Another edition of our new franchise that corners a musician and finds out what he or she listened to before bed and after rising. Sometimes the tunes are deliberately chosen; sometimes they just bubble up as life is being lived. I’ve got requests out to several participants. You’ll see responses every few days during the next few weeks.
For the past 25 years Mark Cutler has filled New England rock clubs with the kind of songs that drill into your head. Songs about making hard choices, songs about being afraid, songs about recognizing a glimmer of good where you least expect it. “I’m going to start a church where you can save yourself,” he promises in one tune, and that kind of pithy wisdom crops up time and again in his work. His writing has driven the Schemers, the Raindogs, and several other celebrated outfits. These days he’s in a full-tilt work mode, fronting the Men of Great Courage, and the tiny string band in the Providence area. His new album Red is due out in a month or so. He recently told Shaking Like a Mountain about some favorite “winter” tunes. Here’s what he’s been listening to between dusk and dawn.
Last night I had my iPod on shuffle mode and kept skipping through songs but found myself stopping at these.
“What’d I Do Wrong” by Betty Harris (produced by Allen Toussaint) starts with the Meters simmering on a slow burning groove, long mournful horns and a great three note guitar part played by Leo Nocentelli that has “tone plus.” Betty begins in a confessional mode, kinda whispering, kinda low talking, and when she hits the line “I went from riches to rags since I met you…” it’s as if she’s saying “Don’t you know who you’re listening to?” She doesn’t have to wail for the entire song, she saves her bullets for when it counts. She sings/says, “What did I do wrong?” so naturally, you could be fooled into thinking that she’s just tossing it off. But she’s not tossing it off, she’s delivering it. This is beyond a great performance, this feels too real.
Next up was “Save the Country” by Laura Nyro, produced by Roy Halee; this song starts out as a solo gospel-rock aria performed by a young girl (who knows much more because she was so much younger then) and by the second half it transforms into a Broadway show tune – I can see the dancers with streamers and fabric flowing from their costumes. Laura’s voice is small and huge at the same time. For an agnostic (atheist?), she sure sounds like she’s got the spirit. If she doesn’t believe in God, she surely believes in love.
Then came “Red Dirt Girl” by Emmylou Harris (produced by Malcolm Burn), a sad little tale about a girl who never had the chance to see the world. A key line in the song, “There won’t be any mentions on The News of the World” sadly sums it up. It’s filled with melodrama but sung with the understated beauty that’s one of Emmylou’s trademarks. When she sings about being there with Lillian when the telegram came from Viet Nam… call me sentimental but that line still makes me well up under the right circumstance. The production is heavy with percussion and mournful guitars courtesy of Buddy Miller. It doesn’t need it; Emmylou can break your heart with just her voice – but you knew that already.
These songs all have a beautiful melancholy quality as well as wonderful arrangements, honest heartfelt lyrics and five star performances. There is not one false note or feeling in the bunch.
“Sail on Sailor” and “Girl Don’t Tell Me” by the Beach Boys. I know that there are more epic songs by the Beach Boys and I love them too, but these two songs nail it for me most of the time. I love the plaintive feel in Blondie Chaplin’s voice – I love that he’s the singer! Carl could have easily done this one, but they had Blondie sing it and he owns the song now. Ricky Fataar’s drum part is as identifiable as anything Ringo ever did. What a beautiful psalm to the sea. Produced by Carl Wilson!
“Girl Don’t Tell Me.” Now, I love Brian’s voice, but I think I love Carl’s voice a little more and his performance on this one is a prime example of why. “I’m the guy-eye-eye who left you with tears in his eyes…” I don’t care what anyone thinks, these songs are gospel music and these songs are soul music.