Tag Archives: singing

On a Clear Day, you can hear forever

clearday

Jazz has never been the taste of the timid.  It’s a gauntlet thrown down for the bold.  More than any other form of music, jazz demands a degree of commitment, an implicit contract between song and listener.  Jazz extends you an invitation to wander through its complex depths, brain fully engaged, to discover the notes that will move your heart.  The most learned fans of jazz will always emphasize this idea of the journey.  They’ll name-check greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, but they’ll tell you with a gleam in their eye that the greatest jazz they ever heard was played by an unknown 75-year-old trumpeter they stumbled upon in a dive bar in Kansas City in 1978.  So too is jazz a journey for the performers who recognize this drive at the soul of it to go, to seek the best of it out in remote corners.  Emilie-Claire Barlow, an award-winning Canadian singer with ten albums under her belt, knew her newest release Clear Day needed to embrace the quest beckoning at the core of jazz.  On the opening instrumental track “Amundsen,” she whispers enticingly in French, “all things are possible” – and sets about taking us on a journey that proves it.

Barlow has always been an artist with the ability to reach into songs across different genres and with affectionate fingers, draw out the jazz you never knew was hiding inside.  Clear Day offers a broad canvas on which she can play – a map of the world, if you will – from classic Tin Pan Alley numbers to Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Beatles and Queen and even a French interpretation of a traditional song from Mexican folklore for good measure.  Far from settling for a release of glorified karaoke cuts, however, Barlow deconstructs each song down to its basic elements and rebuilds it into a brand new confection, offering a teasing taste of the familiar to settle you into your seat before the inventive arrangements blast you out of it.  The title track opens with a movie-esque swell of strings and brass, like an eager, applauding audience waiting for the curtain to rise and the star to assume her place.  What follows are songs you know but yet don’t:  the early eighties groove of “Under Pressure” is here, but without the bass riff later made infamous by Vanilla Ice.  So is “Fix You,” retaining the comforting core of the lyrics but shedding the histrionic treacle that unbalanced Coldplay’s original.

Tossing the script like that might be a concern if entrusted to a vocalist of lesser chops, but Barlow, backed this time by both her regular supporting combo players and the 52-member Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, is more than up to the challenge.  She takes a spotlit center stage with her often dizzying, always compelling aural acrobatics.  Her voice can be by turns searing, sweet, aching, dreamy or white-hot sexy, while never succumbing to the nasty American Idol habit of cranking things past 11 on every single track to transfix wandering attentions.  Her vocal runs are remarkable not only for their range but their restraint.  A great performer never shows you her top, because then the audience will realize she has nowhere else to go.  Emilie-Claire Barlow knows this, and as a result her work is one of constant surprise.  Accordingly, Clear Day is not an album to throw on in the background to score empty dinner conversation, lest you miss something special.  It makes you comb through its reaches for the treasure awaiting the diligent.  And there’s a lot of treasure lurking here.

Barlow has the ability, on every song, to welcome you along as a passenger on the intimate journey that is jazz, beginning with her wistful echoes of the Arctic circle in “Amundsen,” as if you were an old friend from the trenches.  When she takes on the persona of the lonely, longing songstress whispering her pain to the deaf ears of the closing-time crowd in “Unrequited,” you can immediately imagine yourself nursing a scotch in the front row.  When she kicks down the cobblestones on a sunny Sunday morning in “Feelin’ Groovy,” you’re smiling and tipping your cap as you watch this vivacious bubble of energy saunter by.  When she transforms into the widow in flowing black silks by the river weeping for her lost children in the haunting, rending “La Llorona,” you’re reaching out to console her.  But never one to bid her audience goodbye on a downhearted note, Barlow instead dances you out with a sprightly spring in her step in the lively, conga-driven “Mineiro de Coração.”  You feel, as the final notes spiral into the dark and you part ways, that you’ve walked the world together to a jazz-flavored beat, and you’re more than eager to rewind to track 1 and make the voyage again.  This is Barlow’s most accomplished and most mature album, and while one would never suggest she wasn’t terrific before, Clear Day is a confident climb up to the next level.  She writes on the album’s liner notes that Clear Day was inspired by her personal journey over the last four years, and we are reminded that the best art is that which dares to dig deep and to embrace any scars accumulated on the way.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Emilie-Claire Barlow perform live a couple of times, and I’m often left perplexed as to why someone with such formidable talent isn’t selling out stadiums instead of the Auto-Tuned pop princess du jour.  Perhaps it goes back to the notion that jazz is something that you have to search out, rather than have it served to you passively with ad nauseum airplay on mainstream radio.  Clear Day is that glittering jewel of an example where you don’t have to journey too far to find it.  Rather, the journey is in the experience of the album itself, a vast menu of worldly delights that makes its asks of you but, for your trouble, supplies sumptuous rewards.  Pick it up, listen well, and share it with the next person who asks about the last time you heard some great jazz.

Clear Day is available online and in music stores now.

With a Song in My Heart: N is for…

“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – The Beatles, 1965.

My wife and I are fond of saying that adopting an older child is a bit like dating; you’re attempting to integrate another fully formed personality into your life, only without the option of ever deciding that you think you should see other people.  Our son came to us with likes and dislikes entrenched without much room for further influence by us, and one of the most frustrating aspects is his lack of interest in music.  It’s not entirely his fault, but rather a product of the different foster homes he grew up in, none of which apparently had so much as a radio in it.  From the perspective of someone who was practically nursed on classic rock & roll, it seems incomprehensible that a child could be brought up in this corner of the world without it, and we often sigh in disbelief when he gives us blank looks at the mention of legends like Buddy Holly and Little Richard.

When I was growing up that stuff was always playing somewhere in the background, whether at parties my parents would throw or as part of the oldies countdown on a lazy Sunday.  As soon as I figured out how to work the record player I’d comb through my father’s booklets of old 45’s and listen to artists like Del Shannon, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons obsessively (until the tragic day I dropped and broke his copy of “Walk Like a Man”).  Good grades aside, Dad was prouder that I could mimic the scratchy vocals in “Wooly Bully” and that I understood, unequivocally, that bird was the word.  At the age of eight I wondered why I must be a teenager in love, and never failed to compare the rising sun to a red rubber ball.  The merest out-of-context mention of two words that happened to appear next to one another in a lyric set would prompt me to offer an unrequested rendition of the entire related song.  It was glorious, and likely irritating as all get out to anyone outside the family.

Somewhere in this decade-long musical crash course, I found two albums that would kindle a lifelong love of those four lads from Liverpool.  One wasn’t even theirs.  This is going waaaaaay back so my friends born in the 80’s and onward will have no idea, but there used to be a group of professional impersonators called “Stars On” who would release disco medleys of popular songs.  The Stars On Long Play album’s A-side was snippets from about 20 Beatles songs stitched together with a dance beat.  Though whoever was imitating them sounded like the Beatles by way of the Swedish Chef, I listened to that cassette until the tape demagnetized.  Even in bowdlerized, Bee Gee’d form, something transcendent resonated within me when I would listen to those songs.  Like recognizing the voices of friends from a past life.  Fortunately, we did have a few copies of the genuine article, the most accessible being the double album compilation that was the Beatles’ Love Songs.  The cover resembled brown leather, and inside was a printed booklet on parchment featuring the lyrics in script.  For the young, slightly-obsessive Beatles fan, a treasure to be devoured.  25 selections of auditory bliss, none more so than track 3 on side two of the second disc.

“Norwegian Wood,” recorded in 1965, is a noteworthy (pun intended) Beatles song for a couple of reasons, the first being that it is said to be the first example of a song by a Western rock band to feature a sitar.  Second, the Beatles’ output to that point especially as concerning the subject of love had been focused largely on promises of undying devotion or pleas to avoid heartbreak.  This song is about an affair, carried on without remorse.  Of course, it’s not like young me would have had any way of understanding that.  At first your concept of love is that you meet someone, you marry her, you have kids and you stay together forever.  The movie version, essentially.  You don’t comprehend the complexities and nuances of emotions and the mad and often despicable things love and lust can drive you to.  How could you – you’re just a kid, swaying back and forth to the triple time rhythm and giggling at the part where John Lennon sings that he “crawled off to sleep in the bath.”  And the part at the end where he burns down his lover’s flat by setting fire to her Norwegian wood furniture goes right over your head.  But that doesn’t matter, and when other kids your age are warbling off-key and arrhythmic renditions of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to the applause of beaming relatives, you offer this number instead.  Your relatives cringe as you croon in a little boy’s voice about biding your time and drinking her wine.  And your dad’s grin is as wide as the room.

From time to time we’ll have the music going and ask our son if he can guess who’s singing.  His default answer, if it’s a male singer, is the Beatles.  I’ve played the albums for him from time to time, looking perhaps to recreate the conditions by which the same fascination may be sparked – so far without much success.  It saddens me a little to realize that he may not ever share this particular passion, and that I have to be okay with it.  Every so often, though, I’ll catch him humming something he may have overheard, a few stray notes that are indeed Beatlesque, and I’ll smile, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before I find him at the computer, playing “Norwegian Wood” and looking up the lyrics.  Isn’t it good.

With a Song in My Heart: M is for…

“Maneater” – Hall & Oates, 1982.

Mondegreen is the word for the phenomenon that has plagued music since the dawn of recorded sound:   the misinterpretation of mumbled lyrics to mean something other than what was intended.  If you’ve ever sung “scuse me while I kiss this guy” to “Purple Haze,” “there’s a bathroom on the right” to “Bad Moon Rising” or pretty much anything to “Louie Louie,” congratulations, you’re a mondegreener.  The term was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay after her mishearing of the line “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen,” in the 17th Century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and it seems that so long as vocalists continue to sing with marbles their mouths, mondegreens are ensured a healthy reign.  Bob Dylan’s output alone contains enough potential mondegreens to leave several small countries scratching their heads and rewinding to give it another listen.  More on this in a minute.

My father’s enormous vinyl record collection was a sampler of some of the greatest rock & roll ever written and performed.  His expertise in the two decades of music spanning the Eisenhower to Nixon years was unsurpassed.  I remember once playing the “RPM” version of Trivial Pursuit with him, which had a category called “After the Beatles,” spanning the era following their breakup.  He’d always struggle to get those ones correct, and he once commented that it was because it was such a terrible time for music.  Anything from the 50’s or 60’s, however, he knew cold.  The “Lookin’ Back” dance parties held by local radio station CKFM were annual appointments for him and my mother, with my sister and I left with a babysitter (one of whom made me watch Tommy, traumatizing me for life with the baked beans exploding over Ann-Margret) while they tore up the floor to the jukebox standards that continued to fire the souls of the baby boomers with nostalgia for proms and sock hops.  For my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, Dad drew on his archive to create his gift of a themed playlist:  Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” and the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” among others, and again this was back when that meant carting records and reel-to-reels from house to house in a couple of banker’s boxes.  He was an attorney by trade, but a DJ at heart.

Being his son meant absorbing that passion as well, learning the legendary songs of his past and discovering the new music of our present together in the form of cassettes loaded into the car stereo on long drives to Blue Jays games, with gems as varied as Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the Footloose soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the collected works of Hall & Oates, specifically their album Rock & Soul, Part 1 (there never was a part 2.)  This is where we return to the subject of mondegreens.  Back in those days, of course (to channel Grampa Simpson a little) there was no Lyrics.com to visit if you didn’t catch the middle eight in “I Want a New Drug,” you just had to listen over and over again and try to discern the meaning.  That is, if you cared.  Dad didn’t.  His love of singing was about the feel of the music and not the substance of the words, so, half-heard verses were substituted with fantastic inventions coming not within a light-year of their actual meaning, or general sense for that matter.  “Trouble wander cheek new see behind me” was the placeholder for “Devil and the deep blue sea behind me” in the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”  And Daryl Hall’s perfectly logical “The woman is wild, ooh” from the song that lends itself to the title of this post transmogrified between my father’s ears into “poobulasquaw, ooooh.”  (A million quatloos to anyone who can divine a reasonable-sounding explanation of what that means.)

I’d roll my eyes and sigh, “Daaaaaaad,” but the truth is that his fanciful interpretations were far more memorable than whatever the artist had recorded in the first place.  I recall looking at the liner notes of a Seal album once where he was asked why he didn’t publish his lyrics, and his rationale was that music was supposed to be more about how it was received rather than how it was meant, and that he had no business stepping on what people felt he was singing by providing a definitive answer.  In retrospect I think my father always knew the lyrics, and for him, getting them wrong was mere spirited improvisation; having fun and seeing if his often literal-minded boy would notice.  Today, “Maneater” is the song that reminds me it’s okay to color outside the lines, that imaginative speculation can sometimes outdo whatever The Man has decided the correct answer is.  And Seal was right – Daryl Hall and John Oates by no means intended “Maneater” to be a song that could help recall a bond between a father and his son.  We added that ourselves and made the result something greater than the sum of its parts.  Let us then continue to celebrate the mondegreen as the spirit of human invention, where even our mistakes can bring forth genius, or at the very least, a good laugh and a treasured memory.