The difference between Alan Jackson and so many other contemporary country singers is crystallized in “Long Way to Go,” one of the half dozen songs he wrote for his new album "Thirty Miles West" — the first for his new Alan Country Records label after two decades with Arista.
It starts out as the standard-issue country number in which the protagonist decides to run away and drown his heartache in saltwater, sand and alcohol. But Jackson’s smart enough to know that escapism never works for long, and handles it with wry humor: “I got a bug in my margarita/Seems bad luck won’t leave me alone.”
His writing is rarely florid, his singing never needlessly showy; instead, the Newnan, Ga., singer and songwriter has smartly adapted the Randolph Scott man-of-few-words movie-cowboy persona to country music, also evident in his choice of Adam Wright and Jay Knowles’ plain-spoken love song “Nothin’ Fancy.”
There’s nothing drastically different here than what Jackson’s been doing quite well since he first entered the country charts in 1989. Two dozen No. 1 hits later — most from his own pen — he sticks with what works, but never sounds as if he’s simply exploiting a formula.
That’s most bracingly evident in the closing track, “When I Saw You Leaving (for Nisey),” a song he wrote after his wife, Denise, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. Although she’s cancer free now, which leads to the song’s happy ending, the sobering realization of the fragility of life that comes with such news isn’t diminished in the least.
Herb Reed of the Platters, who died Monday in Boston at age 83, was the last surviving original member of the great '50s R&B and doo-wop group known for its soaring operatic hits “The Great Pretender,” “Only You,” “Twilight Time,” “My Prayer” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Reed’s glorious bass voice anchored the group’s sound, keeping the music rooted to the earth as tenor Tony Williams took those songs and dozens of others upward into the musical stratosphere.
To the casual pop music fan, it’s easy to lump the Platters with the Coasters, the Drifters, the Penguins, the Clovers and other early R&B and doo-wop groups of the '50s. That's partly because, for so many of these vocal groups, their identity began and ended with the name -- they weren't differentiated into superstar guitarists or drummers or even lead singers, but made their living by harmonizing together. Clyde McPhatter left the Drifters to chart a solo career that gave him an individual identity, but for the most part, it was the collective that fans knew and loved.
Reed and Williams first got together with tenor David Lynch, soprano Zola Taylor and baritone Paul Robi here in Los Angeles in the early '50s, and it's usually Williams’ voice that one heard first in their mix. But “My Prayer” provides a great example of what Reed contributed time and again.
After Williams sings the opening line, a cappella, “When the twilight is gone,” the other Platters answer and support him with an elongated “gone” in which Reed's oaky bass is not only heard but also palpably felt.
That's historically the role the bass voice serves in gospel, pop and classical music: It’s the soul, reaching to the deepest parts of the human heart.
It’s appropriate to reference classical music when discussing the Platters because their signature sound tapped much the same sweep and grandeur of great operatic arias.
The group’s manager, producer and sometimes songwriter Buck Ram, who had shepherded the career of the Ink Spots a decade earlier, had a great ear for what would appeal to more than just the African American listeners who still bought the majority of R&B records in the early '50s when the Platters came around.
Ram sweetened their records with strings, and he got the five singers to apply their vibrant harmonies to many songs that had previously been hits in the '20s, '30s and '40s, giving them an air of familiarity to a broad swath of music fans.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” had been a No. 1 hit in 1934 for the great bandleader Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller had reached No. 2 with “My Prayer” in 1939, and “Twilight Time” had been a top 10 hit in 1944 for the Three Suns. Here's a video of the Platters' version of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes":
The Platters brought a new pulse and sensuality to the material, but also elegance and sophistication that were more transcendent and ethereal than the gritty sexuality of the likes of Ruth Brown and Etta James. The Platters created a blueprint for towering pop music that would later be exploited magnificently by Roy Orbison and Del Shannon and even can be heard in the sweeping pop-R&B balladry of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.
Ringo Starr tipped his hat to the group with his version of “Only You” on his second post-Beatles solo album, “Goodnight Vienna,” in 1974.
Although the Platters suffered the fate of many '50s R&B groups over time with spurious versions of the act cropping up in far-flung lounges and casinos, Reed did his best to keep the Platters legacy intact, touring until last year, when health issues prompted him to retire.
It might seem there'd be little left to say about Paul Simon's watershed 1986 album "Graceland," which is being reissued today in a deluxe four-disc 25th anniversary box set.
Simon collected Grammy Awards for the title track and the album, as record and song of the year. It was No. 71 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time and introduced millions of listeners to the wonders of the music of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, among its other attributes.
But the new box set does indeed help shed new light on the music and the entire project by way of the various bonus features that now accompany the original album.
Chief among them is the disc containing Joe Berlinger's fascinating documentary "Under African Skies," laying out the controversy around Simon violating the United Nations' cultural boycott of South Africa's racist apartheid system when he recorded several tracks in Johannesburg with the members of Ladysmith and other musicians from the region.
As noted in her review for The Times recently, film critic Betsy Sharkey lauded Berlinger for the riveting portrait assembled as Simon returned to South Africa last year on the 25th anniversary of his sessions there. The musician met with Dali Tambo, one of the founders of Artists Against Apartheid, who had criticized Simon for flaunting the boycott. Their discussion a quarter-century later isn't without tension, even though each offers unqualified expressions of respect for the work of the other.
Simon's take is that art transcends politics and that artists should not always be subservient to politicians. That view can sound self-serving, coming from Simon, but he gets some heavyweight support in supplemental interviews from Paul McCartney, Harry Belafonte, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and Quincy Jones, among others.
It also incorporates Simon's 1986 performance on "Saturday Night Live," for which he was joined by the dazzling Ladysmith Black Mambazo troupe before any of the songs from the album had been released, in a breathtaking appearance that can be seen here:
Beyond the film, there's another disc with studio outtakes, including a jaw-dropping early take of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" that is largely just Simon's vocal along with bassist Baghiti Khumalo running gloriously wild and funky over the fretboard of his instrument. The same disc has an audio interview with Simon talking about the making of the title track, illuminating how this cross-cultural collaboration gestated.
The fourth disc captures the 1987 concert Simon gave in Zimbabwe on his "Graceland" tour, where he was joined by South African pop musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
To paraphrase Rod Stewart, every album may indeed tell a story, but some stories are dramatically more compelling than others. The story of "Graceland" is one of the most compelling in all of pop music.
Fiddler, singer and songwriter Sara Watkins often comes across as a favorite little sister, especially to those who have monitored her growth from an older-than-her-years member of the boundary-breaking San Diego bluegrass trio Nickel Creek to her subsequent family endeavors with brother Sean and her frequent solo outings with various collaborators, many of them at Largo in L.A.
Several members of her extended musical family have turned up on her recently released second solo album, "Sun Midnight Sun," and a couple also help out with the video for the album's closing track, "Take Up Your Spade," premiering on Pop & Hiss. The song itself is a gentle benedictory ode to the notion that every moment brings with it the possibility of renewal.
The video, also featuring Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple (one of those Largo regulars) and producer Blake Mills, consists of home-movie-like footage of the recording session, and backyard basketball breaks, at Zeitgeist Studio in L.A.
"I have known Jackson almost as long as Fiona," Watkins tells Pop & Hiss. "I met both of them at Largo. I just sort of found myself on stage with them, and both have become frequent guests at our Watkins Family Hour show" -- the monthly residency she and her guitarist-singer brother Sean have been holding at Largo for nearly a decade.
Guitarist Doc Watson, who died Tuesday at age 89, leaves an extensive legacy that documents his wide-reaching influence in the world of guitar playing and folk music.
"Doc Watson sort of defined in many ways what Americana has become," Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Assn., told The Times. "He played different styles of American roots music."
He received a National Medal of Arts in 1997 and a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2004.
Watson was well into his 40s before he began a serious music career. Ultimately, his example inspired a generation of musicians to upgrade their instrumental technique.
Here are three examples of his artistry in different settings. He was a commanding soloist and an always amenable collaborator. The first video highlights his take on "Black Mountain Rag," which traditionally has featured the fiddle. But Watson transformed it, as he usually did, into a thrilling guitar showcase.
Watson also loved playing in the company of other guitarists, and for decades was accompanied on tour and in the recording studio by his son, Merle. But after Merle died in 1985, Watson continued with his career, often sharing the stage with other masters of the instrument. Here's a 1987 performance from Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion," for which Watson begins with his version of Eddy Arnold's "Just a Little Lovin' (Will Go a Long Way)," then is joined by six- and 12-string ace Leo Kottke for "Last Steam Engine Train."
Finally, in a trio setting, below is a historic string-instrument summit meeting of Watson with bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs and neo-traditionalist singer, mandolinist and guitarist Ricky Skaggs from a "Three Pickers" in which they serve up the country gospel traditional "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms":
The group’s trademark SoCal sound will be in full effect Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl. Here are a few points to ponder about Brian Wilson and the crew.
Brian Wilson officially quit as a touring member of the Beach Boys in the mid-1960s and has only been on stage periodically with the band since. As for an album together? It’s been decades. But this week Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks stop at the Hollywood Bowl for a 50th anniversary tour which kicked off last month in Arizona.
The Saturday night show — followed by the release of their new album together, “Why God Made the Radio,” on June 5 — is a homecoming of sorts for this quintessential SoCal band. In celebration of this landmark event, Pop & Hiss compiled a list of facts, stats and random bits of info associated with Beach Boys, Version 2012.
Lies, damned lies and statistics:
For avid Beach Boys fans, no fact is too innocuous to share with the world, and thank God the Internet was invented for exactly this purpose. Helpful tidbits amid all the Beach Boys minutiae include lists of songs the group has performed since launching the anniversary tour.
Songs played at all 19 shows as of Friday include cornerstone hits from the Beach Boys songbook: “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Help Me, Rhonda”; their last No. 1 hit, 1988’s “Kokomo”; and their newly written and recorded anniversary celebration single, “That’s Why God Made the Radio.” (Marketing lesson 101: Always plug the new stuff.)
Some surprises among the stats:
“All This Is That,” a relatively obscure song from the 1972 album “So Tough,” which was credited as Carl & the Passions, has been included nearly every night — as has “Don’t Back Down,” a song that never charted from 1964’s “All Summer Long” album. “This Whole World,” from 1971’s “Sunflower,” has turned up 10 times, according to the obsessive documentarians at www.setlist.fm.
The group’s Top 10 hit that has surfaced least frequently? “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which has been played, played, played just five times so far. New thoughts on old songs:
In Mark Dillon’s new book “Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys,” the Canadian author interviewed — yep — 50 different sources about their favorite songs from the group’s career.
What is Alice Cooper’s favorite number, you ask? In the book, they quote him discussing “In My Room”: “I was 15, I was the perfect age for that. Your room is your sanctuary. It’s your Batcave. It’s the only thing you own, so there’s a certain holiness to it. ‘Mom, Dad — don’t come in my room. It’s off limits.’”
As for the ubiquitous Zooey Deschanel? She cites “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” from the watershed 1966 album “Pet Sounds” album. “Talk about blowing my mind. I can listen to the song over and over again.” She’s also a big fan of the separate vocal and instrumental tracks that became available with the 1997 “Pet Sounds” box set: “Listening to just the vocals is really exciting. It still sounds fresh. It always makes me happy.”
Donna Summer's throbbing 1977 hit "I Feel Love"; Prince's 1984 "Purple Rain" album; the first known commercial sound recording, dating to 1888; the Sugar Hill Gang's watershed rap record "Rapper's Delight"; and 1930s and '40s news reports and speech excerpts from journalist Edward R. Murrow's "I Can Hear It Now" radio program are among 25 sound recordings newly enshrined in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, library officials announced Wednesday.
Among the other new entries are Dolly Parton's 1971 hit "Coat of Many Colors"; Parliament's 1975 funk classic "Mothership Connection"; Stan Kenton and His Orchestra's 1943 recording of "Artistry in Rhythm"; and Leonard Bernstein's debut performance conducting the New York Philharmonic, also from 1943. Plus, the new registrees include field recordings with the voices of former slaves made from 1932 to 1941; Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" and "Bo Diddley," both from 1955, and Booker T. & the MGs' 1962 soul instrumental "Green Onions."
"America's sound heritage is an important part of the nation's history and culture and this year's selections reflect the diversity and creativity of the American experience," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement.
Case in point: The first commercial sound recording is a version of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" from a small cylinder created in 1888 by Thomas Edison's company for use in a talking doll that was a commercial failure. The recording, discovered in 1967, was considered unplayable until 2011, when it was scanned in three dimensions using digital mapping tools created at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in collaboration with the Library of Congress.
The latest batch of inductees expands the registry's total to 350 recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and which span the history of recorded sound. The recordings must be at least 10 years old to be eligible. A full list of this year's songs chosen for the registry can be found on the library's website. Each year, 25 recordings are added to the registry. The public can nominate recordings at www.loc.gov/nrpb.
John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Southern California-based Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped forge an early bridge in the 1970s between the then-distinct worlds of rock and country music with the group’s 1972 triple-record set, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” McEuen had a profound interest in traditional country and folk music and found inspiration watching L.A.-area appearances by the Dillards, and banjo player Doug Dillard played a key role in McEuen’s musical education. Here is what McEuen wrote about Dillard after he died last week in Nashville at age 75 after a long illness.
“Douglas Flint Dillard -- my mentor. He is the person who showed me that music was exciting and fun to play onstage for people; the one who was 'impickable' with the execution of his art. Douglas Flint Dillard, whose grin would hit the back of the wall from any stage he was on, has passed away.
“There were many times, after I became a 'hanger on' at 17 years old, that the Dillards allowed me to hang out in their dressing room as they tuned up to go on for yet another sold-out L.A. club show. I would sit there, pretending to read a book, but listen as intently as a hawk watches, trying to pick up new nuances of notes. Often, on the way to the stage, Douglas would turn to me and play an incredible previously unheard lick to impress me, and I would ask where it came from. He'd mention another player he was emulating at that moment, and tell me to check them out, which I did. Then, he’d turn back around, walk onstage and play his own style that kept me mesmerized.
“I went to see them so often, sometimes two to three times a week when they did the L.A. club circuit (usually a week at each place, and there were eight of them), that my mother told me after that first year or two that I should change my last name to Dillard. The fire to be a musical performer had been ignited. As you can imagine, changing my college major from math to banjo was an easy decision that came along with that.
“The Dillards’ albums took me out of Orange County on roads that led to starting a band. Their appearances on 'The Andy Griffith Show' (Mayberry) as the Darling Family were anxiously awaited by all, and Douglas’ session playing on many soundtracks and hits brought the banjo to even more people. Later, he ventured into country-rock, which helped set the tone for that emerging form of SoCal music that I was a part of. The many accolades that Douglas received were always high praise, especially for his friendly, human qualities.
“One night at an after show picking party at a club owner's house, Doug broke a string on his banjo. I always brought mine along, but never played in front of him. I spent many hours studying his attack, strings, setup of his instrument, method of playing, stance and tone, all in vain to try to make mine sound like his. My banjo just did not sound like his. I offered him the use of mine while I changed the string. He started playing it, and it sounded just like his. That is when I learned that, 'it's the archer, not the bow.'
“I am grateful to have been able to call Dillard a friend. There would not have been a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with me in it if it had not been for Doug. Consequently, there would not have been a ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ album if not for him. Thank you, Douglas, for what you did for me.”
Any musician who has his first guitar bestowed on him by no less than Ry Cooder has to have some serious musical karma going for him. And it certainly can’t hurt when you learn your craft with the help of a player on a par with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ former guitarist John Frusciante, who for a time took on budding singer and songwriter Robert Francis as his only student.
These distinctions give a sense of the forces that have helped shape Francis' approach to music along the way to making his new album, “Strangers in the First Place,” which Vanguard Records is releasing Tuesday.
His skill as a guitarist is in ample evidence on the collection, even though his intensely melodic pop-folk-rock songs often more strongly reflect other influences from U2, Coldplay and Snow Patrol. Even the ghost of the godfather of rock poets, Leonard Cohen, turns up in Francis' atmospheric, meditative song “Alibi.”
Cooder lends a hand on a couple of tracks, as does his son, percussionist Joachim Cooder, along with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, Francis' sisters Carla and Juliette Commagere and drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner.
Pop & Hiss is premiering the video for “Perfectly Yours,” a pulsing, gently soaring, pure-pop love song that has sonic traces of Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting scores composed at the behest of David Lynch.
To get things rolling for the new album, Francis will play a record release party on Wednesday for a hometown crowd with a gig at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. He's also landed a slot at this year's Bonnaroo Music 7 Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., running June 7-10.
In advance of his performance of “The Wall” on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, British rocker Roger Waters stopped in on veteran rock deejay Jim Ladd’s nightly show on Sirius XM on Thursday to announce the launch of a Pink Floyd channel. The new channel is slated to launch May 29 on the satellite network.
The channel will carry Pink Floyd concerts, interviews, rarities and will air the group’s full recorded catalog.
"I can't think of a better home for the Pink Floyd catalogue, and all the solo stuff, than SiriusXM,” Waters said in a statement. "How cool for all our fans and what a great way to introduce the work to new generations of listeners."
The channel will run May 25-28 on Sirius XM channel 27, and return June 29 to July 8 on Sirius Channel 142 and XM channel 43. It will be available online full-time on channel 802 and for an extended period for smartphones and mobile devices on the Sirius XM Internet Radio App.
Ladd is a longtime advocate of Pink Floyd and was recruited by Waters as the narrator for his 1987 concept album “Radio K.A.O.S.”
A full interview with Waters about his return to Los Angeles with “The Wall” will appear in Saturday’s Calendar.