Tag Archives: Steve Lukather

Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody – Joni Mitchell

Hi all. I should be in Barcelona right now, but owing to a rather nasty ear infection that dogged me all last week and hasn’t completely gone away yet, I thought it better not to risk flying; it tends to play havoc with my ears at the best of times. So since I’m here, here’s a little bonus post.

Joni Mitchell is high up on the list of my push-comes-to-shove favourite artists. But my appreciation of her music is based principally on the run of albums starting with Blue and ending with (but including) Mingus. There’s much good work to be found outside this period (the only time I’ve written about her on this blog before, I wrote about a song called Tin Angel from her 1969 album Clouds), but 1971-79 is where the most of the classics reside.

Wild Things Run Fast falls outside her great period. It’s the first studio album she made after Mingus, the first after signing to Geffen. It’s an album of variable quality, almost inconceivably bland at its worst. The mix of legit jazz players (Victor Feldman, Wayne Shorter) and LA session men (Steve Lukather, Michael Landau), intriguing on paper, instead seemed to bring out the most pedestrian aspects of both factions, making the album’s title the more unfortunate.

The record does, however, start with a wonderful song, a bona fide Joni Mitchell classic, and maybe the best thing she wrote in the whole of the 1980s: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.

Interpolating an old song in a new song is a trick Mitchell had pulled off before, on Harry’s House/Centerpiece, an astonishing track from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In that instance, the insertion of a romantic swing tune in such an unsparing portrait of a crumbling marriage signified the emotional distance travelled by Harry and his wife from the optimistic (1950s) beginnings of their affair to the (1970s) endgame of a marriage grown empty, in which love and optimism had been replaced by work and the accumulation of things. An irresistible but bitterly ironic musical joke, it’s the greatest coup on an album full of them.

Inserting Unchained Melody into her own Chinese Café, Mitchell repeats the trick to more straightforwardly poignant effect. Initially just quoting the song’s opening line within the chorus (“We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ one more time”), she ends the track by singing a whole verse and chorus, with a few canny melody adjustments and reharmonisings. As in Harry’s House/Centerpiece, the older song stands for youth, for optimism, for the “birth of rock’n’roll days” that are referred to in the first stanza, so different from the life the narrator finds herself living now.

In 1982, Mitchell was 39 and given that the song’s narrator refers to bearing a child but not raising her, it’s probably not presumptuous to assume Mitchell was singing about herself. Which makes Chinese Café, like Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon from a year later, one of the great backward-looking, stock-taking songs of middle age, a style of song not too well served by rock music on the whole. Akin to Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter musically, but departing from the long-stanza, third-person reportage of her writing on those albums in favour of a simpler, near-the-knuckle style, Chinese Café stands comparison with her very best work.

Joni_Mitchell_2004

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While You Wait for the Others – Grizzly Bear, ft Michael McDonald

Sorry for the lack of updates since New Year’s Day. I did try to write something yesterday but tiredness and lethargy got the better of me. I was unwell over the weekend, and spent rather too much of it feeling sick, or actually being sick, to be able to focus on writing. On the mend now, thankfully!

In 2009, Grizzly Bear released While You Wait for the Others from Veckatimest. The B-side was a second version of the song – the same arrangement, but with guitarist Daniel Rossen’s lead vocals replaced by Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan).

McDonald is the acknowledged harmony-vocal king of the seventies and early eighties and, if you’re into a certain kind of LA studio rock (and I am), his solo debut, If That’s What it Takes, is the ne plus ultra – we’re talking Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, Robben Ford, Dean Parks, Tom Scott, Greg Phillanganes, Michael Omartian, Christopher Cross on backing vocals, Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, even Edgar Winter on sax. And Steve Lukather, of course. As a guy who lapped up Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman records, and grew up on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad – of course this record hits me right where I live.

Grizzly Bear don’t, really. Something about them puts me off a little. There’s a certain lack of delicacy about their music that I find unappealing; everything is a little bigger, grander and less intimate than I’d like it to be, than it needs to be. I usually find myself impressed by their music, but seldom moved. Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed only to like Michael McDonald ironically, admire the craftsmanship but find the whole thing slightly synthetic and soulless. But no. Not at all. As funny as it was, and as much as it did to direct hipsters’ attention to music from the late seventies and early eighties that wasn’t punk or post-punk, perhaps Yacht Rock did guys like McDonald a disservice, giving them a revival that was even more deaf to the qualities of the music than the big band/swing revival of the late nineties, if such a thing were possible. Watching Yacht Rock, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that the band they liked most out of all those they portrayed was actually Van Halen (‘More Eddie! More Alex! More David! More of that other guy!’).

McDonald’s power as a performer comes from his passionate engagement with music. This is a guy who brings tremendous soul to everything he sings, someone who can locate the emotional nub of a piece of music, whether it’s an essentially dry and cerebral construction like the Dan’s I Got the News or a piece of second-rate Tempertonia like Sweet Freedom, which speaks the language of soul but gets far more from McDonald than it had a right to expect.

If only the Grizzlys hadn’t needlessly double-tracked his vocal…

What McDonald did for Grizzy Bear was to plug them into something that’s usually slightly beyond their reach. It was a cute concept, sure, but it actually worked on record. I wish more bands did this kind of thing.

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Grizzly Bear

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Michael McDonald

Trouble in Paradise – Randy Newman

Irreverent, Snide, Acerbic, Bitter, Cerebral, Confrontational, Cynical/Sarcastic, Ironic, Stylish, Wry, Tense/Anxious

All Music Guide’s ‘Album Moods’ for Trouble in Paradise

Randy Newman has always maintained that a professional songwriter should be able to write songs, any kind of song, to order. This willingness to put his own aesthetic preferences to one side and get to work on whatever his commissioners want, coupled with his facility for the job of writing and arranging scores and songs, have made him one of the busiest soundtrack composers in Hollywood for around thirty years now. But it does lead to a huge gulf between what his long-time fans love him for and what he’s known for by a more general audience. It surprises me that to this day there’s not a Randy Newman best-of on the market featuring just his Disney/Pixar songs. Anyone buying Rhino’s 2001 retrospective The Best of Randy Newman hoping for 20 more songs like You’ve Got a Friend in Me will find themselves confronted by Rednecks, Sail Away and Little Criminals. Whether they conclude that Newman is racist, a satirist or a troll may depend on their sensitivity to irony, but still, they’ll get more than they bargained for.

Whatever happened to the old songs, like The Duke of Earl?
Hey Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking Duke of Earl?

Mikey’s

All of which crossed my mind while watching Toy Story 3 on Christmas Day, then I thought about Trouble in Paradise. I couldn’t honestly claim it as my favourite Randy Newman record (that would be a toss-up between his debut and Good Old Boys, which are both of such sustained, stupendous quality that I feel humbled in their presence, when I’m not laughing myself silly at them), but a record with I Love LA, The Blues, My Life is Good, Christmas in Cape Town, Same Girl, Song for the Dead and Real Emotional Girl deserves more press than it gets. That’s a batch of top-drawer songs, whether or not you would listen to Toto guitarist Steve Lukather’s playing in any other context.

Trouble in Paradise is an on-the-nose title for this record. Most of the characters in these songs come by their situations by their own inadequacies; given every advantage, they squander them through stupidity, selfishness and greed. They are the most despicable bunch of creations in popular music, with the possible exception of the losers, dealers, pimps and idiotic cuckolds of Steely Dan’s Gaucho. Like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on that album, Newman does give us a couple of sympathetic characters to cling on to (the put-upon Mexican maid of My Life is Good; Marie – surely not the same Marie from Good Old Boys – who seems to have left the narrator of Mikey’s, and not before time; the addressee of Same Girl, ruthless exploited by her pimp boyfriend), but the songs themselves are narrated by the assholes who abuse and take advantage of them.

The unthinking yuppie of I Love LA, the entitled Hollywood bigshot of My Life is Good (the middle section of that song – the ‘Springsteen’ passage – when Newman lets on that the narrator happens to share his first name and may or may not be himself, is one of the record’s most audacious and funniest passages), the nostalgic racists of Mikey’s and Christmas in Cape Town – these are a grotesque but recognisably human collection of individuals, and they deserve what Newman throws at them. Don’t be fooled by the argument, often used against Randy’s work from Good Old Boys onwards, that these folks are soft targets for Newman’s scorn – not much has changed in 30 years and the world is still full of these people. The shame of it is that while Newman’s doing his stellar soundtrack work, adding to his enormous haul of Oscars and Emmys, he’s not writing more songs like these, and there’s no one else who can do it like him.

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Randy Newman, some time in the eighties