Monday, June 29, 2009

Wow -- Some Sort of Translation

I found this in a feed I get. I have no idea, but it is clearly some sort of aggregate translator of blog content. The wording is hilarious and I am thinking of replacing everything I wrote with it. This is a translation of my most recent post.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cover of the Week 34

I almost thought I would not be able to get to this week's cover. Two Buffalo Tom shows, a rehearsal, and a night in the studio earlier in the week, a crazy day job week and, last time I checked, a family to spend a few minutes with. Thanks to all who came to cheer us on through our shows this weekend. We had a great time. My ears are shot, so I have no idea if this week's recording sounds any good.

An inordinate amount of space here has been devoted to moving to Boston, an event that happened 27 years ago. A psychologist could have a field day with this, I suppose.

Nevertheless, one of the defining events of my life was heading into Boston University's Walter Brown hockey arena in 1982 or '83, clad in a home-made English Beat t-shirt that one of my new friends had made for the group of us going to the show. The Beat were at the height of their powers, having just released Special Beat Service, headlining hockey arenas when they weren't on such double bills as the one they played with Squeeze in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island that same year, after I had left for Massachusetts.

We were all pumped up and excited to see the Beat. On my way into the seats, I passed by a few guys that were in a band in a neighboring town I auditioned for who played everything I liked from John Mayall and all that classic Brit blues stuff to this ska that was making a resurgence. I guess I wasn't good enough because they never called me back. It was merely an awkward speed bump.

We took our seats ready to get through the opening band on our way to skanking heaven. But before the uptempo and highly energetic Beat came on, there was this shadowy, murky, enigmatic jangly neo-Byrds-like band that took the stage and held me captivated for the whole set. It was like some new interpretation of jangle-pop, '60s garage pop, less angular Television/Talking Heads-meets-Paper Sun-era-psychedelic-Traffic. They reminded me of all these Left Banke and other 1960s melancholy 45s I had as a kid. But there was something fresh about these guys. The enigmatic lead singer in his baggy flannel shirt rarely moved from his haphazard leaning embrace of the mic stand and said nothing between songs. The guitarist slashed away at his black-and-white Rickenbacker, matching his ensemble of long-sleeved white shirt and black vest. The bass player sang all these interesting counter melodies to the lead singer's main parts, which were rarely discernible lyrically. When words popped out, they were evocative but meaning was elusive.

I was taken away, mesmerized. Here I was ready to party and dance to the pastel-colored ska-pop/blue-eyed soul of the Beat and I was broadsided by the profoundly affecting and recondite opening band, REM. I knew nothing about them. The night went on and I really did have a great time with the Beat, who were just amazing. But through all that good-time party music, I could not shake that sublime opening music and went right out to Newbury Comics to buy Murmur and Chronic Town (I believe they were both available by that time). I felt like I had discovered a new band that very few people knew about.

For the next six years I bought every REM record and went to every show of theirs that I could make. They were one of the main cornerstones of my musical development and ushered me into a whole new realm of new music, going on to discover their influences and peers like Mission of Burma and the Neats (both from Boston), Miracle Legion, Dream Syndicate, Wiretrain, etc. I grew out my hair into my face (long front, short sides and back) and started to write my own songs filled with inscrutable lyrics and vague lilting melodies, trying to find others to convert to the cause of this new "Paisley Underground." I sold my Peavey tube amp and bought an ultra-clean Roland JC-120 jangle amp. Thank God that only lasted a couple of years.

REM was one of the bonding forces between my new buddy, Chris Colbourn and me. We enjoyed and shared a deep mutual love of everything from the Stones to these new acts like REM, X, Gun Club, and Echo and the Bunnymen. We went to see a bunch of these shows together before Buff Tom even formed.

Needless to say, when Buffalo Tom finally did form and head out on the road in 1988 or so, that date marked "Athens, GA" was one of our red letter days on the first (second?) U.S. tour itinerary. We had seen the documentary Athens, GA Inside Out, which spotlighted the college town's post-punk musical acts. We played the legendary 40 Watt Club. We knew darn well that Peter Buck's wife owned part (or all) of the club. We had a great show. She invited us back to stay at their house. I am still jittery writing this now. We were greeted at the house by none other that Mr. Buck himself, in a bathrobe. He played us selections from his amazing record collection all night. I don't even have to tell you how we felt; you know how we felt; all I have to do is relate the events. The record Out of Time had just been recorded but not yet released. Peter played us tracks from it. Her showed us a picture he had taken with Al and Tipper. He said he had been all ramped up to let Tipper have a piece of his mind regarding her then-recent PMRC efforts. But he had been knocked out by the flu and she was so nice so all he could manage was a sort of weak, "I think what you are doing is wrong."

Peter and his wife were extremely gracious to us, and from what I gather, to many other bands who came through town -- one of the good guys of rock. I have met him a few other times over the years but have not met the other guys.

I have read that Buck is not a fan of this week's choice for a cover, so perhaps I should have chosen better. But Fables of the Reconstruction is just one of those records for me> I remember seeing the bans on this tour out at the Worcester Centrum and them opening with "Feeling Gravity's Pull." It was highly dramatic. "Wendell Gee" is a song that has a beautiful melody and haunting, mythical lyric that compelled me to play it repeatedly.

Wendell Gee mp3

Monday, June 22, 2009

FAQ on the Cover of the Week project

Hi all -- I have been getting requests to detail the recording set up I use. If there are any other questions you want answered regarding the blog, let me know under comments and I will try to answer. By the way, I have been recording the most recent Buffalo Tom guitar and vocal overdubs at home with this gear. Thanks.

Recording gear:

Software: Pro Tools LE 7.3 for Mac
Input: Original 2-input MBox

I am hoping to upgrade the software to PT8 and maybe the input hardware as well - soon. I will have to update Mac to Leopard and PT 8 all at once. I don't think I have it in me right now and am wary of disrupting BT overdubs. Knowing how things go for me in this department, I will be on support phone calls for 3 days.

Until the cover of "Brown-Eyed Women," I was using an Audio Technica 33-R small diaphragm condenser microphone, which I have used on acoustics, electrics, and vocals since the mid-1990s recording on my ADAT. I believe this mic cost me around $110. Recently, BT purchased a boutique version of the classic Neumann U47 large diaphragm tube mic. This one is made by Peluso and is the 22 47. I have used this on acoustics and vocals starting on "Brown-Eyed Women." I think it sounds great. I don't have a fine enough ear to comment with authority, but I am amzed that the 33-R captures as much as it does and can even compare to this Peluso, which is a thing of beauty. More here on the Peluso on NPR.

When recording acoustics and vocals with either microphone, I run the signal through a little Bellari tube pre-amp to warm it up.

My acoustic is the one I have used exclusively for years, a jumbo body Guild JF-30

For electrics, mostly my Marshall JCM 800 100 watt, used for 20 years, or a little Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amp. Gibson SG from late 1960s; Fender Tele Deluxe from '70s; Hohner Les Paul from 1970s, before they were sued by Gibson; etc.

For monitors, I thank my buddy Matt for lending me his pair of powered Event Project Studio 6.

Someone asked about my pedals. They are constantly changing. Right now and for most of the past 15 years, I use couple of Klon Centaur distortion pedals.

I use Boss and/or Line 6 modulation (tremolo; phase shifter; Leslie) pedals, in addition to owning vintage and reissue Electro Harmonix pedals.

I also use A/B switches to switch a second amp on and off when playing live.

That's pretty much it. The Bomb Shelter "studio" is an office of about 15 X 10 feet and the actual bomb shelter is a slightly smaller space that is mainly used for storage -- all concrete and I use to record at night as an isolation booth to not disturb the family.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cover of the Week 33

The Bomb Shelter Recording Studio

I got in last night at around 11 after being at Fenway for a rather miserable loss, though a lovely night at the ballpark with another old friend of mine. We parted ways after the ninth and I made my way back to my car to find my second parking ticket in a row from the Brookline heat. I guess that means my secret parking spot has been discovered and is now getting the clampdown from The Man. Police on my back.

Another thing you will now learn about William Anthony Janovitz from this chronicle is that I get way too uptight driving in Boston. It is the most acute challenge to my inner Zen. It is a true test. For example, in further testimony that I have become that middle-age guy who has just had enough, yesterday afternoon (before the game), I invited an altercation when I should be doing everything in my power to avoid such situations. Some freak was leaning on the horn of his BMW as soon as I stopped in a parking lot -- in a parking lot -- to let out my work partner. There was just a was a single lane. But when I had initially looked into my rear view, there was no car. I stopped and John was opening the passenger door. The guy must have still been rolling up behind me when he started in on the horn.

John closed the door and I gave the guy one of those palm-up "what? Come on!) hand gestures out of the window, but then I immediately started to roll. However, people were crossing in front of me so I stopped. Well, of course the ass really leans into the horn. So now I stop, letting anyone within 20 feet of me pass in front. I'm waving everyone by, infuriating BMW Boy. He's beeping like a mad man. So I casually open my door, step out, and just look at his pathetic twisted face, my head tilted as if to say, "come on little boy, really. What's wrong with you?" He is having a conniption. People around here are way too tense. So I shout at him, "there are people passing. Relax!" He yells something in some sort of eastern European accent, "You go! You GO!!"

"Fuck offffffff" I say and start to get back into the car. But now I see a cop, on foot, watching this whole thing. I give him the "can you believe this guy?' hand gesture, but I get into the car and pull into the parking spot that, there is no doubt in my mind, BMW Boy wanted, hopeful that it would really send him over the edge. He finally rolls past me, ready to kill anyone in his way. I look to the cop and say, "guy's a real hothead."

The cop replies, "was there contact?"

"No, nothing like that..."

"No harm, no foul," was the officer's judgment. I was not looking for him to arrest the guy or anything. It was just one guy to another, like, "can you believe these assholes out here?" Actually, I was hoping he would draw his gun, tear the guy out of the Beamer, and shove him face down into the pavement like they do in Los Angeles, copters buzzing overhead.

So here I am again, offering another startling confession from a guy reaching "cranky old man" stage. And getting another ticket and then driving through Allston and Brighton on the way home (forget trying to cross over to the B.U. Bridge. Those of you in Boston know what I am saying) on a Friday night with all the drunks out, another guy on his horn as soon as every light turned green, only reignited my stress.

So sitting at home around 11:30, I was in no mood to start thinking about going to read myself to sleep. Once I am out, have a couple of drinks, drive through Boston traffic, I am usually a bit too wound up. So I went into what should now be called "Bomb Shelter Studio" and rattled off this week's cover. We bought a 1942 house a few years ago. It has a breezeway/sunroom connector between the house and the garage. One of my fellow agents here in town who had the listing told me he had been told that it was built to double as a bomb shelter. The foundation underneath it is thick concrete supported by steel beams. It is connected, however, by just a heavy wooden door to the rest of our basement, which makes my skeptical about its potential to save anyone from bombs, but in 1941/42, they were not yet thinking about nuclear, so who knows. The reason to believe it is that we are close to Hanscom Air Force Base.

But it is a great place to store gear (heavily secured and alarmed) and record late at night because it is so separate from the rest of the house. It is all concrete. There are no adjoining wood structures that will vibrate and wake up the sleeping family, unlike my office, where I can't so much as lightly strum an unamplified electric guitar with my thumb without getting someone coming down the stairs and giving me the evil eye.

I can go in there and pretty much scream my head off. But the late night session last night was appropriate to take on this week's cover, "Comfort Me," an old Stax Records single from Carla Thomas, written by Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, and Al Bell. When Carla was recording it in 1965, Gladys Knight and the Pips were in town for a concert. She invited them back to the studio, and they supplied lush, beautiful backing vocals, which I have tried to mimic here a little. I am neither an Knight nor a Pip, however. If you don't already own the Stax Singles box set, this Carla track is further reason for you to buy it. It is a typical Stax number in some ways, but it is atypically mature subject matter for Carla at this point in her career. And the backing vocals lend a sophisticated smoothness that came more from Northern soul than the gritty Southern style that Stax so clearly defined. But the combination of the two components is magic.

And the subject matter resonates with me lately, having just started John Updike's Rabbit Run, where the title character has just spent the night with a prostitute and is deluding himself into thinking there is "love" there. I could see him having such a sentiment as this lyric in his head. There is a desperate late-night yearning to this song.

Comfort Me mp3

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cover of the Week 32

Bell Bottom Blues has remained one of my favorite songs since childhood. I remember a friend's father had an electric guitar well before I even started playing. I'm talking around the age of 8, just marveling at this thing. His father could play, sort of, "Layla" along with the sheet music, as if one could actually play guitar along to "Layla" by following the sheet music. I have a permanent image of the music right there on a music stand in the living room of this multi/split-level house.

For me, the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (a bitterly sarcastic title) LP is Eric Clapton's peak, the descent after which was precipitous, no gradual decline. His raw energy is evident from the time he burst onto the British 1960s blues scene, playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, into the Yardbirds, the Cream, Blind Faith and then Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. But, perhaps completely inspired by the personal turmoil in his life, he hits with this one-off band, the Dominos, with a bunch of American cats left over from D&B (Bobby Whitlock et. al.), adds one of the greatest guitarists in rock & roll, Duane Allman, as a foil/partner, has the whole thing recorded by the legendary Tom Dowd in Miami and -- most importantly -- sings his ass off as if this is his last record ever.

I have never heard Clapton sing this well before or since. Almost immediately after this record, he seems to have had some sort of numbing electroshock or partial lobotomy a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and starts singing J.J. Cale and Bob Marley songs as if he were Perry Como fronting a bunch of the Williams Brothers in cardigan sweaters. This is the sort of passion fall-off that instigated punk rock. I mean, here is this guy who displays a steady climb of raw talent and blues soul, with this raw-nerve apotheosis of an album surveying a battlefield of romantic devastation.

Which brings me to the topic, best blue-eyed soul singers ever? We have this discussion in poker. It started after I defended Daryl Hall as a great soul singer. One of our more elderly players at the table derided "Sara Smile" as "fuckin' AM crap." I just thought the whole idea of insulting music as "too AM" was delightfully archaic, like trying to tell a kid he/she is a "broken record."

The category is blue-eyed (politically correct term to avoid just saying "white") "soul singers," as in, traditional soul, not just vaguely "soulful." For instance, Neil Young is extremely soulful, but he is certainly not a soul singer. Included on my list: Gregg Allman; Jagger; McCartney: Steve Marriott; Rod Stewart; Tom Jones; Van the Man; Richard Manuel; Levoln Helm; Eric Burden; Elvis Costello; Paul Carrack; Charlie Rich; John Fogerty; Bowie; maybe Peter Wolf?

My cover of Bell Bottom Blues

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cover of the Week 31

When I moved to Medfield, Massachusetts at the age of 16, it was the dead of summer, from my hometown, the town I grew up in, to a place where I knew no one and had little chance of meeting many people for the rest of the summer -- a little town in the woods of outskirts of suburban Boston. I was already bursting with music, hungry for it, for listening and discovering music and playing it. You’re sponge at that age. I was well-versed in classic rock and its antecedents, the British blues and the real old American blues. But I was also discovering punk, reggae, ska, new wave, no wave, art rock, and was open to almost anything. My main mission was to find a band I could join. Making friends would follow. But the only people I met were a couple of kids who lived in this soul-sapping subdivision we moved into, and while they were huge fans of rock and pop, new and old, they were not musicians.

The lifeline, as in so many rock lyrics, was the radio, specifically, the left-of-the-dial college and public radio in Boston. It really was like that Velvet Underground Lou Reed lyric, “…there was nothing happening at all/Then one fine day she turned on the radio, she couldn’t believe what she heard all all/She started dancing to that fine, fine music/You know her life was saved by rock & roll.”

To this day, Boston might be the capital of college radio, which is natural as it is a city with so many colleges that it is difficult to count. WMBR, the MIT station that was later an early-and-often Buffalo Tom supporter; WHRB, the Harvard Station; WERS, the Emerson station; WGBH, the NPR station – these all played the gamut of blues; jazz; punk; garage; reggae; ska; hardcore; classical. It was and is an embarrassment of riches. New York radio was just OK by comparison. I had learned a lot about country blues from the Stony Brook, Long Island station. And WNEW and WLIR were pioneering commercial FM stations. But there was not even close to the amount of fringe music being played on Boston stations. Even the commercial stations in Boston, WBCN, and later WFNX, were better, more daring and free form. Later, when the Replacements song “Left of the Dial” came out, I could not believe at how perfectly it captured this feeling of the importance of those stations to me and what a great metaphor it was for feeling simultaneously like an outsider, but one of a small group onto something special.

One night, one hot summer night, the windows open to the woods behind our house in my lonely new bedroom -- lacking all the history and emotional patina of my boyhood bedroom -- I have the radio dial set to the left there on my Technics receiver, and this howling, haunting sound comes out of my radio. It was this howling echo-y harmonica all wrapped around this cool, mellifluous, resonant baritone voice singing scary lyrics of imminent violence, though with a wry humor, set over this menacing Chicago swaggering Chess Record blues groove. But it was so "new" sounding. Somehow the sound just seemed to float out of those dark pine tree woods that stretched on for a few miles behind the house, coming down the airwaves from some dusty college radio control room in downtown Boston. I waited until the end of "I Think She Likes Me" to find out it was this band called Treat Her Right. The singer was Mark Sandman, who went on to play around Boston in a number of local bands before knocking out a bunch of music fans worldwide with his beloved band, Morphine.

Now, don’t go checking the release dates against my little myth here. I heard a lot of other stuff that caught my ears that first summer, everything from the long improvised piano workouts of jazz improviser and maestro, Keith Jarrett, to the Gun Club and all kinds of Boston-based music like Mission of Burma, the Neats, the Turbines, etc. I am pretty sure, however, that the Treat Her Right song came out later and I probably did hear it first up in that bedroom, albeit on a visit home from college. And I recall seeing Treat Her Right somewhere during college.

Well, later on, after Buffalo Tom got going, we finally had that chance to get into Fort Apache studio. The place was filled with vintage guitars, amps and all sorts of gear, not to mention kitschy tchotchkes, mid-century collectibles, records, and beer. The original Fort was a dusty old raw industrial warehouse in Roxbury, a rough area of Boston. Leaning on the mixing console during our earliest recording sessions, I looked down and saw this thing that looked like a cool old Fender or Marshall amp head. But the logo was a cool 1950s/’60s script font that read “Premier.” I asked the producer/engineer what it was. They told me it was a little spring reverb tank, a unit to run an instrument through. “It’s Jim’s, from Treat Her Right,” they told me. Whether or not I had it explicitly told to me, I decided that this reverb tank was very one I heard howling and echoing down the airwaves that hot summer night. And here I was in a recording studio with this thing that represented my lifeline for a moment in the summer of 1982.

When BT started to get more popular in Boston, I was asked by the defunct seminal local music publication, Boston Rock -- which I had picked up religiously every time I could get into record stores like Newbury Comics in Boston – to come in for a cover photo shoot with Mark Sandman. It was the first time we actually met, though we had mutual friends, mainly Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade at Fort Apache. He was one of the warmest guys I had ever met and way cooler than I could ever hope to be. I was driving back from a family vacation years later, when I turned on one of those local stations once we were back on 128 (“with the radio on”) heard that Mark had died. It was shocking. The guy that was the King of Central Square was gone.

Even later, in the last few years, I have had the great honor and privilege to sit it with the band Session Americana, often right next to the very man who played those wailing lamentations on his harp, the man I heard howling down the summer winds through those lonesome Medfield pines. Well, I got comfortable enough with the guys in Session Americana to suggest, the last time they invited me to sing with them at their recent record release party, that they finally succumb to playing a Grateful Dead cover. They told me this would be breaking a cardinal rule of Session, but relented and we ended up doing “Brown-Eyed Women.”

The need for “cardinal rules” is often that there is a temptation to do something other than the “rule” dictates. In the case of Session Americana, we have a group of guys getting a little longer in the tooth, who spent some times on the edgier side of new music at some points in their careers, but grew up and still very much enjoy old hippy rock & roll. They play rootsy, acoustic versions of obscure traditional songs, country, Gram Parsons, classic soul, and every once in a while, improbable roots versions of pop hits. With mandolin, steel string guitars, a stripped-down drum configuration, bass, pump organ, cello and other string instruments, with a blend of multiple-part harmonies, they play stuff that would not be out of place on the Grateful Dead’s Reckoning sets. I mean, dang, they even have earthy chicks dancing free-form as only hippy girls can do. So, I kind of see why they have this cardinal rule, but…come on! Embrace it, says I! And of course, we enjoyed (at least I did) playing “Brown-Eyed Women.”

This is a song I grew up with from the Europe ’72 double-live record of mostly unreleased then-new songs. This is one of those records I got in my prime record-buying/music discovery days. I understand why many people have an aversion to the Dead, what with all the noodling and self-indulgence and patchouli-soaked honkydom that was their audience (a watered-down and more collegiate version of which went on to follow – shivers – bands like Phish and Dave Matthews Band). And my biggest beef with the Dead was an essential part of their sound, i.e. that they rarely, if ever, nailed down the rhythm section in a satisfying way; the drums were more often than not floating in some idea of polyrhythmic roto-tom-ness while Phil Lesh was wandering around the bass neck like a lost child on acid. But when they kept it simple and based in the roots, as they did during their golden stretch from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty through Europe ’72, they were magic and, in many ways, a true distillation of what Graham Parsons conceived of when he coined he term “Cosmic American music” to describe a concept of most of the various American roots, pop, country, soul and jazz idioms coalescing into a brilliant single end product. Some of my favorite records, from adolescence through adulthood , have been those Dead albums. But another great one came later, the acoustic Reckoning record. And the band seems to be a weirdly guilty pleasure for others, like we have to explain why they were so great. But Elvis Costello has always been unabashed in professing his love of the band. Graham Parker (not Parsons) even covered Jerry Garcia’s “Sugaree” in recent years. And I certainly hear a lot of Dead in Wilco and, of course, Ryan (not Brian) Adams.

One of the main pleasures in listening to the band over these years is digging on the lyrics, filled with lyricist Robert Hunters broad knowledge of Americana, allusions to “that weird old America,” as Greil Marcus described the Basement Tapes from Dylan and the Band. In fact, it was that era and maybe even that very record that truly spurred a roots revival in American rock & roll that has never since been abandoned. The Band’s creative success seemed to influence bands like the Dead to leave behind many of their psychedelic inclinations, at least on records and concentrate on embracing and reinventing old folk, country, blues and other roots idioms into something new, and exploring the poetry of the American version of the English language with dense allusions to old events and characters, real and imagined. So in “Brown-Eyed Women” we have the tale of an old bootlegger spanning the decades before and after Prohibition and the Great Depression, but with a very elusive, evocative and personal approach.

Anyway, I just love the melody, the words, and it reminds me of my teenage years.

Brown-Eyed Women mp3