I Love that Song! #16: “Your Smiling Face” by James Taylor

alan headshot from schoolBy Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

It’s just five or maybe six notes ascending and pounded out to merge into traffic at the start, a way of getting to what amounts to a chorus of a sort, except it’s more a verse, really, and there really isn’t a chorus to speak of in this uptempo pop song that is all about love.

james taylor your smiling face 45 labelNo, there really isn’t a chorus to be heard in James Taylor’s uptempo charmer “Your Smiling Face”–just verses and bridges, building blocks sliding in and out of each other as an entrancing melody glides almost effortlessly above them. It’s quite a bold choice, eschewing choruses instead of a more conventional pop music songwriting approach, but it’s a solid choice because those five or six notes signal the start of the show and put the audience in their seats.

The opening song on James Taylor’s JT album, his eighth release, almost 41 years old, is a classic piece of melodic pop songwriting and performance, however you look at and classify the art. It’s under three minutes long and doesn’t waste a note, it’s supremely catchy and it’s played to perfection by ace musicians familiar to anyone who read liner notes or Rolling Stone, for that matter, back in the day–guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and bassist Leland Sklar, of whom more in a moment.

“Whenever I see your smiling face/I have to smile myself/Because I love you/Yes I do/And when you give me that pretty little pout/It turns me inside out/There’s something about you baby/I don’t know,” Taylor sings to start the song proper, and it’s a mouthful, I know, but all of those words are necessary to start the show.

“No one can tell me that I’m doing wrong today/Whenever I see you smile at me,” he sings at the song’s end. It’s that universal feeling that is the ultimate panacea; it’s what you think and say when just the right person stops you in your tracks on a day that seems purposeless and soulless because of this or that happening and makes you smile, telling you that everything will be alright.

It’s all about that smiling face. Who doesn’t love to meet one of those? So Taylor sings about the smiling face effect within the framework of a catchy, upbeat pop song that has not a single whiff of a chorus. Such a feat of legerdemain!

What puts this song over the top and makes it the perfect album opener are the individual elements that combine to bring the song to life. Taylor’s sweet and measured vocal, not to mention but hey, let me do it anyway, his on-the-mark falsetto (“No one can tell me that Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’m doing wrong today”) is the top draw here, but even still, one can’t discount Russ Kunkel’s dutiful drumming, short on flash but long on what the song needs–a steady beat, although there is a swishy roll in there just because.

Holding court with his fluid, inventive bass lines is Leland Sklar, who breaks out of what the song probably expects of him starting at about a minute and 28 seconds in; he punctuates his bass notes with short, sharp stabs, coming in right before Kunkel’s snare hits. And then Sklar is off to the races; his bass appears louder in the mix and, at the two minute and 10 second mark he channels Paul McCartney, sliding up and down his fretboard for just two blessed acrobatic, melodic seconds, but those two blessed seconds nearly make the whole song.

james taylor jt album coverAs the song fades out, confident in having fulfilled its mission as JT’s album opener and table setter, you are feeling as though the song has ended prematurely, or you at least want to hear it again, as I have since first hearing it upon its release.

And I have heard it again and again while I was writing this piece. I have loved looking under the hood at the various elements that make the song tick. It’s fun to poke around to see how a verse is not a chorus even though it kind of is, and so on.

It’s nice also, sometimes, to meet up with a smiling face and, you know, smile back.

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Pure Pop Radio’s signature shows, Alan Haber’s Pop Tunes Deejay Show, playing the latest and greatest melodic pop songs from today and across the decades, and Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation, the premiere Internet melodic pop talk show, air weekly on Pop that Goes Crunch Radio.

pop tunes disc smallin conversation new graphic blueListen to the Pop Tunes Deejay Show on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 pm ET (two different shows every week); In Conversation airs every Wednesday night at 9 pm ET. Don’t miss a minute!

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I Love that Song! #15: “Rockin’ My Life Away” by Jerry Lee Lewis

By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

jerry lee lewis 1979 album coverIt’s one of those records that just sounds right. It’s 1979, and Jerry Lee Lewis, with Bones Howe in the producer’s chair, is working his sweaty way through a Mack Vickery romp, banging mercilessly on the keys, a-thump-thump-thumpin’ until his fingers are sore, singing some perfunctory lyrics and assumedly ad-libbing some choice look-at-me-why-dontcha cracks in a kind of wink-of-an- eye way, all for the benefit of platter spinners and air 88s players everywhere.

When I was working country radio back in 1979, “Rockin’ My Life Away” was a favorite record to spin, even when it wasn’t coming up in the daily rotation. I would cue up the Killer’s self-titled Elektra album and, usually out of a station jingle that ended cold, baby, let ‘er rip. I would pretend to be Jerry Lee, beating my fingertips sore, banging my fingers on top of the console, making believe it was me doing those insane piano runs. One of the ad salesmen at the station was a big fan of that record; he would stand outside of the studio and watch me through the glass, a big smile planted on his kisser. And I felt obliged to perform in my own Killer-lite way.

“Rockin’ My Life Away” is a fun number, even if it’s just a sketch of a tune–a basic framework, if you will, of a rock and roll workout, which is all Jerry Lee needs to bend and twist it to suit his purpose, which is to let loose with wild fills that mark his territory. So, he gets to doing the deed, at 1:03 when he sings “Watch me now” and goes off on his way; at 2:10, after warning the band (“Look out now…”); and at 3:00 (“I’ve gotta have one more time! Yeah!”). Look out black keys and the white ones too, he seems to be saying. Here I come!

Along the way, as he makes not-nice with his piano, he makes a play for longevity (“My name is Jerry Lee Lewis and I’m durned sure here to stay”), states the obvious (“She knows how to roll, the Killer knows how to rock”), and, once again, tells you what you should already know (“The Killer’s top class”). Jerry Lee had earned his stripes long before 1979, of course, and earned his shot at celebrating his stature here.

“Rockin’ My Life Away” is an exciting performance that rocks and rolls like a runaway train daring the tracks to keep him on the straight and narrow. It’s over in a breathless three minutes and 27 seconds and it’s chock full of Killer-esque pomp and swagger. It’s also one of those songs the Internet lyric sites have a whole lotta trouble with, but never you mind. Jerry Lee’s just bein’ Jerry Lee, if that helps.

And here’s Jerry Lee being Jerry Lee:

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Pure Pop Radio’s signature shows, Alan Haber’s Pop Tunes Deejay Show, playing the latest and greatest melodic pop songs from today and across the decades, and Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation, the premiere Internet melodic pop talk show, air weekly on Pop that Goes Crunch Radio.

pop tunes disc smallin conversation new graphic blueListen to the Pop Tunes Deejay Show on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 pm ET (two different shows every week); In Conversation airs every Wednesday night at 9 pm ET. Don’t miss a minute!

Tune in to Pop that Goes Crunch Radio by clicking on the following snazzy-looking button:

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! #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! #10: “Grouch of the Day,” by Squeeze

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“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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Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber's Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

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