Saturday, January 31, 2009

What Should Be Ireland's Best-Known Export

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Cliffs of Dooneen
Christy Moore
SONGWRITER: Traditional
ALBUM: Live at the Point

I was a folk singer in exile.
(Christy Moore)

Here in America, we tend to think of "Danny Boy" when we think of traditional Irish songs. It is understandable: with all the recordings of the song out there (CD Universe lists a whopping 677 recordings available), we would assume that it's THE Irish ballad.

Not so fast. A far more beautiful traditional Irish ballad exists; and, based on this live recording from Irish folk legend Christy Moore, perhaps we Americans have chosen the wrong song to automatically associate with Ireland.

Like most Americans I had never heard of Christy Moore (it's hard to find lots of publicity on our own folk singers, let alone one from another country!). One day, however, while channel surfing through the satellite stations, I came across his hilarious "Delirium Tremens," a hangover-to-end-all-hangovers song from his 1994 live album Live at the Point. I found that song so enjoyable that I picked up the live album and, in the process, found "Cliffs of Dooneen."

This version of "Cliffs of Dooneen" is exquisite. The lyrics paint a lovely picture of the Irish countryside in a way that conveys a universal message: there's no place more lovely than home. With just his guitar for instrumental accompaniment Moore sings the song as if it's his own home he's singing about (he is actually from Newbridge). His delivery is reverent, quiet, and emotional. The audience is silent, rapt in enjoyment after a moment when they can be heard singing along with the line "far away o'er the mountains, far away o'er the foam."

Moore, like many of our folk singers, has strong political opinions, and the references don't always translate well into another country. With "Cliffs of Dooneen," however, the glory of a beautiful land transcends politics and nationalities.


The entire Live at the Point (1994) album -- yes, Americans may scratch their heads and wonder what is so funny about the line "I dreamed Ian Paisley was saying the rosary" in "Delirium Tremens" or wonder what some of the other political references unique to Ireland are all about, but the great thing about music is that sometimes that just doesn't matter. This is an outstanding collection of music well delivered by one of Ireland's favorite musical sons.

A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

Thursday, January 22, 2009

All About the D-I-V-O-R-C-E

CATEGORY: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
John Prine
ALBUM: Bruised Orange
YEAR/LABEL: 1978, Asylum

These songs are so depressing you're going to have to give out a razor blade with each record.
(Bruised Orange producer Steve Goodman)

Divorce has become so commonplace in American life and popular culture (especially country music) that it is easy to forget that it is frequently a traumatic experience for those going through the process. Thankfully, John Prine came along and jolted everyone back into reality regarding how painful getting a divorce can be for the parties involved. In 1977 Prine discovered this fact when his first marriage ended. In a funk, he did what a number of songwriters have done through the years: turned his pain into art. He then took his heartache into the studio with best friend Steve Goodman in the producer's chair and emerged with his masterpiece album, Bruised Orange.

The singular theme of Bruised Orange is unmistakable. Prine's grief pours out of nearly every song. He cites "an ill wind" that "blew your picture right out of the picture frame" in "Crooked Piece of Time" and says that during the divorce proceedings "the grudge wouldn't budge" in "There She Goes." Even when he attempts to put on a game face ("If You Don't Want My Love") and shrug off his divorce ("Well I thought she'd never leave" he claims early in "There She Goes") his emotions betray him. The songs that apparently have nothing to do with the theme still imply that Prine is not a happy man: Sabu is, after all, visiting the Twin Cities alone, and the hobo is "free to wander" again because there is no wife tying him down. The "father forgive us for what we must do" line in the superficially upbeat "Fish and Whistle" comes out sounding like a confessional plea about ignoring church prohibitions against divorce, and later in the song he makes "a big wish that we never have to do this again."

The centerpiece of the album is "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)," a magnificent mixture of music and lyrics that serves as a somber reminder that divorce is, as Tammy Wynette once famously spelled, "Pure H-E-double-L." The song starts with Prine's simple strum of an electric guitar as he recounts an event from his youth: an altar boy, taking a shortcut on railroad tracks when walking to church one Sunday morning, was run down by a train.

As Prine moves to the chorus, where he tries to warn people (and remind himself -- he says, "So help me, I know" after doling out his advice) to not "get mad and get madder" because "a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter," an organ plays in the background as if performing at a funeral. It is quickly obvious that the funeral is not for the altar boy but Prine's marriage.

Prine tries to recall the love's happier moments during the second verse when he fell in love and "my head shouted down to my heart 'you'd better look out below.'" By the end of the verse, however, the short drop "from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter" has happened. The love is gone, leaving only "those bruises to remind you wherever you go."

After the chorus and an increasing musical interlude (complete with a mournful steel guitar), Prine repeats the first verse, and this time it is apparent that Prine, not the altar boy, is the victim. Prine connects his heart, stuck "in the ice house," to the accident he witnessed as a teenager, indicating that he, too, was hit by a train he did not see coming: the divorce express.

The punch of the song does not end when Prine finishes singing. The song concludes with Jim Rothermel playing a saxophone solo as powerful as the lyrics because it reinforces everything Prine has said. Rothermel's performance is exquisite, perfect for the tone of the song. Rarely has an instrumental performance spoken so loudly. The saxophone sounds like a person wailing, painting a visual (especially with the background vocals as the song ends) that family and friends are filing past the casket as they pay their last respects to a love that once was.

John Prine's long career has been filled with exceptional music and very personal music. The two never melded so well together as in this song.


The entire Bruised Orange album -- no razor blades included, just some of the best music John Prine ever made. From start to finish, this album is a gem.
"Diamonds in the Rough" (from Diamonds in the Rough) -- proof that the human voice is the greatest instrument on earth is here in the Carter Family song performed a cappella so amazingly that producer Arif Mardin can be heard at the end over the studio speaking commenting, "Fantastic." Mardin's remark is an understatement.
"Souvenirs" (from Diamonds in the Rough; different versions on John Prine Live and Great Days) -- Prine said he wrote this quickly in his car on the way to a club to play in 1970. The pain of graveyards, old pawn shops, and old love letters he hastily composed that night endures to this day.
"Onomatopoeia" (from Sweet Revenge) -- the title and great rhyme ("Onomatopoeia, I don't wanna see ya") is enough to sell this song, but the true joy is the scathing commentary on the music business that Prine, once hailed as "the new Bob Dylan" by those industry pundits, lays out.
"Sam Stone" (from John Prine) -- one of the most powerful songs ever written about veterans. This ranks right up there with Johnny Cash's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" for emotional impact. This is an incredibly difficult song to listen to, but it should not be missed.
"Paradise" (from John Prine) -- the story of a town literally strip mined off the face of the earth. The main street in Drakesboro, Kentucky is named after Prine because of this song.
"Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" (from German Afternoons) -- the thing that separates Prine from Dylan and all those other "next Dylans" is the fact that he has a sense of humor and is not afraid to show it, and this hilarious tune proves it.
"Unwed Fathers" (from Aimless Love) -- dang, what a song. Prine teamed up with one of country music's greatest songwriters, Bobby Braddock (who wrote "He Stopped Loving Her Today"), for this exceptional song about the one-sided nature of pointing fingers when it comes to teenage pregnancy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

From Dumbo to a Soulful Ballad

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

The rock list, alphabetically speaking, begins here.

SONG: Baby Mine
Bonnie Raitt and Was (Not Was)
SONGWRITERS: Ned Washington / Frank Churchill
ALBUM: Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music From Various Disney Films

I loved working with Don Was.
(Bonnie Raitt)

In 1990, A&M Records put together a diverse group of performers on an album of classic songs from Walt Disney films. The results were mixed. Some were good (Aaron Neville doing the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club) and some were bad (having Tom Waits do “Hi Ho, Hi Ho (Dwarfs’ Marching Song)” might sound like a good idea, but it came out very weak).

On this album Bonnie Raitt teamed for the first time with Don Was, the bass player/producer of the eclectic funk/fun group Was (Not Was), on “Baby Mine.” The song, originally from the movie Dumbo, was the best cut on the album and one of the classic performances in Raitt’s career. It also began a relationship with Was that would lead Raitt into the land of multi-platinum sales and Grammy awards.

The song, originally from the movie Dumbo, was the best cut on the album and one of the classic performances in Raitt’s career. Raitt put her heart and soul into the song while the sweet voices of Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson provide beautiful backing vocals. It is gorgeous, soulful, and priceless.

Bonnie Raitt and Was (Not Was) would continue their relationship on Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw, Longing in Their Hearts, and Road Tested. The musical partnership netted seven Grammy awards. That award-winning partnership began right here with an exceptional song that needs to be found and heard. With a song this good, you envy Dumbo for his big ears!


“Runaway” (from Sweet Forgiveness) – the Del Shannon classic is turned into a mournful blues tune complete with Norton Buffalo’s killer harmonica playing. This is classic Bonnie Raitt.

“Sweet Forgiveness” (from Sweet Forgiveness) – listening to this two-speed song only serves to make one wonder just why it took Bonnie so long to move from cult star to superstar.

“Angel From Montgomery (from Streetlights, live duet with John Prine available on Prine’s Great Days anthology) – a fabulous John Prine song made more incredible with Raitt’s powerhouse vocals. The duet with Prine on Prine’s Great Days is worth the price of that anthology alone.

“Love Has No Pride” (from Give It Up) – if the only version you know is Linda Ronstadt’s, treat yourself to Riatt’s knockout version.


“(Return to the Valley of) Out Come the Freaks” (from Born to Laugh at Tornadoes) – this song became a running joke of sorts, appearing on every Was (Not Was) album in the 80s and 90s. This version is far and away the best.

“Smile” (from Born to Laugh at Tornadoes) – featuring the Knack’s Doug Fieger on lead vocals, the Was brothers turn out a great song combining funk and synth.

“Love Can Be Bad Luck” (from What Up, Dog) – soul singing is not out of style, thanks to the dual lead vocalists of Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson. This is a beautiful song, co-written with Marshall Crenshaw. (If that sounds like strange bedfellows, remember that both Was (Not Was) and Crenshaw are from Detroit.)

“I Feel Better Than James Brown” (from Are You Okay?) – David Was is to Was (Not Was) what the late Country Dick Montana was to the Beat Farmers – comic relief. This comical tune with a brilliantly hilarious title shows David at his silliest.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Am Not a Number, I Am a Free Man!

Category: Obituary

It is with tremendous sadness that I report the death of actor Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan died in Los Angeles on January 14 after a brief illness.

McGoohan was a talented actor with many roles to his credit. However, his legacy, without question, is The Prisoner. He created, produced, and even wrote and directed episodes of the 1960s ITC cult classic centered around an unnamed British agent who resigns from his job and is promptly whisked away to "The Village." Who he is (there were plenty of rumors that the character was John Drake, McGoohan's character in Danger Man -- also known as Secret Agent Man in the U.S.), who has abducted him, where he is, and why were all questions that he AND the audience tried to sort through for 16 delicious episodes. In the world of copycat programming, The Prisoner was, and still is, totally unique.

Number 6 is free at last. McGoohan was 80.