Saturday, December 15, 2007

Play That Folky Music

“Above this snowy grid, the land turns cracked and broken, so much like my resolve to keep you far from me/Like each river and each creek that snakes a path beneath, you are water in a rock determined to break free…”

So goes “Mind’s Eye,” an impressively haunting, poetic masterpiece by the guitar-and-mandolin-wielding duo Folk By Association—Karen and Jill to those of us who know them. These ladies have carved an underground niche for themselves in the Mid-Atlantic United States and beyond, doing it all through their own hard work and persistence, and with no record label or outside management. No image consultants, either: Karen and Jill are all about the music. With a basis in folk and an openness to elements of other genres, their sound truly is “Folk By Association,” and one listen to their current album As We Travel will prove that in spades. True, the deliberately-strummed mandolin and airy flutes of “Seconds Soaring” could have been borrowed from Ye Olde Renaissance Faire. But the playful “Letter To Myself” evokes images of a casual jam session at a jazz club, while “Mind’s Eye” keeps one foot dipped in indie folk-rock and the other in pure pop sensibility. “I’m Not Sorry” is prime Lilith Fair material—albeit nearly ten years too late!—tinged with alt-rock motifs and set apart by its sharp-tounged lyrics: “Now you’re on the phone/And suddenly I remember why I want to be alone […] I won’t say I’m sorry, I’m not sorry that you’re gone!” As is the case with their live performances, the duo’s harmonies on As We Travel are impeccable, two soaring voices sounding as if they were plucked from the highest mountain range. Though there is still room for growth and development, the best offerings on the album have an effect that is powerful yet understated, low-key and at the same time compelling. If Karen and Jill continue to build on their strengths and embrace a diverse array of influences, they will just get better and better as time marches on.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the ladies about their music and career. Upon careful consideration of their responses, I found them to be two intelligent, determined individuals whose story holds much insight and many lessons for everyone in (or interested in) the music industry. The highlights are published below:

SJ: Explain the name "Folk By Association."

Karen: We had been looking for a name for a little while, and I was discussing this problem with a friend of mine. I was thinking out loud about how I thought it was surprising that the style that seemed to manifest between Jill and me was much different than my solo work’s style. The phrase “folk by association” slipped out, and initially reflected the nature of our partnership. However, since our sound was definitely not strictly folk, we both felt that an added second bonus of the name was that it was a good catch-all. We are influenced by many different genres, but accept that most would likely refer to us as folk artists.

Jill: "Folk By Association" was supposed to be rather self-explanatory. It also has the added benefit that if someone searches "folk" on say, MySpace, our name comes up pretty close to the top of the list. Unplanned, but useful.

SJ: The songs are mostly written by Karen, while the vocal arrangements are mostly by Jill. Is this a deliberate division of labor or did it just come about naturally?

Karen: Well, Jill typically does the harmony-arrangement, meaning that I often will have a song basically finished and will bring it to the table to see what she can “hear” as her part. Every now and then I’ll have some concept or vague outline of what I might like her to do, but by and large she’ll listen to what I’ve composed and find the harmony that’s to her liking. This does seem to be the natural way of our collaboration, though we do write together on occasion.

Jill: Karen is a very prolific songwriter so from day one she brought a lot of material to the table, although I also write separately and we will sometimes write together. I ended up doing a lot of the vocal arrangements because it's really easy for me to hear harmonies. We don't really have set jobs. That's just how things usually go down.

SJ: How did the songs evolve from the acoustic duo arrangements to the full-band arrangements on As We Travel? Have you ever played live with a full band?

Karen: The arrangements were challenging. While some songs had a clearer picture of where they needed to go, others were really more like fumbling down a dark hallway. We put in a lot a time with our two percussionists before going into the studio to record, just trying things out and seeing what felt right.

We did two CD release parties with the line-up from the CD, but due to financial and logistical restrictions, we’re really only able to perform as a duo right now.

Jill: We had been playing most of the songs on As We Travel out for some time before they found their way into the studio, so it was logistically and artistically challenging to alter them while keeping their basic feel intact. “Mind's Eye” REALLY did not want to be put to a steady beat of any kind. We played it to a click and it didn't even sound like the same song. The bass tracks had to be recorded at a different studio and then brought back and tacked on to the existing songs. The sax track on “Letter to Myself” is actually a combination of four different tracks pieced together because we only had Jon [Thompson] in the studio for one day. He played over the song four times and we took what we liked best.

For me the best part of the recording process was finally getting to add third and fourth harmonies to the songs. […] I had a great time taking the two main vocals home on a disc and adding all sorts of additional parts.

SJ: Talk a bit about your home base and primary markets. Where did you start out and how did you branch out into other territories?

Karen: It’s been a slow, painful process! We’ve put in over seven years now, and feel like, if nothing else, we’ve certainly paid our dues. We started around the Jersey Shore, and gradually shifted west as we both separately relocated multiple times. We always intended to be more than a local act. We occasionally traveled out of the area for gigs from early on, but we both had day jobs and were still finding our footing as performers. At about the five-year point, I “hit the wall,” quit my other jobs, decided that I would seriously manage us, and dove into researching and contacting places for gigs. I was tired of having the same conversation over and over with Jill that “wouldn’t it be great if someone would…” and “we need someone to…” It’s not like there’s any easy path to sustainability. We just play a lot—some shows are great, but others can be demoralizing. It’s really hard, but we need to do this and the progress is there.

It’s funny how other artists often ask us how to book shows and what the “trick” is. The “trick” is spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy and still only getting about 10% of what you go after. After a while you start to know your targets a bit better, so you can avoid some dead ends. Nowadays we are fortunate that venues and people that want to hire us sometimes approach us, but it’s mostly about being proactive.

Oh, and go on tour to places where you have friends and family to crash with!

Jill: We are lucky in that we seem to have fans across a broad range of ages, genders and walks of life, but marketing ourselves has always been a bit of a conundrum for that very reason. We don't have a demographic, or even an easily defined genre. We're folky but we don't play traditional folk songs. We use bluegrass instruments, but we aren't bluegrass. We are singer/songwriters but most singer/songwriters are solo performers. We aren't, but we aren't a full band either. That is one of the reasons that self-management is a good fit for us. I don't know that even a well-intentioned outsider [would] be able to anticipate our needs artistically or on the business end better than we do ourselves because we don't fit neatly into any of the existing categories. We're always metaphorically checking the "other" box, and the way things are progressing I think we'll be getting more "other" in the future rather than less.

SJ: Your MySpace contains the following statement: “We strongly admire independent musicians, especially women, who creatively and boldly redefine success in this industry as not necessarily having anything to do with major labels, mass-media, and the lowest common denominator.” I wonder if you could elaborate on the sentiments behind that statement.

Karen: It’s not that we set out to be guerilla musicians! Mostly it just was the available path—do it yourself or nothing gets done. But there’s a great freedom in that, too, and after a while you see a lot of the upsides. But Jill and I did have in common from the beginning that we didn’t like the ideas of Image and Brand, and also had a great deal of stage fright and camera-shyness. The thought of mass media terrified us. We agreed from day one that we just wanted to make a living doing what we loved. These days there are more possibilities outside the mainstream than ever.

Jill: I know a fair number of musicians who have relationships with labels, production companies, and outside booking and management. There are a lot of horror stories. In order for us to trust our "baby" as it were to anyone else, they would have to be pretty spectacular, and we aren't going to sit around waiting for them to ride up on a white horse. I also know that neither one of us could tolerate being told what to write or what to wear or that we have to fix our teeth or something. That isn't acceptable.

SJ: You obviously feel strongly about being independent artists and operating outside of the established infrastructure of the music industry. But do [you] ever wonder whether this is truly the right approach? For example, do you ever think, "If we sold our music through iTunes or if we had outside management, we might be doing better?"

Karen: Honestly, we just haven’t gotten around to iTunes! Sad, right? And if someone else can get us more and better gigs, they can go right ahead. But they better not try and tell us what to do.

Jill: There's always a lot more to do, and we are open to getting help, but only if we can maintain control of our own destiny.

Many thanks to Karen and Jill for the interview and for jumping over the logistical hurdles with me!

For streaming audio, shows, and purchasing information:

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 23, 2007

One Note Ahead Live!

One Note Ahead's readership spans the globe. Most of the artists I write about have recordings that are available worldwide, so I usually don't need to worry that my readers won't be able to hear the music I want them to check out. But what about seeing these artists? Many of them are local favorites here in the Philadelphia area and haven't played much (or at all) elsewhere; others play in regions or countries that are foreign to me and therefore I've never seen them in person, which in turn means that many of my readers are in the same boat. So that we may all have a fuller appreciation of these artists, I've scoured YouTube and other sites and posted my favorite live performance clips of some of the artists I've written about. (Sadly, I couldn't find any live videos of Andrew James, Andrew Lipke, or Mindy Rhodes.) The artists' names are hyperlinked to their respective One Note Ahead features. Enjoy.

Downtown Harvest, "Four Hundo" at The Trocadero in Philadelphia:

Laura Cheadle, "Midst Of Your Mystery" at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia (I was there!):

Half of SuperJimenez, "Faye" on Balcony TV:

Lovers Electric, "Is It Over?" on This Month In Music TV:

Ed Rambeau, "You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)" on a Carnival Cruise Ship:

Matt Duke, "Weeping Winds" at The Knitting Factory in New York City:

Stay tuned.....

For more information, see One Note Ahead's Quick Takes and One Note Ahead: One Year Later.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

CD Review: "Rhodes" Scholarship

The scene was set for culture shock: there I was, the proverbial “tortured writer” character with a rock ‘n’ roll spirit and a penchant for dancing wildly to loud, funky music. And there she was, the elegant, sophisticated, classically-trained easy listening singer and pianist associated with The Dilworthtown Inn in West Chester, Pennsylvania—a highly-rated restaurant that I’m nevertheless disinclined to visit for the simple reason that it has a dress code. But this unlikely encounter was no accident. As I sat there in the cozy Kreutz Creek Winery in Media, Pennsylvania, enjoying the sweet sounds of Mindy Rhodes as much as I was enjoying the sweet taste of the Proprietor’s Red, I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. Having previously caught a few minutes of Ms. Rhodes—I’ve hardly earned the right to call her “Mindy” in this context—I had made sure to see her again next chance I got. Wanting a souvenir of her beautiful, lucid voice and her sometimes idiosyncratic pronunciation and vocal acrobatics, I sought to obtain a copy of her CD, Blush. Of course, I had to tell her that I’m a music journalist of some stature, so after some discussion she entreated me to review the CD…but only if I like it.

I like it.

On six of the twelve tracks, Rhodes is accompanied by a bassist and a drummer; otherwise, she flies solo. Half of the album is occupied by interpretations of well-known material, and as is the case with her live sets, she covers a variety of genres while always maintaining her own style. Her affecting solo performance of the notorious Charlene hit “I’ve Never Been To Me” achieves the impressive feat of extracting some profundity from the rather bizarre lyrics. “On My Own” is a selection from Les Miserables and Rhodes delivers it subtly without compromising her operatic tendencies or the song’s emotional intensity. Her laid-back, jazzy take on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ubiquitous “Passionate Kisses” is strikingly beautiful in its simplicity and quietude (yes, “quietude” as opposed to “quietness”). “Someone To Watch Over Me” is without question one of the great American standards, and Rhodes’ powerful reading does not disappoint, with a few vocal and instrumental twists to keep the song fresh. However, there are a couple of curious choices on Blush. On John Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” Rhodes sounds a tad too methodical, and while there is nothing wrong with her piano solo on Debussy’s “Claire De Lune,” it is simply not fitting to end an album of easy listening vocals with a classical instrumental.

Rhodes’ original compositions on Blush are all concerned with the ups and downs (but mostly the downs) of romance. Sometimes her melodic inspirations are obvious: “Don’t Come So Close” contains elements of “Here Comes The Sun” and “Forbidden Fruit” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Autumn Leaves.” But they are both enjoyable all the same, especially “Forbidden Fruit,” a sexy, Latin-tinged jazz romp with particularly vivid lyrical imagery. The starkly confessional “I Want To Let You In” is highlighted by pleasingly transparent euphemisms and metaphors such as, “The iron walls are sturdy where green ivy grows/And within lies a softness few will come to know,” and “There are fields of freshness and intricate lace/Crystal drops of water in my special place.” In “That’s All You Have To Say,” statements are more like questions: “If you ever told me that you’d stay until you died/I would always wonder why.” “Whisper Wind” is a haunting pop song whose arrangement is accentuated by a bowed bass, played to sound as much like a cello as possible. Only “You Move Me” falls flat; well-intentioned though it may be, it tries too hard by relying on name-dropping and the awkward placement of inside references.

Ms. Rhodes—Mindy, if you will—told me that Blush is available at her shows and at the aforementioned Dilworthtown Inn. Maybe this review will drum up enough demand to warrant more widespread distribution. In the meantime, if you’re in the Philadelphia area, please do check out one of her live performances. And be sure to tell her that S.J. sent you.

For more information and venues where Mindy Rhodes performs frequently: - Mindy Rhodes’ website - The Dilworthtown Inn - Kreutz Creek Vineyards’ Media, PA Tasting Room - check the music schedule - Kreutz Creek Vineyards’ West Chester, PA Tasting Room - check the music schedule

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Obscure Originals, Vol. 1

This is the first installment in a series. Here, we’ll take a look at songs that are best known by artists who didn’t record them originally. You might be surprised to learn how many songs fall into that category, so let’s start with just a few examples. But first, a fair warning: the stories presented herein are not meant to be exhaustive or unbiased!

Song: “Louie, Louie”

Best known by: The Kingsmen
Originally recorded by: Richard Berry & the Pharaohs
The story: The short version is as follows. Richard Berry appropriated the riff from a Latin dance tune called “El Loco Cha Cha” and turned it into “Louie, Louie.” Berry’s 1957 recording, done in an R&B doo-wop style with some calypso influences, made some local noise in his stomping ground of Southern California. The song made its way to the Northwest via R&B hitmaker Ron Holden, who wowed audiences with his live rendition. Tacoma-based singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts teamed up with pioneering Northwest rockers The Wailers to record a proto-garage rock version which became a huge regional hit in 1961. The song was now a Northwest standard, and in 1963, Portland’s Kingsmen made a poor attempt to copy The Wailers’ version. Despite being in direct competition with a more accomplished take by another Portland-based band (Paul Revere & the Raiders!), The Kingsmen’s version became THE “Louie, Louie.” The full story is best told in the music and liner notes of the fantastic CD Love That Louie: The Louie Louie Files (Ace Records). Incidentally, “Louie, Louie” is an innocent love song about a lonely Jamaican sailor; the allegations of pornographic lyrical content stemmed from the raunchy sound of The Kingsmen’s version, in which Jack Ely’s indiscernible babbling raised a few too many eyebrows.

Song: “You’re No Good”
Best known by: Linda Ronstadt
Originally recorded by: Dee Dee Warwick
The story: Another one with a complex history. Written by prolific songwriter Clint Ballard, Jr., the original version by a nose belonged to Dionne Warwick’s younger sister Dee Dee. Her 1963 recording was done in a bombastic heavy soul style, and there was another soul version on the market that same year. Betty Everett’s sleek, sophisticated reading of the song charted towards the end of 1963, eventually reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100; Billboard had temporarily discontinued its R&B chart at the time, but some sources show Everett’s version making the Top 10 on R&B charts published by other organizations. At any rate, it peaked on the charts in early ’64, during the start of the British Invasion, and indeed the British beat boom brought yet another version. The Swinging Blue Jeans’ moody Merseybeat take on this tune made the UK Top 3 but just barely charted in the US in 1964. Linda Ronstadt's flamboyant 1974 reimagination (produced by Peter Asher of British Invasion duo Peter & Gordon) became a #1 pop hit the following year, establishing her as one of the hottest singers of the 1970s.

[Note: If you’re looking for The Swinging Blue Jeans’ version on iTunes or Napster, forget about it; you’ll only find re-recordings. You’ll have to seek out the old vinyl or locate the 1964 recording on CD—if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on EMI’s fascinating UK release Beat at Abbey Road 1963 to 1965, so much the better.]

Song: “Respect”
Best known by: Aretha Franklin
Originally recorded by: Otis Redding
The story: Otis Redding wrote this song. His pounding, insistent 1965 recording was pure Memphis soul, and the lyrics portrayed a man who was willing to take a lot of abuse from his woman (“Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna/You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone”) but he had his limits: “All I’m asking is for a little respect when I come home.” It was a Top 5 R&B hit and it also made the pop Top 40. Interestingly, the song began attracting covers from white garage rock bands. The Rationals, based in Ann Arbor, had a regional hit with their minimalistic reading in 1966, while New York City’s Vagrants almost made the charts with the tune in 1967—until Aretha’s version shut them down. As she usually did with covers, Aretha altered the song almost beyond recognition: instead of “You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone,” she sang, “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone.” Instead of “What you want, honey you got it,” she sang, “What you want, baby I got it.” Instead of “You’re sweeter than honey/And I’m about to give you all of my money,” she sang, “Your kiss is sweeter than honey/And guess what? So is my money!” Here, she managed to refashion “Respect” into a feminist anthem, and the addition of the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” bit at the end was so ingenious that Otis Redding began to sing it himself when he did the song live.

Song: “Got My Mind Set On You”
Best known by: George Harrison
Originally recorded by: James Ray (as “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”)
The story: James Ray was homeless when a record mogul discovered him. He went on to have a couple of hits and then he died shortly afterwards of a drug overdose. Now, that’s a rock ‘n’ roll story if ever there was one! But James Ray was actually a soulful R&B singer who had the questionable luck of getting paired with the eccentric arranger Hutch Davie. On Ray’s biggest hit “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody,” Davie’s bizarre arrangement made the record that much more enjoyable. On “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”...not so much. Both songs were written by Rudy Clark, and though a brief edit of “Mind” was issued as a single in 1962, George Harrison heard the gloriously awful two-part mix included on James Ray’s self-titled LP. Oh, Ray sang the song just fine, but that arrangement! The drumming veered from Latin to jazz to rock ‘n’ roll and back to Latin again. Misplaced big-band horns and a Vaudeville banjo drove the track. Part 2 had Ray doing vocal battle with a screechy, histrionic chorus. To be fair, Clark must take some of the blame, as the song originally included a deviant passage with the lyrics, “Everywhere I go, you know, bad luck follows me/Every time I fall in love, you know I’m left in misery”—kind of a downer considering the upbeat nature of the rest of the piece. Thankfully, George’s 1987 revival was based on how The Quiet Beatle heard the song in his head. While James Ray’s version was a bona fide flop, George’s version was a #1 hit. Speaking of The Beatles...

Song: “Twist and Shout”
Best known by: The Beatles
Originally recorded by: The Top Notes
The story: New York music biz hustler Bert Berns co-wrote this song, originally cut by an obscure R&B group called The Top Notes in 1961. Producer Phil Spector and arranger Teddy Randazzo were two of the geniuses of American popular music, but somehow they didn’t get this one right. The Top Notes’ version wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sound anything like, well, “Twist and Shout.” Upon hearing it, Bert Berns is believed to have said to Spector, “Phil, you fucked up my song!” The secret to this song’s success seems to be simple: cut it in a hurry at the tail end of a session. The Isley Brothers did just that (with none other than Berns producing), and their endearingly sloppy treatment hit the pop Top 20 and nearly topped Billboard’s R&B chart in 1962. But The Beatles’ rendition—cut at the end of a day-long recording marathon for their first album in 1963—eclipsed the Isley’s version upon its release as a US single amidst the Beatlemania of 1964.

Song: “Mandy”
Best known by: Barry Manilow
Originally recorded by: Scott English (as “Brandy”)
The story: Scott English was a successful and prolific American songwriter who had also enjoyed a regional hit as a singer in 1964 with the haunting, doo-wop flavored “High On A Hill.” He was based in England when he co-wrote and recorded a dopey-but-irresistible love song called “Brandy” in 1971. The light and airy arrangement was pleasant enough, but English’s vocal sounded like a drunken Randy Newman attempting to impersonate Gene Pitney while choking on his own vomit. In the United States, the record crawled into the bottom of the charts and quickly departed; however, British audiences welcomed it into their Top 20. Its hit status in the UK is probably what prompted Clive Davis to suggest that the then-hitless Manilow cover it in 1974. Manilow wasn’t terribly keen, but after some trial and error he adapted it to suit his style, slowing it down, cranking up the melodrama, and cutting out the rather silly coupling “Riding on a country bus/No one even noticed us.” Since Looking Glass had recently scored with a totally different song called “Brandy,” Manilow changed the title to “Mandy.” His sweet, wistful voice certainly fit the sad lyrics, and his recording became a #1 hit in the US, making Barry Manilow a household name once and for all. But wait—there’s more! In between English’s original and Manilow’s remake, there was an engaging cover by New Zealander Bunny Walters (a male singer, by the way). Walters’ version was based on English’s and was also titled “Brandy,” and it reigned supreme on the New Zealand hit lists in 1972. Since most New Zealanders were unaware of English’s original, they assumed that Walters wrote the song and that Manilow stole it from Walters!

[Note: Barry Manilow’s box set The Complete Collection…And Then Some includes a monaural excerpt of Scott English’s “Brandy”—the most you’ll find on iTunes, but Napster has the full Scott English track in stereo. Bunny Walters’ version can be streamed at this website; just click on Walters’ picture. Also worth noting is that this song is NOT about a dog, as rumored. See this webpage for more details.]

Song: “Can’t Get Enough Of You, Baby”
Best known by: Smash Mouth
Originally recorded by: The Toys
The story: Record producer, songwriter, arranger, recording artist, mogul—Bob Crewe did it all. Two writers in his cadre, Denny Randell and Sandy Linzer, came up with a catchy little pop ditty with Motown influences and called it “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby.” Girl group The Toys (of “A Lover’s Concerto” fame) cut the tune in 1965 in a New York-meets-Detroit pop/soul style, and The 4 Seasons recorded a similar version later that year. However, punk pioneers ? & the Mysterians gave the song a fresh coat of paint in 1967. The hypnotic alternating organ chords and riffs of their breakthrough hit “96 Tears” still loomed large, and they tried to recapture some of the magic by doing “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” with a “96 Tears” feel. This entailed changing the chord sequence, altering the melody, and removing a number of the lyrics just to make the new arrangement work! But it hit the charts, peaking at #56 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Smash Mouth recreated The Mysterians’ arrangement with a ‘90s flair; their version hit #27 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay chart in 1998.

[Note: If you’re looking for ? & the Mysterians’ version, be sure to get the one on ABKCO’s Cameo Parkway 1957-1967, as other versions floating around are either incomplete or latter-day re-recordings.]

More coming soon…meanwhile, check out The Originals Project. Not perfect, but getting better all the time:

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

One Note Ahead: One Year Later

October 22, 2007: The personal recollections originally posted here in celebration of One Note Ahead's one-year anniversary have been moved to a MySpace blog entry. The following rundown, also posted here in celebration of the one-year anniversary, remains here as originally published. Enjoy.

Here is a list (in chronological order) of One Note Ahead's current lineup of features, their descriptions, and their rankings in the top 50 search results on Google and Yahoo! as of October 9, 2007.

Feature: Spotlight On: Andrew James
Description: A brief review of a British pop/rock singer and songwriter on the move.
Search result rankings: For search term: andrew james singer songwriter [sic] -- #2 on Google, #4 on Yahoo!

Feature: A Winter Child For All Seasons
Description: An in-depth, personal look at the music and performance style of Jersey boy folk-rocker Matt Duke and his debut album, Winter Child.
Search result rankings: For search term: matt duke winter child [sic] -- #13 on Google, #25 on Yahoo!

Feature: SuperJimenez To The Rescue!
Description: An introduction to one of the hottest new Irish rock bands of 2006, with many quotes from lead guitarist Rhys Domagala.
Search result rankings: For search term: superjimenez [sic] -- #4 on Google, #11 on Yahoo!

Feature: It Rocks. It Rolls.
Description: A highly opinionated take on the history and nature of rock 'n' roll. One Note Ahead's most controversial feature ever.
Search result rankings: Not applicable.

Feature: What IS that song?
Description: A rundown of songs used in American television commercials in 2006.
Search result rankings: Not applicable.

Feature: Book Review: A House On Fire
Description: A review of John A. Jackson's book A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, which is widely regarded as the definitive Philly soul tome.
Search result rankings: For search term: house on fire philadelphia soul [sic] -- #5 on Google, #9 on Yahoo!

Feature: Tribute 2006
Description: A tribute to the three music legends whose 2006 passings had the most impact on me personally: Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, R&B jack-of-all-trades Richard "Ritchie" Barrett, and '60s pop star Gene Pitney.
Search result rankings: For search term: ritchie barrett [sic] -- #17 on Google, #22 on Yahoo!

Feature: You call that music?!?!
Description: A look at prevalent attitudes regarding the generation gap in popular music.
Search result rankings: Not applicable.

Feature: DVD Review: Elvis On Sullivan
Description: A detailed review of the Image Entertainment 3-DVD set Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows.
Search result rankings: For search term: "Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows" [sic; results identical without capitalization] -- #31 on Google, #33 on Yahoo!

Feature: Album Review: Lipke Goes "Home"
Description: A review of The Way Home..., the second album by Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Andrew Lipke.
Search result rankings: For search term: andrew lipke the way home [sic] -- #11 on Google, #25 on Yahoo!

Feature: Bobby Parker: The Real Fifth Beatle?
Description: How bluesman Bobby Parker's classic "Watch Your Step" influenced The Beatles, and how Parker himself got the inspiration for "Watch Your Step."
Search result rankings: For search term: bobby parker [sic] -- #14 on Google, #22 on Yahoo!
For search term: bobby parker watch your step [sic] -- #10 on Google, #7 on Yahoo!
For search term: bobby parker beatles [sic] -- #2 on Google, #2 on Yahoo!

Feature: Lovers...Electrified!
Description: A brief review and an out-of-the-ordinary interview, the subject of both being Australian indie pop duo Lovers Electric, a.k.a. Butterfly Boucher's sister Eden and Eden's husband David. A few months after the publication of this feature, Lovers Electric started taking their music in a rather different direction, so think of this as a piece of history.
Search result rankings: For search term: "lovers electric" [sic] -- #37 on Google, #33 on Yahoo!
For search term: lovers electric eden david [sic] -- #8 on Google, #9 on Yahoo!
For search term: lovers electric butterfly boucher [sic] -- #8 on Google, #12 on Yahoo!

Feature: Guilty Pleasures Await You
Description: Hipster credibility? What hipster credibility? I admit to being a huge fan of several songs I probably shouldn't even like. But they were all hits!
Search result rankings: Not applicable.

Feature: Rambeau, Part II
Description: Eddie Rambeau was a highly prolific singer and songwriter during the 1960s. Now, he's known as Ed Rambeau, and he's still making plenty of noise in the music business.
Search result rankings: For search term: eddie rambeau [sic] -- #20 on Google, #50 on Yahoo!
For search term: ed rambeau [sic] -- #13 on Google, #14 on Yahoo!

Feature: Funky Fresh Jersey Girl
Description: She sings. She writes songs. She plays guitar. She's hard to categorize. She's Laura Cheadle, her current studio album is Falling In, and this article is written in the style of "A Winter Child For All Seasons."
Search result rankings: For search term: laura cheadle [sic] -- #22 on Google, #37 (as a blog feed) on Yahoo!
For search term: laura cheadle falling in [sic] -- #9 on Google, #14 (as a blog feed) on Yahoo!

Feature: Spotlight On: Downtown Harvest
Description: A review of an impossible-to-categorize Philly band's first two albums, Downtown Harvest and Golden Dragon.
Search result rankings: For search term: downtown harvest [sic] -- #10 on Google, #28 on Yahoo!
For search term: downtown harvest golden dragon [sic] -- #9 on Google, #11 on Yahoo!

Feature: One Note Ahead's Quick Takes
Description: A brief rundown of some of the artists I've featured in full on One Note Ahead, complete with download recommendations.
Search result rankings: Not applicable.

Feature: Ozzy Osbourne, '60s Pop Star?
Description: Some say that Ozzy Osbourne was in a successful '60s pop band called The Magic Lanterns. Ozzy says he wasn't. Who's right?
Search result rankings: For search term: ozzy osbourne magic lanterns [sic] -- #3 on Google, #1 on Yahoo!

Yes, that's right. One Note Ahead has just achieved a #1 search result ranking. Now, that's truly One Note Ahead!

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ozzy Osbourne, '60s Pop Star?

In 1968, an unassuming British pop band called The Magic Lanterns scored a major hit in North America with the catchy “Shame, Shame.” Little did anybody know that nearly 40 years later, a debate would be raging as to whether one of the most legendary and controversial figures in all of rock was a member of this outfit. The issue has been in dispute for decades and it may never, ever be resolved. But that doesn’t stop this writer from tackling one of the most polarizing questions concerning the history of rock ‘n’ roll:

Was Ozzy Osbourne a member of The Magic Lanterns?

Here are the facts: The Magic Lanterns were from Warrington, England. During the late ‘60s, their personnel included a bass player and singer named Mike “Oz” Osbourne (also spelled Osborne), who was featured on “Shame, Shame” and other Magic Lanterns recordings from 1968-69. Many music critics and historians have since claimed that Mike “Oz” Osbourne and John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne are one in the same and record dealers have often sold the Lanterns’ 1969 LP Shame, Shame as an early effort by the Black Sabbath frontman and solo superstar. Ozzy himself has always denied being a Magic Lantern, but there is no shortage of music lovers who refuse to believe him.

Ozzy’s fans have plenty of responses to charges that he was in The Magic Lanterns: Ozzy’s from Birmingham, not Warrington. Black Sabbath were already active, under the names Polka Tulk (or Polka Tulk Blues Company) and Earth, before and during the period when Ozzy was supposed to have been plucking away at his bass as a Magic Lantern. And for that matter, when has Ozzy Osbourne ever been a bass player? In addition, this webpage includes detailed personal recollections from The Magic Lanterns’ own Alistair “Bev” Beveridge, who mentions Mike Osborne [sic] but never says a word about Ozzy.

And yet, one can reasonably make the argument that Ozzy is indeed doing what oh, so many people over a certain age are wont to do: lying about what he did in the ‘60s. Here’s a picture of The Magic Lanterns from the appropriate era:

Now, here’s Ozzy:

There is a fellow in the Magic Lanterns’ photo who looks like Ozzy. One might even listen to recordings from Mike “Oz” Osbourne’s tenure in the band and discern a voice in the harmonies that bears a certain resemblance to Ozzy’s. Most intriguing is this paragraph from Mark Marymont’s liner notes to The Magic Lanterns’ CD compilation Shame, Shame (Collectables Records, 1998):

“[Ozzy] has denied that he was ever in the group and most rock history books have Black Sabbath forming in 1967 in their native Birmingham, England. The four schoolmates were originally known as Polka Tulk, a blues band, before changing their name to Earth in 1968 and Black Sabbath in 1969. The record company for whom The Magic Lanterns recorded, however, has confirmed that it is indeed THE Ozzy Osbourne on these recordings. It would appear that this group was only a side-gig for the fledgling superstar.”

This paragraph seems compelling at first, but it raises a few questions. Exactly what record company confirmed the identity of the Lanterns’ bass player? The UK branch of CBS Records, to whom The Magic Lanterns were originally signed? Atlantic Records in the United States, for whom the band recorded the Shame, Shame LP? Or was it another label entirely? Also, one must only look at a map of England to see some problems with The Magic Lanterns being Ozzy’s side-gig during Black Sabbath’s early history. Warrington is close to Manchester, which is in turn a considerable distance from Birmingham. Marymont claims that The Magic Lanterns “ventured down to London in the mid-‘60s,” but if we operate on the premise that the Lanterns were based in London during the “Shame, Shame” era, we must also take note of the fact that London is no closer to Birmingham than Manchester. If Ozzy was already in a band in Birmingham, why would he take such a long trek to play in another band as a side project? It’s possible that Ozzy felt he wasn’t advancing quickly enough in the music business, took up the bass, traveled a long way to live a second life in a commercial pop group with a UK chart entry (“Excuse Me Baby”) under its belt, and then denied having any involvement in said band after he became famous. It’s just not particularly likely. A voice in The Magic Lanterns might sound like Ozzy’s because a latter-day listener is casting about for proof that the Prince of Darkness really was in that band. As for the Ozzy lookalike in the Lanterns’ photo, let’s face it: Ozzy Osbourne does not have a distinctive face. His overall image is what makes him easy to identify.

So the data available to us would seem to indicate that Ozzy Osbourne was NOT one of The Magic Lanterns after all. But The Magic Lanterns have a lot of intriguing connections that can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt:

=> “Shame, Shame” and other early Magic Lanterns tracks were arranged by John Paul Jones, soon to become the bass player for Led Zeppelin. This is not surprising; during the 1960s, Jones was a highly prolific arranger and, like his eventual bandmate Jimmy Page, an in-demand session musician.

=> Later Magic Lanterns recordings (post-Mike Osbourne) included Albert Hammond, the singer/songwriter responsible for ‘70s soft rock favorites like “It Never Rains In Southern California” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Hammond co-wrote a number of Magic Lanterns tunes from the early ‘70s, including their small US hit “One Night Stand.” Hammond’s son is the appropriately-named Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes.

=> The Magic Lanterns’ only UK chart entry, “Excuse Me Baby,” was written by Artie Wayne, a legendary mover-and-shaker who has done everything and then some in the music business. His website is here and his entertaining blog can be found here.

=> “Shame, Shame” was co-written and originally recorded by American singer and songwriter Keith Colley, best known for his own regional 1963 hit “Enamorado.” He and his wife Linda wrote several songs that ‘60s rock and pop collectors know and love, such as “Shame, Shame,” “One Track Mind” (The Knickerbockers), “Playgirl” (The Knickerbockers, Thee Prophets), and “Mindrocker” (Fenwyck, The American Breed). Colley’s demo version of “Shame, Shame” is available on his Mindrocker compilation, but the 45 version remains a rarity.

All those ties plus the allure of Ozzy Osbourne’s alleged membership? Not bad for a typical-sounding pop band that would probably have been forgotten otherwise.

Original text copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

One Note Ahead's Quick Takes

I created One Note Ahead for the purpose of having my own outlet for my music journalism, but one of the reasons I feel so strongly about music journalism is that it enables me to promote interesting and talented artists who deserve the publicity. However, in a world where soundbites rule and full-length magazine features sometimes amount to less than a page, it can be a bit much to expect people to read a full story or review on an act they've never even heard of.

Now, you don't have to.

The rules are simple. If an artist I've written about is not already a superstar, I'll list that artist here. So...Elvis Presley is out. If I wrote about an artist but later removed that article from One Note Ahead, that artist will not be included in this rundown (full apologies to Butterfly Boucher, but I'll probably make it up to her by reviewing her next album). If an artist's music is not available on iTunes, I'll skip that artist for now; many of Ed (Eddie) Rambeau's oldies are on iTunes, but his recent material was the subject of my writeup and interview. The rest is self-explanatory.

Get your downloading fingers ready.

Artist: Matt Duke
Sounds like: Folk-rock singer/songwriter who employs unusual song structures and colorful lyrics. Known for dramatic vocals, but can sing in a subdued fashion when appropriate.
Key tracks: The radio-friendly single is "Oysters," which is excellent. However, "Don't Ask (For Too Much)" is more representative. For social commentary, go with "Tidal Waves" or "Yellow Lights." Signature song "Weeping Winds" is not currently available on iTunes.
Full feature:

Artist: Andrew James
Sounds like: Piano-and-guitar based rock with a pop-friendly sheen. Soulful vocals and dark, brooding lyrics complete the package.
Key tracks: The soaring "Safe As Houses" or the mysterious "I Can't Fight" should do the trick nicely.
Full feature:

Artist: Laura Cheadle
Sounds like: A mix of old-school funky soul and contemporary singer/songwriter pop/rock. A songwriting and playing style all her own. Smoky voice.
Key tracks: "Bright and Beautiful" more than lives up to its title; the dreamy, sensual "Perfect Design" and the languid, bluesy "Midst Of Your Mystery" are also great choices.
Full feature:

Artist: Andrew Lipke
Sounds like: From low-key folk to high-energy rock, his foundation is always acoustic singer/songwriter music. Unusual voice, wide vocal range, and thought-provoking lyrics.
Key tracks: Only his second album, The Way Home..., is on iTunes at this time. "Untitled Song #1" and "Check Your Mirror" fit the bill for driving alt-rock; "My One And Only" is the acoustic coffeehouse tune; "Standing Over You" is a brilliant pop opus.
Full feature:

Artist: SuperJimenez
Sounds like: Smart, tight modern rock delivered by a band with a diverse array of influences and a knack for bending the rules of songcraft and arrangement.
Key tracks: "Helicopters" (the "radio edit" version) is exceptional, while the single version of "Somebody There" (on the "Beau" single) is a novel showcase for their quieter side. Look for their rockin' new single, "Faye," in November and an album next year.
Full feature:

Artist: Downtown Harvest
Sounds like: Somebody took rock, funk, hip-hop, dance, jazz, and a bunch of other genres, threw them into a blender, and made the world's most awesome smoothie.
Key tracks: Again, hard to choose just a few. Go with "Hurry Before Worry" and "B.O.B." from their self-titled first album. Pick up "Something Elephants," "Four Hundo," and/or "Clockwork Tangerines" from their latest release, Golden Dragon.
Full feature:

Stay tuned. You never know who or what will receive the One Note Ahead treatment next.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Spotlight On: Downtown Harvest

Cities like Philadelphia have wildly bustling music scenes in and around them, to the point that one can easily be tempted to look at a band like Downtown Harvest and, with nary a listen to their music, write them off as just another Philly band sweating it out in an overcrowded market. That, however, would be a colossal mistake. Here are four guys who know no boundaries. Across their two albums, they mix rock, funk, hip-hop, disco, R&B, jazz, rap, and electronica as if those genres are all one in the same. Electric guitars, keyboards, saxophones, and all sorts of percussive gimmicks drive most of the band’s arrangements. Each of DTH’s vocalists has his own distinctive sound, making for some attention-grabbing harmonies and vocal interplay. The band’s songs often employ sudden tempo changes, stops and starts, and other structural quirks, while their lyrics range from mysteriously poetic to downright unintelligible. In other words, if you’re looking for the next big thing in mainstream rock, keep looking. But if you’re looking for something truly different in a world of seemingly endless sameness, look no further.

Here’s the breakdown of DTH’s albums, both available from Malogna Records:

Downtown Harvest (2006): Impossible to categorize and quietly off-the-wall from start to finish. A subtle, fun album whose tracks tend to sound custom-made for a small houseparty. The presence of a continuous song sequence towards the end illustrates the point that this is more of a free-flowing, full-length statement than a collection of individual songs. Highlights of Downtown Harvest include the low key, mood-shifting “Rubber Band Song”; the funky “Hurry Before Worry”; “Hills of Beverly,” with its dreamlike new wave textures; the goofy quasi-electronica of “B.O.B”; and “Rattle On,” which has a lethargic, rootsy feel.

Golden Dragon (2007): Louder and more in-your-face than Downtown Harvest, Golden Dragon has more of a straight-ahead rock sound on its first several tracks, reserving its most daring experiments for its second half. Not as much of a cohesive statement as Downtown Harvest, but an entertaining collection with many strong tunes. Highlights include the kaleidoscopic “Full Circle”; “Something Elephants,” a bouncy, absurdist take on indie rock; the heavy New Orleans sound of “Four Hundo”; the psychedelic blues-rock of “MDK”; and “Clockwork Tangerines,” whose multi-movement construction is quite classical in nature. (No comments on the liner notes, which are said to resemble a Chinese food menu—this review is based on an advance press copy without full packaging.)

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Funky Fresh Jersey Girl

How to describe the music of Laura Cheadle? It’s probably best understood as a rich stew—or, in the sweltering heat in which I am writing this, a summer salad—the recipe for which goes something like this: two cups of old-school soul; one and a half cups of acoustic singer/songwriter; one cup of classic pop; one tablespoon of rock ‘n’ roll; jazz and blues to taste. Best served funky.

The 21-year-old songstress grew up in a heavily musical family, which put her in a position to either love music or hate music. Fortunately, she took the former course: “Music is my life and is so natural and medicating to me,” she explains. “I need it just the same as I need air to breathe. I can't imagine living without it and I am thrilled to have grown up in such a musical environment.” Laura’s comments on the making of her current studio album, Falling In, reveal that music is still largely a family affair for this Jersey girl: “The main musicians [on Falling In] are myself on rhythm guitar and vocals, my father James S. Cheadle on keyboards, my brother Jimmy Lee Cheadle on lead guitar, Dave Sikorski on bass, Bill Grillo on drums and Justin Hirsch on percussion. […] I wrote all of the music originally on my acoustic guitar so it was a blast making this album with a live band.”

The songs on Falling In deal with the usual themes of love, lust, infatuation, and separation, but there is no mistaking this for a typical “been there, done that” affair by yet another pretty girl with a guitar. First off, there’s Laura’s smoky voice, which veers from a sultry, seductive whisper to an electrifying gospel-tinged shout. Then there’s her songcraft, based on ringing, textured guitar chords with jazzy chromatics, often employing tempo changes and slightly unorthodox chord sequences. “I taught myself how to play the guitar at age 15 and I don't really have a conventional way of writing or playing,” she says with some amusement. “I wrote all of these songs during different times of my life and just developed a style that felt like me.” Indeed, that style carries over to her lyrics, which often contain stream-of-consciousness musings related in a strangely poetic manner. For example, “Perfect Design” offers pairings like “I take you in my lips, devourin' every inch/Your charm and your mind, your whole perfect design”—phrases so pure and delicate I hesitate to apply such a stark label as “sexually explicit” to them. “Midst Of Your Mystery” is even more hauntingly down-to-earth: “It was kinda scary when the car said check engine/You just smiled and reassured we'd be just fine […] Deep down I wish we woulda got stranded, just to spend another moment with you.”

When combined with the musicianship of her band and her father’s production, Laura’s songs get transformed into intriguing sonic collages. “Bright and Beautiful” combines the funk of a vintage Stevie Wonder track with a summery breeziness reminiscent of Malo’s “Suavecito.” And that’s only part of the story. Laura: “For ‘Bright and Beautiful,’ we kept my music how it was written on the guitar but randomly decided to put a ‘jazz break’ in the middle of the song. I LOVE how it turned out.” The album’s title track starts off like the greatest ballad that Dionne Warwick never recorded, only to jump into a hip-swaying dance groove along the lines of War on happy juice. “Midst Of Your Mystery” marries the ethereal atmosphere of Rachael Yamagata’s gentler songs to the down-and-dirty sound of a bluesy bar band, while “Love Map” brings in a country flavor on its swinging choruses. According to Laura, “that was not intentional. My acoustic version of [“Love Map”] does not sound country at all. My brother Jimmy Lee enjoys country music and he was playing that guitar riff on the album.”

Two of the selections on Falling In differ so notably from the rest of the album that they deserve special mention. The ominous, minor-keyed “Replaying” is a quietly dramatic pop opus whose sound exists out of place and time, and Laura told me that it strikes a special chord with her: “I wrote ‘Replaying’ a few years ago and it's about a love that I had to let go of. I enjoy how this song came out because the music matches my emotion at the time. It's one of my favorite tracks on my CD because I was actually crying during the vocal.” Equally eerie is the acoustic “Surrounded,” whose lyrics are atypically abstract: “Affection takes over my world/All is surrounded by a single girl. Will she wander to an escape?/Cluttered with worries, there’s no steps to take.” Naturally, Laura can account for the singularity of this particular tune: “I wrote ‘Surrounded’ after my album was finished and about to be released. I went back in the studio to lay it down just to have it. I then decided to make it a bonus track. Many of my songs are love songs, but I wrote ‘Surrounded’ completely about life. I woke up with it in my head and wrote it down. It's really about figuring out different parts of your life and trying not to worry about what happens next.”

So that’s Laura Cheadle as an in-studio recording artist. But Laura Cheadle is more than just an in-studio recording artist; she’s a personality. For one thing, she is an eccentric free spirit. Friend her on MySpace and it’ll be just a matter of time before she fills your message center with random bulletins informing you of her latest road trip or the last Tower of Power concert she attended. She even poses all sorts of—you guessed it—random questions to her fans and shares photos and drawings in her bulletins and blogs. It’s clear that she believes strongly in being connected to her fans, which the internet allows her to do with some semblance of ease. However, it is in person that Laura gets to make the ultimate connection with her funky followers.

Whether you see Laura acoustically or with her live band (also featuring her dad and her bro), she is sure to get wrapped up in a world of her own, letting each song take her and propel her into a realm understandable only by those who truly feel the power of her music. In an acoustic setting, she lets the raw emotion of her songs do the talking. With a full band behind her, she takes control of the stage, shaking and swaying every inch of her dancer’s form to every single beat of the music. Either way, she banters freely with the audience, displaying a natural charm and a quirky sense of humor—both hard to resist. And in that moment when she looks out into the crowd and sees you dancing or singing along to her music and she engages your eyes, lingers for a moment, and winks, it is far beyond a mere connection. It is a genuine spiritual exchange. Or at least that’s my perspective as a fan. Happily, Laura’s perspective as the artist is similar: “Live performances are my favorite! The rush from the crowd is incredible and you get to be so spontaneous with the arrangements of music and performance. I live to perform. Acoustic shows are a great intimate setting where you can tell the crowd where [and] when each song was written. Full band shows are amazing because I get to dance and really stretch out vocally. I also love having that musical connection with all of my bandmates where we don't have to say a single word during a performance, yet we know exactly what each other is thinking.”

What’s next on the horizon for this rising young star? “I finished my brand new song ‘10 Weeks of Immortality’ and that is up on my MySpace page for a listen. I am working on a new album, which will probably be finished by next year or so. I have been writing like crazy and feel like I just keep growing and growing. I went away on vacation last week and wrote four more songs.” She adds, smiling, “It's hard to say how each song will turn out because I am getting inspired more and more every single day.”

In the meantime, Falling In is readily available in CD form and on iTunes, and Laura also has a fun(ky) live CD which you can order directly from her. At the time of this writing, there are also some highly entertaining videos on her MySpace profile (“The MySpace Funk” has to be seen to be believed). It is fortunate that Laura Cheadle’s music can be accessed so easily in this high-tech digital world, for she is an artist who has it all: the looks, the moves, the charisma, and the TALENT to back it all up.

Or, to put it more simply: Laura Cheadle is bright and beautiful.

For music and more information:

Many thanks to Laura Cheadle for the interview.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rambeau, Part II

Back in the 1960s, there was a young man who was making quite a lot of noise in the music industry, whether people realized it or not. If they danced and sang along to hits like Mark Valentino’s “The Push And Kick” or Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue” and “Kiss Me Sailor,” they were digging the songcraft of Eddie Rambeau and his frequent collaborator Bud Rehak. If they tuned in to a popular television series such as Shindig, they might have seen Mr. Rambeau swingin’ and swayin’ as he sang “My Name Is Mud,” “The Train,” and Unit 4+2’s “Concrete And Clay,” all of which brought Eddie a fair amount of success as a recording artist. This multi-talented lad with the well-groomed appearance and boy-next-door charm was simply made for teen idol status. The girls screamed at him on TV and ambushed him in person.

But now, Eddie Rambeau has grown up. And changed his name. To Ed Rambeau.

Ed Rambeau is no longer in the ‘60s—now, he’s in his 60s. Fortunately for him, he’s always looked younger than his actual age. And he’s no cute and cuddly boy-next-door type. He’s a hunky, swaggering ladies man who occasionally sings songs with naughty lyrics and has a tendency to pose topless—or just in a pair of short shorts. I personally could stand to see fewer such photos, but who’s to fault Ed for showing off what he’s got? After all, the females still love him, although it is a somewhat more mature crowd now. But they still scream at him and they leave him MySpace comments containing all sorts of come-ons and titillating graphics. You might say that Ed Rambeau is putting the “sex” in “sexagenarian.”

Please refrain from throwing rotten tomatoes at me.

Musically—and his music is what matters most, right?—Ed Rambeau has been recording in his own studio in New York and using the internet not only to promote his work but also to stay in close contact with his impressively loyal fan base. He records and releases new albums at a dizzying pace. Ed still knows how to write a good song and puts those skills to use every now and then. But more often, he covers other people’s material, tackling a mind-boggling variety of styles. Who else can swing a standard like “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” move on to a recent pop favorite such as “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” soul it up with “Wake Up Everybody,” then rock a bit on “Proud Mary,” and do it all convincingly? Ed adds his own signature style to each song he sings, and sometimes his interpretations are noteworthy for their arrangements and productions as well as his vocals. He took a minimalist approach to Cher’s “Believe” while retaining the basic feel, transformed Low Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” into a downbeat ballad (though he also did it in its original Philly soul style), gave Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” a swanky uptown treatment, and recast The Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” as a heart-wrenching slab of pop-soul. He’s also known for taking many classics and revising the lyrics, often in a humorous fashion—lest you think that “The Lady Is A Tramp” originally contained the line “To get ahead, she would never kiss butt.” A former Broadway actor, Ed also records numerous songs from musicals, proving that showtunes often make great pop songs as well; I’m particularly fond of his reading of “Storybook” from The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I never even knew existed as a musical until Ed enlightened me.

My original game plan was to interview Ed and use a few quotes for an article, but he gave me such fascinating answers that I had to publish the interview in its entirety. Here is a recent e-mail correspondence between me and today’s Rambeau:

SJ: When did you resume your recording career?

Ed: Actually I left recording for a while to study acting and then played on Broadway and traveled with Jesus Christ Superstar for a while then returned to recording in the early ‘80s, I believe.

SJ: When did you start using the internet to distribute and promote your music?

Ed: I suppose I've been using the internet about 3 years now.

SJ: Have you been working consistently with Bud Rehak throughout the years?

Ed: Bud is a very dear friend and we work off and on together. He and I did a great deal of special tributes to various Stars and Personalities. Kind of like a “This Is Your Life” in song. We've done them for Bernadette Peters, Kaye Ballard and many many others.

SJ: How do people react to the new Rambeau versus the old Rambeau—specifically, the spunky sex symbol versus the clean-cut boy next door?

Ed: Well, it's almost hard to get them to listen to my music. Once they see the CD cover they always comment on that and very seldom say anything about my music until much much later. Perhaps I'm selling the wrong thing here. LOL. But the women seem to love it. Here's a funny story that just happened today. I went to Port Authority Bus Terminal to purchase a ticket to New Jersey and I asked for a Senior Citizen rate. This large black woman looked at me strangely so I said, "You wanna see my ID?" And she replied, "Hell, no! I wanna see your body!" So I just happened to have a few copies of the new CD with me and when I handed it to her she took one look and began fanning herself with the CD itself. So I gave her a copy.

SJ: What inspires you to perform such a wide variety of material?

Ed: All my life I've listened closely to fellow performers and discovered I had the ability to emulate their sound. So what I try to do in my cover recordings is kind of get the essence of the original performer with a slight Rambeau touch. People are used to the original sound and have a hard time accepting a change so I try to reproduce the original sound as closely as I can and then throw in some of my own style.

SJ: When and how did your love of showtunes begin?

Ed: As far back as I can remember. I suppose it's because a great showtune has a great lyric and a singer is a story teller. What better way to tell a story than with great set of lyrics? My very first Broadway show (that I saw as a high school student) was Bye Bye, Birdie. From that moment on I was hooked.

SJ: With covers, how do you decide whether to stick to the original arrangement or change it?

Ed: I prefer to change it unless the original arrangement is so identifiable with the song that it almost forces me to use it. I've often done many songs two different ways.

SJ: Why change the lyrics to some of the standards? How do people react?

Ed: Many standards are so old and have to be brought a little up to date. Sinatra did it in his time and many artists still do it. I think it also grabs the listener who is familiar with the original lyric because they're suddenly hearing something unfamiliar and it makes them listen. I've never had a bad reaction to any lyric changes that I've made...thus far anyway.

SJ: Describe a typical session at Studio Rambeau.

Ed: I make myself a hot cup of coffee and then turn on my equipment. Then I put the original version on two tracks with the original singer (because I'm terrible at reading lyrics). Then I put my instrumental track on two other tracks and set up my vocal track. I listen to the first few lines of the original singer and then record those lines. Then the next few and so on. But it isn't always done that way. Many times (as with standards) I know the lyrics so I just sing the entire song completely thru and then hone the lines I feel I can do better. Listening is very important because it inspires you to do other things so I listen over and over and over looking for that inspirational moment. It usually takes me anywhere from two to five hours to record a single song. Then it has to be mixed which usually takes another hour or so. Some songs I get in one take but I usually go back the next day or so and correct things that I don't like and know I can do better.

Many thanks to Ed Rambeau for the interview.

To hear literally hundreds of Ed’s songs, visit:

Also visit:;

And to learn more about Ed’s previous ventures, visit:

[Have you read the article from Red Bird Entertainment? Okay, here’s why ABC put the kibosh on “Summertime Guy” and not “Palisades Park.” ABC had granted Chuck Barris permission to peddle “Palisades Park”—which was titled “Amusement Park” at the time—because ABC didn’t believe in the song. When it became a hit, ABC got egg on its face and was determined not to let that happen again. The rest, as they say…]

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Guilty Pleasures Await You

Guilty pleasures. Things you shouldn’t like. Things you may never admit to liking. And in truth, you don’t like them. You love them. Oh, you’d never get caught enjoying any of them in public. But in the privacy of your home, when there’s no one else around and all the windows and doors are shut tight, you gladly partake. And as long as no one knows, everything is okay.

The music industry has produced many guilty pleasures. These are songs and recordings that some critics, historians, and other “serious” music connoisseurs like to scoff at. But not me. I am brave enough to admit that I like—nay, love each and every one of these naughty indulgences. And I’m not alone; every one of the following made the Top 40 on at least one major Billboard chart.

“Girlfriend,” Avril Lavigne (2007): Lavigne shouts bitchy lyrics in a cheerleader style over a stomping beat, creating the feeling that a bunch of punk wannabes have infiltrated and commandeered a Gwen Stefani session. But consider the actual lyrical content: “Hey you! I don’t like your girlfriend! I think you need a new one! […] I’m the motherfuckin’ princess!” As if this didn’t already sound less like a song and more like a drunk chick trying to pick up a bar patron who’s clearly on a date, Avril lets you know that you ain’t heard nothin’ yet: “She’s like, so whatever!” But then she drops the line that makes it all worthwhile: “You could do so much better.” And that’s what makes this number so special: Lavigne may be ridiculously self-absorbed, but deep down inside she thinks this guy deserves better than the airhead he settled for. Aww, isn’t that sweet? Well, even if it’s not, the tune is so catchy and the beat so danceable that no one really needs to care. [July 10, 2007 update: Another reason for “Girlfriend” to be a guilty pleasure. According to The Associated Press, Lavigne is being sued by members of the ‘70s band The Rubinoos for ripping off their classic song “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” My advice is to acknowledge guilt and settle this one out of court.]

“Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds (1985): A lot of hits from the ‘80s qualify as guilty pleasures, but usually because they’re so loud and cheesy. Few ‘80s classics are as quietly bizarre as this one. For one thing, it’s a clumsily structured composition. The title line seems to constitute the chorus until it shows up elsewhere in the song, sung with the exact same melody. The lyrics appear to flow in a free-form, stream-of-consciousness manner until the eyebrow-raising statement “I’ll be alone dancin’, you know it baby” reappears out of nowhere. The band’s treatment of this peculiar tune is replete with all the usual ‘80s pop/rock gimmicks: guitar strings plucked frantically so as to sound like teeth chattering, synthesizers chiming in with computerized noises worthy of a low-budget sci-fi flick. But the mix is rather unusual, with everything drowned in echo and compression and the drums pushed so far ahead of the other instruments that the beat nearly knocks a hole in your chest. Lead singer Jim Kerr delivers most of the song in such a creepy, nervous whisper that he sounds like a stalker rather than a desperate lover. After what seems to be a bridge passage in which Kerr pleads and begs, “Will you call my name?” you might think that the song will return to the chorus, but no—in the most un-rock ‘n’ roll moment on any record to score high on the rock charts (#1 on Billboard’s Album Rock listing), Kerr leaps into that unforgettable rideout: “I said laaaaa, la la la laaaaa, la la la laaaaa, la la la la la la la la la laaaaaaa…” The whole record is so strange that it just shouldn’t work. But somehow, it does. Apparently it owes much of its hit status to its inclusion in the movie The Breakfast Club; I don’t even remember that film and yet I fell in love with this song anyway. The truth really is stranger than fiction.

“I Need Somebody,” ? & the Mysterians (1966): In 1966, these guys hit #1 with the amazing “96 Tears,” one of the earliest punk rock records. On the follow-up single, they concoct an R&B-infused stomper which allows them to display their inherent quirks to (almost) the fullest extent. Organist Frank Rodriguez plays a standard R&B riff over and over and over again while his fellow Mysterians attack their instruments with far more attention to volume than, you know, playing the right notes or anything. Lead singer ?—that’s his name, dammit!—shouts across the band’s endless riffing in such an unmelodic style that we might as well just call it rapping, free associating the lyrics to the point that many of them don’t make the least bit of sense (“I have a love that can make love”???). When Rodriguez breaks out into “Mary Had A Little Lamb” mid-song, you know that you just can’t take this record seriously. It’s not supposed to be a joke, but it sure is funny! A lot of people think that “96 Tears” was this band’s only hit, but “I Need Somebody” actually made it to #22 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

“I Likes To Do It,” The People’s Choice (1971): The most obscure number in this roundup, “I Likes To Do It” broke into the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 (the main pop chart at the time) and the Top 10 of that publication’s R&B listing in the summer of ’71. It was the first hit for the Philly funk band that would later score with the disco-ish “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” and like much funky music before and since, “I Likes To Do It” broke away from the traditional patterns of song structure. But this one was pretty extreme. I have friends who toil for hours, days, even weeks writing songs that have, um, melodies and, uh, you know, lyrics. These guys were too smart for that. Just some simple, primitive keyboard riffing, a shuffling drumbeat, syncopated basslines, and some scatting. Oh, and somebody beating the living daylight out of a tambourine. That’s it. “I likes to do it, y’all, hey hey! [scatting] I likes to DO IT, Y’ALL, hey hey! [more scatting]” On some level, it’s wrong that I am such a big fan of this record. And on that same level, it’s even worse that this record became a hit. But I guarantee you, once you’ve heard it, you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Even if you hate it.

“…Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears (1998): I don’t know what it is about the Swedish, but they have long had a knack for making attention-grabbing pop music. Producer Max Martin continued that tradition here, building on the in-your-face character of his memorable productions for Robyn (“Do You Know What It Takes,” “Show Me Love”) simply by adding more clutter to the basic formula. Layer upon layer of vocals, instruments and sound effects popping out everywhere, a two-note piano riff applied in such a dramatic fashion as to sound profound—“overproduced splendor,” I used to call it. But then there was the star of our show, Ms. Spears herself. Any suspicions that Britney was poised to become the next great American singer were laid to rest as soon as she opened her mouth and let out a trashy “Oh, baybay baybay” in that piercing teenaged voice of hers. Her performance throughout this debut hit set the stage for her entire music career thus far: delightfully overblown, proudly sleazy, struggling to hit the right notes but not always succeeding, and often substituting panting or moaning for actual singing. With this record, she established herself as an unmistakably manufactured popstar, relying on creative production and infectious material rather than any noticeable talent of her own. Martin, with his keen ear and a finger constantly placed on the pulse of the market, delivered the goods. And as a slightly smitten 17-year-old who fell head over heels with this recording during his senior year of high school, I had no idea that Spears would someday become a total wreck, with all the sad, sordid details of her personal life on display for the world to see. Normally such a development would make an artist’s music harder to enjoy; in Britney’s case, it has merely increased the “guilty pleasure” quotient.

“24 Hours From Tulsa,” Gene Pitney (1963): Imagine your sweetie writing you a letter to say, “Sorry, honey, but I was on my way home when I met this real hottie at a cheap motel and damn, we hooked up big time! And let me tell you exactly how it happened in excruciating detail!” And then your now-ex does just that. Yes, you can get the play-by-play of how the love of your life cheated on you while you waited patiently at home, and you can live with the satisfaction of knowing that your sugar dumpling broke up with you in a letter! Oh, there’s nothing wrong with “Tulsa” if you remove the lyrics. It has an engaging melody (courtesy of Burt Bacharach), and Pitney’s record features a stylish vocal performance and a spicy Latin-flavored arrangement (Bacharach again). But Hal David—who tended to be a thoughtful, sensitive lyricist—came up with some pretty mean-spirited material this time around. If it weren’t so deliciously salacious, it would be garbage. And again, that melody!

“Intuition,” Jewel (2003): The gentle guitar-strumming singer/songwriter belts out an aggressive dance-pop tune in which she drops names like Sheryl Crow, paying tribute to J Lo’s ass in the process. If it weren’t so cleverly written, beguilingly arranged, and well-performed, it would be laughable.

“Getcha Back,” The Beach Boys (1985): You know from the heavily processed drums—with every fourth beat sounding like somebody opening and abruptly closing the door to the world’s biggest echo chamber—that this is an ‘80s pop record. The corny synthesized saxophone sounds merely drive that point home. And it’s simultaneously pleasing and disconcerting to hear The Beach Boys—a band that had one of the most distinctive vocal sounds of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s—doing a near-perfect impersonation of The 4 Seasons. The nasal lead vocals and falsetto refrain bear a striking similarity to Frankie Valli, while the band’s clipped chant of “get-cha back, bay-bay” makes one wonder whether Mr. Valli’s fellow “Jersey Boys” sat in on this session. This case of vocal identity disorder, in the context of a quintessentially ‘80s pop sound, would be enough to qualify “Getcha Back” as a guilty pleasure, but the lyrics take the cake: “Took me back, darling, to that time in my car/When you cried all night ‘cause we’d gone too far.” Amazing how these guys were in their 40s and it was 1985, yet they were singing lyrics that would have been more fitting for a bunch of 20-somethings in 1965. Or were they? When Mike Love asks, “If I leave her and you leave him/Can we ever get it back again?” he genuinely sounds like a middle-aged loser who regrets his youthful indiscretions and wants to reach way back in time to regain his past glories. We know she won’t let him, but again, the melody is infectious, the vocal hooks are addictive, and Steve Levine’s production is so unabashedly flamboyant that it’s hard to walk away from this recording once it has started playing.

“Rama Lama Ding Dong,” The Edsels (1958, 1961): So nice they released it twice, but it didn’t become a hit until the second time around. There were a lot of novelty songs in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, but this one is—here comes that word again—extreme: “I’ve got a girl named Rama Lama Lama Lama Ding Dong! She’s everything to me, Rama Lama Lama Lama Ding Dong!” Even the arrangement is pretty goofy, almost an overwrought parody of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll bands and doo-wop conventions. An archly deep-voiced, mumbling bass singer babbles and stutters the title and offers some barbershop quartet-like bom-bom’s in a split second or two before noticeably taking a breath so that he can continue singing on the bridge. The lead singer wails oooh’s and ooooweee’s in an equally over-the-top falsetto and jumps into an emphatic tone in the most bizarre places: “I’ve got a GIRL named…rama lama LAMA lama ding dong…” All of this while the backup band chugs along in perpetual double-time, the obligatory sax solo sounding much too forceful considering the extremely fluffy lyrics. Simply put, the whole affair is absurd, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Those who made it a hit were probably not thinking in such terms, however. Indeed, the best way to enjoy this oddity is to stop analyzing it and apply an old American Bandstand adage: “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

“Telephone Line,” Electric Light Orchestra (1976): Some of ELO’s work is truly brilliant, but some of it is so campy and/or derivative that I have to enjoy it with a certain sense of self-consciousness. I really shouldn’t like such a shameless pastiche as “Telephone Line.” The opening lines (“Hello. How are you? Have you been alright?”) are a little too reminiscent of The Easybeats’ “Hello, How Are You” (“Hello. How are you? It’s good to see you here.”) and are sung in a remarkably similar melody. The phrase “blue days, black nights” is the title of a Buddy Holly song, which can’t be a coincidence considering ELO leader Jeff Lynne’s love of early rock ‘n’ roll. Meanwhile, how did a string of doo-wop and girl-group nonsense syllables such as “doo-wop, doo be doo-doo-wop, doo-wah-doo-lay-ya-yang” end up in a tender love ballad from the ‘70s? Lynne has always had a tendency to wear his influences on his sleeve, but here he goes a tad overboard. No matter. He sings the song with so much emotion, and the orchestration and harmonies are so superb that when all is said and done, this is a great record. A shameless pastiche, but an exemplary one.

“Ain’t Got No Home,” Clarence “Frogman” Henry (1956): “I love to sing,” he proclaims, adding, “I’ll sing like a girl, and I’ll sing like a frog.” And so he proceeds to sing like a girl. And sing like a frog. Enough said.

[Note: At the time of this writing, all of these tracks can be downloaded from iTunes. In the case of “Ain’t Got No Home,” beware of latter-day re-recordings. The original version is on the album Ain’t Got No Home: The Best of Clarence “Frogman” Henry.]

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.