Category Archives: Music

Review: Good Times!

As I write this, I’m listening to the Monkees’ new album. Do you believe that? After 50 years, the Monkees are still relevant (as of today, the album is #1 on Amazon). Stream-of-consciousness reactions:

  1. Good Times! The subject is typically Monkees: Music everywhere, dancing in the streets, etc. Vocally, there’s a lot of trying really hard — especially from the surprising inclusion of Harry Nilsson’s original vocal track from 1968. Micky adds good harmony, but it sounds dated (because it is). Just not sure how the decidedly 1960s lyric There’s a good time comin’ on; I can feel it in my bones resonates with today’s listeners — even old ones like me. Minimal groove. Meh. I do get why Micky wanted to keep Nilsson’s voice on the track, though; they were close friends for many years.
  2. You Bring the Summer. Total 90s feelgood jangly happiness. It’s probably partially due to studio sweetening, but Micky sounds very much like he did 50 years ago. Can I just say how much I hate this? I know, sour grapes so get over it. The tune ends with a repeated, hooky riff with what sounds like backmasked guitar. Why I immediately thought of the Partridge Family, I don’t know. Listen to it and see if you know what I mean.
  3. She Makes Me Laugh. I like the hook on the chorus. More 90s feel (the track was written by the guy from Weezer, after all, and Andy Partridge wrote track 2). It still blows me away that Micky is popping off high G-sharps full voice at 71 years old.
  4. Our Own World. Easy shuffle on the opening, strangely reminiscent of the themes from Welcome Back, Kotter and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Short, cute, well done. That Micky tho…
  5. Gotta Give it Time. The first dog. Goes nowhere, but again, Micky’s vocals save it from crashing, giving a definite nod to “Words” and “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone.” You know, the barky-shouty. Harmonically drab “bridge” tune to get us to the second half.
  6. Me & Magdalena. Oh, my. Now you’re talking. Vintage, priceless Nesmith and his countrified lilt, with beautiful consonant harmonies. My sis Mavis will love this one. …And everything lost will be recovered, when we drift into the arms of the undiscovered. A total treat.
  7. Whatever’s Right. It wouldn’t be a Monkees album without Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart (Monkees theme, Last Train to Clarksville, She, Steppin’ Stone). Predictable but zippy, this one, written many years ago and unearthed by Hart for this album, brings back some of the original flavor of their biggest hits.
  8. Love to Love. Minor key intro in basic heavy 4, complete with “I’m a Believer”-style Vox organ…pretty predictable, until you’re stopped dead by the voice of Davy Jones. Written by Neil Diamond and recorded in 1967, it got caught up in the middle of the Monkees’ break with Don Kirschner, when the boys insisted on being allowed to write and record their own music and play their own instruments. I’m glad they found the song and retained Davy’s original vocal track.
  9. Little Girl. OK, so let’s get this out of the way. I have never really loved Peter Tork. It’s not his voice, either; it’s him. He’s just too…I dunno…odd. And not odd in the hippy sort of “I’m my own man, man” way, but odd in the “gee, that’s not really funny” way. His band, the groaningly punny-named Shoe Suede Blues (eye roll), has been working for many years, so he’s no stranger to the studio or making full time music, but his voice — usually very lyrical — just sounds like an accountant on karaoke night. And the strangeness of the minor-key waltz with its many modal shifts and unpredictable chord progressions (come on, Pete, you have to give us something), not to mention bizarre off-accents on syllables…it’s just a jangled mess that sounds like it was written in 1967 after an all-nighter of ganja and sangria and esoterica. Which it probably was.
  10. Birth of an Accidental Hipster. I suppose they had to have a Sergeant Pepper-like anthem, with changing tempos and tonal centers, and the obligatory riff outro with no vocals. Still, Mike and Micky take really good turns at singing lead. They truly have lost very little, and I hope it’s real, because if they tour…
  11. Wasn’t Born to Follow. A winner. Totally love the groove. A remake of the Byrds hit from ’68, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the song here makes a total departure from the original 2-beat feel, going instead for a heavy acoustic 4 that instantly locks in. It’s the kind of song I want to get my guitar and play along with. Pete completely redeems himself on this one.
  12. I Know What I Know. Pretty much aimless in its harmonic progression (yes, diminished chords are spooky cool, but seriously, let’s move on) yet still pleasant, the piano-and-strings-only love ballad written and sung by Mike hits its mark simply: He basically says “I love you” a dozen different ways over the span of three and a half minutes. I can’t decide if the four straight measures of nothing but repeated major thirds at the beginning and the end are relaxing or infuriating. Still, the fact that a 73-year-old man pulls off a pretty challenging melody with minimal strain is very impressive, and I like so much of his other stuff — Nez gets a free pass on this one.
  13. I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time). The title was familiar to me instantly, because in his memoir, Micky mentions something to this effect. Silly and fun and clanky, it features some of the funny studio chatter that often made it onto later Beatles albums.

I deliberately did not read any other reviews of this record until I’d done mine. Surprising how my critique differs so completely from others’. I guess that’s why I teach music instead of criticism. However, I’m willing to wager that many of today’s music critics weren’t even born yet when my sister and I and our friends were listening to Monkees music and watching their TV show religiously every Monday night. I was young, but I had an undeniable connection with them in their famous years. I bought the 45s, and I knew all the words to their songs. As a 4th grader. So there.

My overall impression is that this project was just plain fun for the three surviving Monkees, now all in their 70s; kind of a final bow before they hang it up for good. The voices are still wonderful to listen to, although the songs definitely reflect their individual writers’ famous styles. I like that, actually. It wasn’t formulaic or uninteresting, and besides, you don’t have to love every tune to love the album as a whole. And I do.

Favorites: #1, Me & Magdalena. #2, Wasn’t Born to Follow.

If they asked me, I could write a book*

Maybe not a book, but I could definitely write a paper, or an article, or a pop music history lesson plan about it. Ready? Here it is:

Ringo Starr did not play on the recording of the song “Please Please Me,” from the album of the same name, released by Parlophone in 1963. Apparently, upon hearing it while previewing material to include on Anthology I in the early 1990s, George and Paul immediately remarked, “That’s not Ringo.” Much controversy surrounded (and still surrounds) this issue, and I’ve read conflicting-yet-convincing arguments on both sides.

Still with me? :-) Read on.

The late Andy White filled in as one of the many drummers the Beatles used in revolving-door succession before finally settling on Richard Starkey. I’ve often wondered how people like White, Colin Hanton, Norman Chapman, Cliff Roberts and other drummers felt about *almost* reaching fame of positively cosmic proportions, but for one reason or another, fell along the wayside. (In the very early days, some drummers chose not to continue on with the ragtag band of obnoxious, demanding and sometimes unkind partyboys; in other cases, jazz-oriented players simply dismissed their music as silly, took the few quid for playing the gig, and went on their way.) A couple of years later, to some, I’m sure it felt like they gave away the winning lottery ticket. I think no one felt this enormous sense of missed opportunity — and, according to his own account, betrayal — as vividly and painfully as Pete Best. Alas, a story for another day; so many layers. If they asked me, I could write a book, but, you know…that’s been covered.

Anyway, there are several theories about why Andy White was credited on the single release of “Love Me Do/P.S. I Love You” (it should be noted that Ringo, as the band’s newcomer, played auxiliary percussion on those two songs), but was not listed as drummer on the LP Please Please Me’s title track. One popular position is that producer George Martin didn’t like Ringo’s interpretation or groove in rehearsal, or didn’t trust him fully yet, and made an executive decision to use White’s version instead. Moreover, listing Ringo’s name on the back cover of the album as the only drummer would have been important to the band’s united identity in the marketplace: Four Lads From Liverpool is much easier to package and hawk than Four Lads From Liverpool Plus One Scottish Guy Filling In On Three Tracks While Ringo Plays Maracas And Tambourine Because God Knows Why.

Thing is…the White version contained some not-so-perfect vocals, which might explain:

1) John’s screwing up of the lyrics on the last verse (starting at :08) and singing the next “Come on” in a half laugh, and

2) the extraneous, spacey sounds and slightly behind-the-beat harmonica riff (starting at :26), presumably in an attempt to incorporate other takes, piecemeal. The result: “shadow” sounds and marginal misalignment caused by layering mono mixes over top of stereo. I’ve made a clip to highlight it (you’ll need to have Flash enabled to listen to it):

Last 42 seconds of “Please Please Me”

I tend to side with this particular story, as White himself recognized his own drum sound and style on the final product — and seriously, what drummer couldn’t recognize his own playing? Or singer his own singing? I can also find no documented interview wherein Ringo confirms or denies White’s involvement on the final issued LP. My guess is the people who were there can’t really remember clearly, combined with the fact that there has always been considerable confusion surrounding session time sheets for that week in ’62. Bottom line: Stuff gets misplaced or destroyed, and when you’re depending on folks’ individual recollections of repeated, nearly identical sessions, memories can be sketchy at best some 40+ years on.

“Please Please Me” began its life at Paul’s house on Forthlin Road as a bit of an ode to Roy Orbison: slow, jangly and a bit on the schmaltzy side, almost channeling Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.” (Any recordings of that version have been lost to history, but this guy does a pretty decent cover of what it might have sounded like.) George Martin thought it completely boring, and sped up the tempo to give it some energy. Sometimes, it pays to listen to your producer — even one who had never produced a single rock group in his entire career before taking on the Beatles.

Have we had enough of reading about “Please Please Me” yet? Yeah, I thought so. ;-) But hey — it’s the weekend for all you private sector types, so have a groovy Saturday. I’m off to write arrangements & such.


*One of my all-time favorite standards, by the way.


Since buying the tickets six weeks ago, I had been anticipating the Postmodern Jukebox concert last night with great enthusiasm.

For those who don’t know, PMJ is the country’s — maybe even the world’s — hottest cover band. They don’t do original songs; rather, leader Scott Bradlee arranges existing material into many different genres (Dixieland, 1930s swing, country, jazz, Klezmer…you name it). The fun part is that he uses a bunch of different performers, mixing and matching them for each video he produces. Obviously, the big payoff is coming to them via touring. To my knowledge, they don’t have a record contract (yet), but if I was Bradlee, I’d run away from those guys like my hair was on fire.

View of Quicken Loans Arena from 4th St.

View of Quicken Loans Arena from 4th St.

Anyway, we queued up last night on Cleveland’s beautiful 4th St. sidewalk, outside the House of Blues at a little before 7 p.m. (our tickets listed the start time as 7). Then the guy with the booze bracelets came down the line, carding people who wanted to drink inside. *forehead smack* Of course the show started at 8:00, not 7:00. Why? Because we have to sell an hour’s worth of hooch to grease up the crowd.

We looked at each other for a few seconds, and said, “Let’s go to the casino until 8:00.” [Good idea, too, because 15 minutes into playing, we hit quad aces with a kicker. Another home improvement project funded, yay.]

When we returned to the venue a little after 8, the show had just started. This incredibly zoomed, grainy photo of the incomparable Von Smith was just about all I was able to get — and this picture was taken with my arms stretched as far as they would go above my head. Now you know my visual vantage point for the evening.

I know. It was House of Blues — an SRO venue — what did you expect? I guess I expected to maybe, possibly be able to see, or that the stage might have been just a skosh higher up. I momentarily considered entering the fray of pressed-together bodies on the main floor, but it was fully 100 degrees F in the space in front of the bar where we were standing; I could only imagine how yummy-steamy-sweaty wonderful it was in the pit. Next time: balcony. What was I thinking? It would have been so worth the extra money, although the energy in the place was so crazy, the balcony seats may have been a wasted expense, because everyone up there was likely on their feet, too.

At any rate, Scott Bradlee’s band was out of this world, and the singers and tap dancer were fantastic. Despite the sometimes-shoddy sound mix (some singers were heard very well, while the sound guys couldn’t quite solve the haunting fragility of Haley Reinhart’s voice on Radiohead’s Creep), it was a fun night of great music. Definitely the quintessential “club gig.” I’d go see them again.

But Mama will sit down. :-)

Stop the press.

“Words I Love” will have to wait for another day.


Alas, no. I need to address the video that’s gone crazy around the world. You know, the one that features a studio track of Britney Spears, singing without any enhancers such as Auto-Tune (software that, among other effects, corrects out-of-tune singing). First, listen to the recording.

Yikes. A bit painful in spots, but A-T can fix it, right? No big deal, so please, leave Britney alone. According to William Orbit, a producer who works with the singer:


I’d like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalizations in order to get warmed up. Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warm-ups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners. A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take.’

Whomever put this on the Internet must have done so in a spirit of unkindness, but it can in no way detract from the fact that Britney is and always will be beyond stellar! She is magnificent! And that’s that.


Central to this sycophantic treatise is the kill-an-ant-with-a-Howitzer effort to defend her by inserting meaningless frabba-jabba about engineers getting “their systems warmed up” (whaa?), and basically stating with a straight face that it’s pretty much standard for professional singers to sing dreadfully — and repeatedly — out of tune during warm-ups. Dude really wants to take a bullet for this girl, Lawd. Strikes me as somewhat desperate.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my take. I’ve read lots of pro-Britney comments on several websites. I’ll paraphrase some here, followed by my response.

  1. It’s no different than Photoshop for photography. It’s designed to improve a performance; there’s nothing wrong with that. Well now, that’s a matter of how you define “wrong,” isn’t it? In my mind, there is plenty wrong with floating your image as a singer, and not being able to deliver the goods. To me, that’s lying to your fan base. It’s duplicitous and smug. Isn’t there an emerging movement to pressure magazines to take the Photoshop fakery and dishonesty out of photography? If you’re gung-ho about leaving one’s natural beauty to shine through, but all wiggle-neck and wave-finger about defending Britney’s artificial sweeteners, well…that makes you a hypocrite.
  2. She’s never claimed to be a great singer; she’s just a great performer. And that’s just a great huge subjective generalization. I guess it depends on what you want for your $170 concert ticket. Me? If I’m going to hear someone who has a song in the charts (and is therefore classified as a “singer”), my expectations are that the singing will be outstanding. I don’t want to hear the singing get short-shrifted because the singer is completely winded from all the ubiquitous dancing (as if concertgoers can no longer be entertained by a singer at a mic; they must have shiny, fast-moving, TV-like things to look at onstage and on mile-high projection screens, or else they’re bored). I don’t want to hear pitch doctors at work, tip-toeing through a minefield of possible clinkers, or worse — watch a lip-synced performance. Where’s the authenticity in that?  I watched Britney dummy along to her songs last night. It was clutch. Only in America, folks. Only in America.
  3. Everyone uses Auto-Tune nowadays. This statement is tragic in more ways than one.  A. I’ve read several comments from studio engineers who dismissively claim that A-T is “no big deal” — that it’s a long-established industry standard for correcting “small imperfections” in singers’ intonation. Long-established, eh? Auto-Tune was rolled out by Antares Audio Technologies way back in 1997. By my calculation, it’s been an “industry standard” for about 17 years, in an industry that began in 1889. What on earth were bad singers supposed to do before 1997? Fix the mistakesthat’s what, although some major misjudgments did slip through the cracks from time to time. As much as I loved The Association, they by-crackie screwed the pooch on Cherish and Never My Love. I can barely stand to listen to them, which is a shame because I like the songs a lot. The Mamas & Papas committed the same crime in Monday, Monday. While it’s not a singing gaffe, I can’t listen to Wings’s Band on the Run, because McCartney’s bass is so out of tune, it ruins the whole thing. And have you suffered through Club Nouveau’s 1986 Lean on Me bridge recently? Oh, you must. I’ll wait here. The point is, where were these hotshot producers then? Who let this stuff slide, and why? I’d love to know. B. Not “everyone” uses Auto-Tune. What bothers me most, I think, is that such a large portion of the music-listening public thinks it’s totally acceptable to lay down garbage on tape and let producers fix it. You know, in the “old days,” there was a method for fixing out-of-tune singing in the studio. It was called “punching in/out,” whereby the offending phrase was recorded over by the singer. The artist — the person with the ears and the voice — did the fixing. I’ve done it myself in my own recording sessions, many times. What happened to that practice, and why is it OK in today’s recording culture for singers to walk into a booth, take a musical crap, and leave it for others to clean up later? The reasons are multi-layered and outside the scope of music, so I’ll leave it there for today.

Of course, the cure is to not listen to artists who bother you, or who thwack your intonation sensibilities. Better still, do listen to three singers who never had the Auto-Tune option, yet rarely ever recorded a single note that didn’t ring true: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and John Lennon. In the studio or live onstage — it made no difference. They were as near perfect as anyone could be. And no one “cleaned up” after them.

As for Britney:  she’ll get through this without a scrape. Naughty bits of this girl have been exposed in the media before, and it’ll likely happen again. I think she’s not devoid of singing talent, by the way. I think she sings music in keys that are way too low for her, and as any singer will tell you, doing so is decidedly unhelpful in the intonation department. She is also Queen of the Vocal Fry, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t want to cold-cock her for it. STOP *sLAp* singing like an idiot! But to paraphrase Boston, there’s just something about her that continues to boost her record sales. We won’t go into that today, either. :-D

Hey, it’s almost Finkday! What does it MEAN?? I don’t know!! I’m on vacation!

Ashokan Farewell

I can’t tell you how this beautiful song haunts me.

Recently, the Thriller and I reached the end of Ken Burns’s epic docu-series The Civil Warwhich I’d seen 20-some years ago, but wanted to revisit. It was at the same time awesomely inspiring and crushingly sad. Americans inflicting such hideous, wholesale war violence on other Americans is, to us today, almost inconceivable. And yet, because it happened, we have been for the last 150 years spared a repeat performance. At no time in our relatively short history have we come so close to complete anarchy: something Abraham Lincoln feared most as he took office in 1860, facing the real threat of secession by southern states.

But back to the music. This beautiful tune threaded its way through all nine episodes, and became an expected, familiar backdrop to the many heartbreaking scenes of the war, depicted in countless photographs and actor-voiced testimonies from soldiers, politicians, family members and generals. A listener’s first impression would definitely be This is a tune from the Civil War era, but he would be mistaken.  Ken Burns approached Jay Ungar, renowned fiddle player and performer of traditional American music, who’d written “Ashokan Farewell” in 1982, asking the musician if he could use it as a theme for the documentary, as the song had touched him deeply. Not only did Ungar give his permission, but he and his band played all the music heard in the nine-part series. “Ashokan” was the only piece in the film not from the 19th century.

If you close your eyes and listen, where does this song take you? Perhaps you’ve heard school choirs sing it over the years, as it’s been a popular “folk song” choice for many directors, with its simple melody and beautiful phrasing. Maybe you’ll immediately feel the sense of wistful longing — what I like to call a “pulling” sensation on the soul — in the song’s haunting simplicity. Regardless, I think you will find it a thing of beauty:  something we need more of in this world.

This is how the film begins. I highly recommend you experience it in its entirety one day.