhythmic, acoustic guitar chord stabs, bass, percussion, vocal, and what sounds like some understated keyboard layering close to the first chorus. Then, Howie Casey’s liquid saxophone draws deserved attention for seven punctuated seconds.

A beautifully-rendered electric guitar solo (which recurs later, as does Casey’s sax) is another of the many reasons that this skillfully crafted track, like so many of McCartney’s ingenious constructs, never, ever fails to please; another one is what really is the meat of this four-and-a-half-minute moment: the rip-roaring, get-out-of-the-way, leave-my-kitten-alone close, a let’s-let-loose-at-all-costs, band-on-the-run refrain that plays sweet havoc with what has come before. Above, and for that matter below, the repeated “Ho, hey ho!” cries, McCartney’s runaway bass, sliding up and down the fretboard with determinedly enthusiastic plucks, steals the show, exiting stage right with a quick, descending run of notes before the track fades, clearing the decks for the tour de Lennon that is “Let Me Roll It.”

band on the runThere is a picture of McCartney in the booklet of the 2010 archive collection reissue of Band on the Run, in which the headphone-appointed artist is decked out in his electric blue shirt, sleeves rolled up, his left arm crossed against his chest, his right arm pointing upward and his right hand resting against his lips, pursed into a knowing smile that says, “Man, just wait ’till you hear what I’ve got up my (rolled up) sleeves.” If a picture truly speaks volumes, this one is akin to the length and breadth of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

If I close my eyes, I can see myself sitting on the edge of my bed in my college dorm room, listening to the Band on the Run album over and over as a long-haired friend sits on my no-speed bicycle, pedaling in place with abandon. “You know, this is a really great album,” my friend says as the memory tape rolls in my brain. And when “Mrs. Vandebilt” comes on, the pedaling stops in its tracks. My attention, as well as my friend’s, is suddenly focused on that insistent bass line, and as the track hits midway, my friend and I are plucking the strings of our Hofner air bass guitars even as the track fades, and without even thinking, I walk slowly to my turntable in somewhat of a daze and put the needle back to the beginning and the air Hofner plucking begins again.

Which is why I love this song.

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I Love that Song #13: “America,” by Simon and Garfunkel

by Alan Haber

simon-and-garfunkel-bookendsOne of Paul Simon’s best songs, lyrically astute and honorably charged, “America” is the third track on Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends, fading up out of the long goodbye of “Save the Life of My Child.” “Oh my Grace, I’ve got no hiding place,” comes the lyrical cry over a bed of ghostly, harried vocal lines and more sturdy pop instrumentation. It comes to pass that perhaps, just perhaps, the child is saved, but there is this that suggests an otherwise flawed end: “In an atmosphere of freaky holiday/When the spotlight hit the boy/And the crowd began to cheer/He flew away.”

From that might-be cryptic vision, Simon’s pen turned from chronicling a search for a panacea for men and women paralyzed with fear to a chronicle of men and women searching for answers that would quantify their yearning. Where, exactly, is their America?

After descending vocal lines sung on top of a bed of guitar strums and accented notes comes the observational, opening salvo of “America”: “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together,” Simon sings delicately. “I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.” With that somewhat, likely tenuous firmament in place, the man and his female companion (name of Kathy, also the name of an actual figure in Simon’s early musical life) prepare to begin their journey, purchasing a pack of smokes and some Mrs. Wagner’s pies. After hitchhiking a fair enough distance, the man tells Kathy that he’s “…come to look for America.” An explorer, a truth seeker, on a mission.

greyhound-busesBoarding a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh, the couple play almost childlike games to pass the time. Kathy remarks that “…the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.” The man traveling with her counters with an equally playful and mindfully obtuse observation: “Be careful. His bow tie is really a camera.” Which, if true, might hold some of the answers the couple is looking for. Has this spy gathered proof of the existence of America? How fast can these images be developed?

There is gazing out of the window and some magazine reading, after which Kathy’s companion reaches an epiphany of sorts. “Kathy, I’m lost,” he tells her, as she sleeps. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” After looking out over open fields as the bus passes around and through towns large and small, the journey seems to culminate, even as the bus continues on, in the man’s realization that he and everyone on the bus and everyone in the cars passing by them are all, as it turns out, looking for America, for their dreams to come alive.

searching“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” the companion sings. Cars from near and far and most certainly in between; campers and pickup trucks and cars that double as boats, and station wagons and automobiles with faulty transmissions and leaky oil pans, all pointed toward the lands of milk and honey and prosperity and, above all, safety, all are looking for their America. A place to call home, where it feels like home from the second the lawn sprinklers turn on in the morning till the moment they turn off at night. Everyone on the road, whether real or imagined in the course of everyday life, is looking for America. For their America.

Covered by all manner of artists through the years, “America” was most recently and, perhaps, best interpreted in an emotionally charged performance by First Aid Kit, a sister duo from Sweden. They performed the song with creative, lovely, acoustic guitar picking, piano and an equally emotional, live string section in a showstopping version on one of the last broadcasts of The Late Show with David Letterman (see below).

Discussion of “America” seems appropriate on this day, Memorial Day, a day during which our thoughts turn to those who served in the armed forces and lost their lives protecting our freedoms. Listening to “America,” as performed by Simon and Garfunkel or First Aid Kit or any of the artists who have covered it with sound artistic expression and passion, is still a powerful experience, and so it shall be for as long as we all continue to look for our Americas.

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I Love that Song! #12: “She’s My Baby,” by the Traveling Wilburys

traveling-wilburys-she's-my-babyTaken from the album Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3, “She’s My Baby” finds the mysterious supergroup with their feet ensconced firmly in audacious rock and roll territory and their tongues planted firmly in cheek. There is enough energy in this song to power every light bulb that blares along the Las Vegas Strip. There is also plenty of pomp and spirit and sheer exuberance and derring-do, and more than that you probably could not and should not stand to witness.

The song opens with exactly how you might guess a speed locomotive feels after it ramps up to top speed and flies like the wind atop tracks and land mass: electric guitars fearlessly play the song’s central riff one, two, three, four times before the song is off and running. “She’s got her pudding in the oven and it’s gonna be good,” the Wilburys sing with a whole lot of nervy verve. “She better not leave me and go out to Hollywood/She’s got the best pudding in the neighborhood/She’s my baby.”

This baby’s got muscles and, you know, the ability to drive heavy machinery: “She can drive a truck, she can drive a train,” the Wilburys chant. “She can even drive an aeroplane.” And, even when she’s muscling her way from here to over there, “She’s so good to look at in the rain.” Ultimately, “She’s my baby.”

traveling-wilburys-babyThe guitars play fervently, the drums are close to causing some kind of a blackout, and the intensity in the room–any room–is almost too much to bear. Plus, she’s, well, possibly finding it difficult to maneuver through life’s challenges. Even though “She’s got a body for business, got a head for sin” and “She knocks me over like a bowling pin/She came home last night and said ‘Honey, honey, honey, it’s hard to get ahead’.” Calling Dr. Phil…

This baby doesn’t give up. She can do it all and do it well and probably knock out a world-class boxer in less than 10 blessed seconds and still come out of it with the ability to, um, rock. Look out, world: “She can build a boat, she can make it float…She can play my guitar note for note.”

“She’s myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy baby,” the Wilburys sing in this hoot of a song, this tongue-in-cheek rocker that plays its cards falling out of its vest and almost, but not quite, gives up the ghost, so to speak, during a rock star guitar solo at its midpoint that collapses into a gurgling curdle of intentionally sloppy musical goop. Oh, how joyous it is! Just watch the video below. When have you seen more smiling and laughing and band logos and true musical heroes having so much fun?

“She’s myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy baby,” indeed.

– Alan Haber

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I Love that Song! #11: “Where the Bands Are,” by Bruce Springsteen

bruce-springsteen-18-tracksIf power pop fans ever needed a reason to believe in Bruce Springsteen, if only for three minutes and 46 seconds, “Where the Bands Are” is that reason–a balls-to-the-wall power pop number stacked high with electric guitars; punctuating, popping bass; four-and-a-half-to-the-floor drumming, and a catchy chorus with an indelible hook. The split second it kicks off with a single, call-to-arms snare shot and the full band comes right in, you are drawn into another world.

And you already know that world. It’s a world where music consumes you, where you can let it all hang out and show your girl how great it all can be–where you just live for the moment, and the moment is alive.

“Yeah, tonight I wanna break my chains/Somebody break my heart/Somebody shake my brains,” the boy sings. “Downtown there’s something that I wanna hear/There’s a sound, little girl, keeps ringing in my ear,” and that is the sound of the beat, the guitars turned up so loud that the paint is peeling off the walls, the sweat pouring into imagined buckets all around you. It’s the sound of the beat, of the fire inside of you when you’re taking it all in even before you get there. It’s the sound of impassioned singing into microphones–the sound of a power pop rodeo where the crowd is being roped in to feel the heat rising from the stage.

It is the quintessential mind over matter trick that heightened sensitivity plays on you when you’re knee-deep in the thick of it. It is the best you can do–the only thing you can do–when two worlds come together as one. “Tonight I wanna feel the beat of the crowd/And when I tell you that I love you/I wanna have to shout it out loud/Shout it out loud” is the cry in the night. Your arm is holding your partner tight as the singer is bringing the both of you into his world.

You know the score. You know why you’re in that club or that bar. You know why you’re dressed to the nines and impressing your partner as the music plays and the electricity is pulsing through you. You know why you’re there. “I wanna be where the bands are,” you shout. “I wanna be where the bands are…” And here comes the power pop version of a Greek chorus: “Where the bands are…” and you answer: “I wanna be where the bands are.”

Springsteen is remembering what moved him in the first place when, in his early days, he wanted to be right there in the center of the action with his girl by his side while those beautiful notes were flying freely throughout the space, drawing him in and getting him to sing along with the chorus that he will never, ever be able to get out of his head. “I wanna be where the bands are,” he sings out loud, shouting, reaching for the stage and wishing he were on it.

Recorded in 1979, “Where the Bands Are,” a song that, like many Springsteen numbers, had floated around in collector’s circles for years before seeing legitimate release on the Boss’s Tracks collection in 1998, is an anthem quite unlike the other anthems he had recorded. It is an anthem drawn purposefully for the boys and girls of the live music nation, the people who gather together to celebrate the feelings that move them.

“Where the Bands Are” is a song that moves in straight-ahead, upbeat fashion. It reveres the hook all the way through. It invites the constant head bob whether or not you can hold to the beat. The drums take charge. The saxophone punctuates. The guitars rock and roll with the best of them. It’s impossible to forget the melody, even if you’ve only heard it once. It gets in there and becomes part of your DNA. Really, you’d be powerless to stop it.

“I wanna be where the bands are,” Bruce proclaims just before the song comes to an end. It’s a tremendous song and a tremendous power pop record and it speaks to the heart of the matter–that the music that speaks to you can move you like nothing else and give you a reason, a reason to believe in the power of the song, in the power of power pop. – Alan Haber

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I Love that Song! #10: “Grouch of the Day,” by Squeeze

squeeze-ridiculous

“Grouch of the Day,” from Squeeze’s Ridiculous (IRS, 1995)

If life does indeed imitate art, and Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s “Grouch of the Day” represents truth, then all in the world who stress themselves over needless worry should start a club, elect a president, and sing this song to open all of their meetings.

Listening to “Grouch of the Day,” as catchy a pop song as exists in the Squeeze catalog, and appreciating and adopting its wisdom seems the least one should do when the numbing of one’s nerves over what-ifs and what-could-have-beens has taken root and gotten in the way of a positive outlook. “What if the boss raises hell over that report?” “How can I relax when the fate of the world rests on my shoulders?” He probably won’t, and yes, you can and no, it doesn’t.

Needless worry continues to be the least potent notion one can adopt during the carrying out of a life. What does it get you, other than prickly horseshoes and flat soda pop? I wonder if Difford and Tilbrook contemplated this notion, or even considered it at all, while they were writing this song. Perhaps it was just serendipity, or at the very least a fated matching of lyrics and melody during the act of crafting another catchy pop song.

It’s all about the state of one’s nerves and whether they’re butting heads or getting some sun in at poolside, so to speak. The narrator here is overcome by even the idea of a bad day ahead. But there’s this, regarding the woman lying beside him: “As I roll on my side there’s a smile on her face that says much more than words ever will,” he sings, and therein lies the secret of life. Words are empty promises; actions speak louder than words, and this woman speaks with motion: “She’ll have something to say,” he notes.

And she does, when all is said and done, but her words are silent: “Her beauty erodes the desperate loads of pressure that fills up my day/With one smile all the stress melts away.” There can’t possibly be a thing that is more powerful than the declaration that everything is going to be okay regardless of what you think, and here is the proof: a smile. There is nothing more powerful than a smile.

Although, come to think of it, even the idea that a smile can wipe away tears is just as moving and reliable: “When I’ve drifted away and I’m moping around in a sulk, she’ll have something to say and I usually obey/Then I get my resentments in bulk,” the narrator sings, and adds, as he figures it all out, “That’s the price that you pay for being grouch of the day.”

Blended voices harmonize “Uh oh,” perhaps mockingly but maybe not, and the chorus sings “Better watch out,” as if that were possible for the shaky amongst us! Well, it should be, at least in the face of possible uh-ohs and I-told-you-that-was-going-to-happens.

“I feel butterflies wing as she starts to sling music on/As she rolls on her back with her smile full of charm that says much more than words ever will,” the narrator delights; he really does know that smile will put things right and prepare him for the could-well-be kind of scary day ahead.

Otherwise, you’re the grouch of the day and, well, uh oh. – Alan Haber

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I Love that Song! #9 (Special Valentine’s Day 2015 Edition): “Leanne,” by the Davenports

the-davenports-leanneRegarding the Davenports’ tremendous new power pop number, “Leanne,” now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio, the following is mostly speculation. Well, it’s mostly speculation on my part, weighed down by many questions. A wigged-out, sneaky electric guitar riff, followed by a quickly-rendered, handclap-adorned bridge, leads into the first verse of this catchy, sneaky, almost anti-love song, and we’re off to the races.

For one thing: Is the dirty drip that’s referenced up top in the song a leaky faucet filling a sink with shmutzy water, deposits on a drip pan, or something else entirely? “In the spring we lunged for the dirty, dirty drip,” one half of the relationship spouts. “I kicked out your heel to make you, make you trip.” Question answered, then: The “dirty, dirty drip” is just the thing, the thing that this guy uses as an excuse to make his lady friend  see the floor tiles up close and personal.

It’s a playful yet quite possibly tenuous relationship, one that survives the allegorical wrestling move detailed in the lyrics’ second verse: “After the final slat of sun/The violet volley cartwheel run/You held me on a mat of Monday mowings.” When the sun sets on Sunday night, and the last, partial rays peek through the vertical blind slats, closed but not totally, and the sky fades into a violet hue, it all comes out–the this and that and yes, that again, that she’s held in ever so tightly since the last time she mowed you down, and it all comes out on Monday morning in the shreds of emotion as if they were the product of a lawn mower’s chopped grass shards.

“I called you Buttercup,” the boyfriend lays out as a kind of gesture, “I called you Buttercup, Leanne/But now, now I just call you, call you Leanne.” Because the cute-as-a-button nickname that relates back to the time when isn’t realistic anymore as the couple sheds their outer skin and reveals their collective, inner sleeve. “…now I just call you, call you Leanne.”

And then there’s the standoff: “Then we swarmed around each others’ stares like bugs/And we sat securely in our mugs.” Sizing up the considerable situation, the two lovebirds find themselves in excelsis, boiling as the temperature rises higher and higher still, each relegating their ids to their respective corners, pushing and pulling and pushing and pulling again, still, not willing to budge.

“Then,” the guy sings, “we ate to excess after that/And we stole the others’ turn at bat,” because, well, one can only disagree on the same punctuated point so much. “And we said we should grow old and fat together…” Because, well, that’s their love: fiery one minute, I-love-you-lots-and-lots-with-strings-astride-but-make-no-mistake-about-it, we’re meant to be.

“I called you Buttercup,” the guy sings. “I called you Buttercup.” But now, in the springtime of our lives, I call you who you are: my love, my life, my Leanne. All the while, crunchy guitars, a steady 4/4 beat, and a determined bass guitar lead the way through the romance of two people obviously meant for each other.

“Sing along whether you’re a lover, brokenhearted, or some place in between,” say the Davenports. Sounds about right.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

by Alan Haber

Swoon with “Leanne,” playing as part of your Valentine’s Day soundtrack. Pick it up here.

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I Love that Song! #8: “Don’t Be Mad at Me,” by the Davenports

the-davenports-don't-be-mad-at-meThe subtly pounding, lithe piano run which appoints itself at the start of the Davenports’ achingly beautiful new song, “Don’t Be Mad at Me,” now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio, is joined by a gregarious, almost romanticized string section pleased to acquaint itself with a very “Martha, My Dear” ambiance in tow, an ambiance that later trades off with a lovely pop melody and, at the end, an even harder-edged, slightly manic, giddy even, melodic electric guitar attack straight out of the Carpenters “Goodbye to Love” school, but for now leads into the first words of the opening verse, which themselves lead to a cautionary plea: “Betty, don’t be mad at me, Betty,” delivered by the always soothing and satisfying voice of Scott Klass as he seeks to make it all better with more than a few dollops of sincerity. “Don’t cry girl, I’ve got your keys,” he sings, because the time has come to take pause and leave the driving to someone else.

“It’s not conspiracy, revenge or trying to hurt your feelings, Betty,” Klass asserts, lovingly. It’s just the way it is, is what it all means, and you barely wrestle with the idea that at a certain point in everyone’s life–yours, for example–time will come to change the course and allow a loved one or a friendly neighbor or someone else with the power of love in his or her pocket to help, just help, just help steer the course. “But it’s clear now that you’re mixing up your Christophers and Larrys…”

And so it goes as Klass, who wrote the song, sings a litany of wise words that make it all clear as we tumble along the way in our lives. This gorgeous creation, just such a grand achievement and a raise of the bar in the ongoing songwriting life, blinks brightly with all the hallmarks of a Davenports song: the way the words match the rhythm of the melody around quick breaths; the seemingly disparate instrumental elements that come together perfectly to create a winsome, winning musical base; and the idea that a whole life, and all its twists and turns, can be communicated quite clearly in only four minutes and 13 seconds with lively invention and the truth of the songwriter’s craft.

the davenportsYes, this is a pop song with strings and a catchy melody and percussion and swooping background vocal harmonies reminiscent of the closing sections of Andy Partridge’s “1,000 Umbrellas,” and it just begs, literally begs that you sing along with it (and you can, because the video, which you can watch below, includes some of the lyrics right there on the screen) and, even if there wasn’t any begging going on, you’d want to sing along anyway, because it’s that kind of a delightful number and that’s what great pop music does: it includes you as if you’re a member of the family, and, of course, you are.

The Davenports have never been anything less than top-flight purveyors of fanciful, melodic pop songs. Here, as stated above, they have upped their game and delivered a momentous achievement. There is nothing like this song in the whole wide world–a world, as depicted in this song’s video, that is alive and well within the confines of a View-Master lying in a box left silently on a sidewalk. A young girl, curious as to the box’s contents, takes hold of the View-Master and there is Betty’s, or someone’s, life, conveyed to the girl in one snapshot after another; little wisps out of time that tell a story.

“Generally,” it is said on the band’s website, this song is “about salad days to sad days, youth to old age, power to weakness, forefront to backdrop. ‘Betty’ is an old great aunt who was once almost like a matriarch of the family–strong, with style, a leader, who drove a huge old Caddy. The narrator is a younger relative who has to take away the keys to the Caddy because Betty has grown old and demented.”

“Betty, don’t be mad at me…” Undoubtedly, this song could be about someone in your life, which makes the message universal. Betty, well, could well be you, some day.

Buy the Davenports’ “Don’t Be Mad at Me” on iTunes

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