Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Eighty-Five

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Eighty Five

While the show had a week’s hiatus with Jon recharging his batteries in the sunny climes of Florida, this episode, recorded the prior week is no less packed with timely and interesting topics.  Among the many morsels chewed and mulled over, the annoying need to have an “anniversary” for every album; the thwarted canonization of John Lennon in the current political climate; Nikki Haley’s resignation; the continuing struggles of retail chains; the baseball playoffs; Hurricane Michael’s aftermath, “In Our Heads” (of course) and even more.

Now that you’ve missed us and were going through withdrawal, we’re back to refill your tank.  And we know you’ll be very glad you tuned in…!

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Eighty Five

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Soul Serenade: Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story

Stax Records was in a bad place as 1968 began. Otis Redding, the label’s biggest star, had been killed in a plane crash in a Wisconsin lake on December 10, 1967, just as he was poised on the brink of superstardom. Also killed in the crash were four members of Redding’s backing band, the Bar-Kays.

Also at the end of 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Brothers. Atlantic had been distributing Stax records since 1965 under the terms of a deal struck between Stax co-founder Jim Stewart and Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. Unfortunately, Stewart didn’t read the small print and when he exercised his right to terminate the contract because his key-man Wexler was no longer at Atlantic, Stewart learned that the agreement that he had signed gave ownership of all the Stax masters to Atlantic. Stax was left with no product to sell. Zero, zip, nada. But something worse, something that transcended the business crisis at Stax was about to happen in the label’s hometown of Memphis.

Everyone at Stax was shocked by Redding’s death but the label was not unprepared to continue without him. Redding’s contract with the label was about to expire and Stewart fully expected that Redding would sign with one of the many major labels that were chasing him. But first, there was one more single, recorded a few weeks before Redding’s death, to be released.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was a song that Redding had written in the summer of 1967 while he was relaxing on a houseboat in Sausalito, California shortly after he had blown away a mostly white rock audience at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. He worked on the song with producer Steve Cropper but it still felt somehow unfinished. After Redding’s death, Cropper came up with the idea of adding the sound of seagulls and breaking waves to the record and the rest is history.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released on a new Stax imprint called Enterprise on January 8, 1968, and it streaked to the top of the R&B chart while making it to the #2 spot of the pop chart. Released the same day was Sam & Dave’s follow-up to their 1967 smash “Soul Man.” “I Thank You” proved to be another Top 10 R&B and pop hit for the duo. Despite the dark times, Stax had somehow risen from the ashes and under the leadership of label VP Al Bell, and there were some big plans for 1968.

Eddie Floyd
Eddie Floyd

Stax still had an impressive roster of artists. In addition to Sam & Dave (it would soon be discovered that they were actually signed to Atlantic and had only been on loan to Stax), the list included stalwarts like William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Booker T and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and Albert King among many others. Somehow, despite everything that had happened, things were looking up at Stax. They might not have any of their old catalog to sell but they had plenty of artists to create new product. Then Dr. King was shot to death in Memphis on April 4. Things got tense across the nation but nowhere more so than in Memphis where the smoke from fires began to fill the sky.

Stax had always worn the diversity of its artist roster and staff as a badge of honor while acknowledging that the harmony that existed inside the Stax building didn’t necessarily translate to the outside world. The assassination of Dr. King brought the outside world closer to Stax. Eventually, the fires were banked but the tension remained on the streets of Memphis. The white musicians at Stax were so concerned about the threats they were receiving that they had to be escorted to their cars by the black musicians.

Bell made the critical mistake of hiring a tough guy from New York named Johnny Baylor to ensure the safety of Stax employees. The move worked in the short time but it would eventually bring the label to its knees several years later. Making matters worse was the dawning realization that the racial strife that had been kept outside of its doors had found its way into Stax.

Stax was in no position to wait though. There had to be new product if the label was going to continue to exist. And it was the artists who had been at Stax from its earliest days that delivered the hits.

“We were determined,” Stewart said. “The company really came together. It was do or die.”

It began with Booker T and the MGs and their hit “Soul Limbo” which was released in late May. Stax changed its label from the classic blue stack of records design to the yellow finger-snapping label and designated “Soul Limbo” as Stax 0001. The label was clearly indicating its desire to start afresh. The record went Top 10 on the R&B chart and Top 20 on the pop chart. Then William Bell and Judy Clay scored with “Private Number.”

Stax had a setback when Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” was rejected by R&B radio demonstrating that racial tension remained high in the South and white soul singers were not welcome on black radio. As a result, Stax gave up trying to have hits by white R&B artists for quite a while.

“I worked my buttocks off to break that record,” Bell said. “Then I started hearing back. ‘That’s a white girl! Isn’t that a white girl?’ We never said to anyone she was white. Radio and retail were both saying it to us. It broke my heart. Momentum just kept decreasing from that point on.”

Johnnie Taylor got the label back on track with his smash “Who’s Making Love,” a song that had been previously rejected by six producers at Stax. Booker T and the MGs scored again with the theme song from the Clint Eastwood film “Hang ‘Em High” and the gold rush was on at Stax. Bell signed the legendary Staple Singers. The Soul Children were brought in to try to fill the void of Sam & Dave’s departure to Atlantic.

Stalwarts like Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd continued to positively impact the bottom line. Delaney & Bonnie were doing their blue-eyed soul thing for the label too. But there were lesser known artists like the Charmells, Jeanne and the Darlings, the Mad Lads, Bobby Whitlock, the Epsilons, the Aardvarks, Jimmy Hughes, and Fresh Air doing their best to add to the Stax legacy.

A new five-disc set called Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story from Stax/Craft Recordings compiles every single released by Stax in the unforgettable year of 1968. There are 120 songs in all by the artists mentioned here and many others. The set was produced by Joe McEwen and the package includes a booklet with a powerful essay by Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon and another by Steve Greenberg. There are a host of great photos and the discs themselves are housed in sleeves that replicate Stax album covers.

You might think that you already own all of this music but you probably don’t. I base that on the fact that some of the artists represented are either unknown to me or forgotten in the mists of time. The other thing is that the set, with its accompanying essays, puts this music in the context of its times, and does so brilliantly. If you are a fan of Stax or soul music in general Stax ’68 is indispensable.

Exit Lines: “Girl From the North Country”

Twyla Tharp’s Broadway bust The Times They Are a-Changin’ (2006) proved that however rich and multifaceted Bob Dylan’s work is, it’s not exactly dance music. But Dylan wanted to try again, and so we have Girl From the North Country, which after its West End debut last year has been rapturously received at the Public Theater. By some, I should add; for others, myself included, the third time will have to be the charm.

The show has all the earmarks of High Seriousness, starting with the venue, which tilts toward earnestness outside Shakespeare in the Park. Its writer and director, Conor McPherson, is a two-time Tony nominee. There’s “movement”–God forbid, no choreography, not after the last time. It’s set in the Great Depression–the characters are broke, hungry, and adrift in their own funk, nothing to tap dance or sing a happy tune about in their threadbare outfits. While “Like a Rolling Stone” is performed most of the twenty songs are deeper cuts, for harder-core Dylanologists who may have rolled out to see it after an afternoon perusing used record stores. Design is minimal: chairs, a table, some projections to break the monotony.

But monotonous, and lugubrious, Girl From the North Country is. The problem isn’t Dylan–orchestrator, arranger, and music supervisor Simon Hale has done a fine job recasting some of his outstanding songs for a theatrical ensemble. Show music they’re not, but McPherson is best known as a monologist, and the songs are matched as organically as possible to each vignette. Which is the problem; his play is choppy and uninvolving, with characters who have little momentum other than to get through their numbers and cede the stage to the next cut. It’s also achingly dull, which will dismay anyone looking for the raucous fun of The Seafarer, his Broadway hit, or his prior, nervier work. “There will be none of that foolishness here; it’s Dylan, you see,” you can hear him saying, on his knees, prostrate with admiration. He worships Dylan the Inscrutable, the seer. But witty, incisive Dylan, the only Nobel Prize recipient with a Christmas album, has never been above entertainment.

A peculiar framing device doesn’t help. The show is set in a boarding house in hardscrabble Duluth, MN, in 1934, and the characters seem to be on a radio show. (A nod, perhaps, to the fourth wall-breaking of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, but only just.) One criticism of the London production was that the performers weren’t authentically American, which is handily remedied here. House owner Nick (Stephen Bogardus) is depressed that his wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is drifting into early-onset dementia. Elizabeth is depressed that their writer son (Colton Ryan), an alcoholic, is uncommunicative. (She breaks out of her fog long enough to sing “Like a Rolling Stone,” with, strangely, disco ball accompaniment, but perhaps all of this is taking place in her addled mind.) Mr. Burke (Mark Kudisch) and Mrs. Burke (Luba Mason) are depressed about their man-child son, Elias (Todd Almond). Everyone’s so depressed, in fact, they may as well be British.

The songs do give the show some Prozac, even if the energy is sometimes misplaced. (“Hurricane,” the story of a specific person, doesn’t make much sense out of context, but the spirited rendition should highlight the cast album.) Underutilized by the play, which at the end strains to be Our Town, veterans like Winningham and Kudisch give them their all. But Girl From the North Country isn’t my kind of town, to steal from a singer Dylan lionized in a recent album.

TV Review: “The Romanoffs”

Matthew Weiner’s project after his wildly successful “Mad Men” centers people who say they are the descendants of the Russian royal family who were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Though the spelling is different (i.e., Romanoff vs Romanov) the series is a collection of stand-alone stories that show a connection to the royal family. Amazon, perhaps agreeing with Matthew Weiner’s desire to create momentum for episodic TV a la “Mad Men,” is releasing one 90 minute episode a week — except for the first two.

Episode one, “The Violet Hour” centers on the relationship between Greg and his aunt, Anushka. Folded into the story are Greg’s girlfriend, Sophie and a young woman hired to care for Anushka, Hajar. Anushka doesn’t hold back on her disdain for the world, and, most notably, her disdain for Hajar, who wears more traditional Islamic clothing but considers herself French (the episode takes place in Paris, France). The clash of cultures comes to the fore when Anushka unleashes racist tirades against Hajar, who, to her credit, doesn’t break her patina of professionalism. Hajar cooks, cleans, walks the dog, and generally keeps Anushka’s stunning apartment, well, stunning. The conflicts centers on the four principal characters, with Greg as the one who stands to benefit from inheriting his aunt’s apartment and what’s left of the family fortune — and his girlfriend knows it. But this tale is not about avarice, it is more about how understanding and acceptance grow from familiarity and trust. Matthew Weiner wrote and directed the episode, and it’s a dialogue-heavy affair with the actors switching between English and French. Standout performances are Marthe Keller as Anushka and Aaron Eckhart as Greg. Ines Melab plays Hajar with eye-rolling bemusement at the utter backward attitude Anushka displays toward her and Islamic culture in general.

Episode two, “The Royal We” is a much more muddled affair. The story of a couple whose marital problems become more complicated when a planned ocean cruise and jury duty intersect in a way to show why some relationships fall apart. Corey Stoll plays Michael Romanoff, an “employee” of a test prep center his wife (Kerry Bishe as Shelly) owns. Corey and Shelly are trying to find areas of commonality in their marriage by working with a counselor, but it’s not going well. They are supposed to go on a cruise with other Romanoffs, but Michael’s infatuation with a fellow juror on a trial he’s been selected to be on, gets him scheming on how he can prolong the trial and skip the trip. He gets his wish and starts to find ways to make small talk with Michelle (Janet Montgomery). Shelly leaves for the trip and soon finds that it’s a rich cultural event that has the added benefit of another Romanoff (Noah Wyle as Ivan) who takes an interest in her. What Shelly and Michael find is their marriage lacks the excitement of desire. Corey Stoll plays scheming and smarmy really well, but he also displays middle-age ennui very effectively. Kerry Bishe came close to playing a type-A stereotype for the first part of the episode, but she quickly found her footing and shifted her tone (and the audience sympathy) to play Shelly with more depth and grace. Michael Goldbach and Matthew Weiner wrote the episode (with Weiner directing), and while it’s not quite as intriguing as “The Violet Hour” it does have scenes and characters who display a certain complexity in the way they react or embrace opportunities to cheat on their relationships.

While I do find “The Romanoffs” compelling at times, there’s a dark cynicism that pervades each episode — almost as if the middle to upper-middle-class comfort afforded these characters is kind of boring. That’s made abundantly clear in the first episode with Hajar’s “striver” life is held up as a point of contrast with the Romanoff’s. Both episodes highlight the privilege of having so-called royal blood and the kind of resentment that comes with it. Not really resentment at having that lineage, but more like resentment at not having all the perks and deference that come with it.

“The Romanoffs” airs Friday nights on Amazon Prime until November 23, 2018.

What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?: A Tori-fic finale

It’s time to wrap up this series for a variety of unimportant reasons, but before I go, it’s time to pay a debt.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote one of my favorite posts in the series. I had a bit of fun with the abstruse musings of an artist I consider frequently brilliant, Tori Amos. The video for Caught a Lite Sneeze just lent itself to full-fledged snark.

A handful of Tori fans took umbrage. At least, I assume it was just a handful. I didn’t check message boards or Reddit. Is there a Tori Amos Reddit? Probably. I’m not sure I’d dare to go there.

I’ve dealt with worse. I’m a soccer writer. And a soccer coach. And a soccer ref. (Man, soccer sucks, and I’ve dedicated far too much of my life to it.)

But I’ve felt a little guilty. Maybe Tori deserves better.

I could pick any number of wonderful Tori Amos songs. Her debut album, Little Earthquakes, is a wonderful introduction to a woman of many contradictions — full of self-doubt yet brash in her sexuality, relishing her freedom while keeping one eye back toward her family, abstract in some respects but direct in others. She dwelled in the same somewhat depressed realm as many singer-songwriters but possessed a surprising wit that would catch listeners off-guard. And my goodness, she can play piano.

Under the Pink went in some intriguing new directions, especially on the theological twist and cutting guitar on God and the peace/hate exploration on The Waitress, which would be expanded into a breathtaking epic with her skillful band on the live album To Venus and Back.

Boys for Pele didn’t speak to me the same way, as you may have noticed with the link above. But she followed that up with From the Choirgirl Hotel, which ran the gamut from a harrowing and musically sophisticated tale of her own miscarriage (Spark) to a pointed demand of a lover (Raspberry Swirl, which might have been the impetus for the hilarious Bob’s Burgers homage) to another dose of brash wit (She’s Your Cocaine).

With her position in music history secure, she has been experimental over the next couple of decades, even dabbling in classical music. My personal favorites include another witty entry in Big Wheel and the environmental lament Up the Creek.

But for this series finale and reparation to the Tori community, I’ve opted for another beautiful tune from From the Choirgirl Hotel

Jackie’s Strength is certainly more accessible than some of Tori’s work. It’s a juxtaposition of a childhood memory of fretting over the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy with the adult decision to get married.

It’s ambiguous. It’s stream of consciousness. And it works.

The musical setting of lush strings and piano helps, showing how effectively Tori deploys her sonic palette. It’s not a *happy* song, per se, but it conveys a bit of excitement along with some wedding jitters. (And we thought “fear of commitment” was just a guy thing.)

She sets the first scene beautifully: “A Bouvier ’til her wedding day / shots rang out, the police came / Mama laid me on the front lawn / and prayed for Jackie’s strength.”

Then we fast-forward from childhood to a wedding day, and her acerbic wit pops up again: “My bridesmaid’s getting laid.” And now she is praying for Jackie’s strength. No, she’s not trying to hold it together after her husband was murdered in the most sudden, traumatic fashion. She’s just hoping for a little bit of Jackie Kennedy’s grace under pressure as she takes the leap into the unknown.

The chorus, punctuated by a sudden but graceful harmonic shift (it’s in D, the chorus lands on F# minor, and then we suddenly go to F# major), is a list of gentle but firm demands of this man pulling her to the altar. “Make me laugh” is the easy but sweet one. Generally, just make this work so we can live and learn together.

Then we’re back to childhood and her teen years. It’s innocent — a David Cassidy crush, a sleepover — or maybe not. Someone brought pot to the sleepover, and now she’s fretting that “you’re only popular with anorexia.”

The last verse ramps up the stream of consciousness. She’s lost on her wedding day, and we have a callback to the police — maybe looking for the runaway bride? Then suddenly we get another snarky comment — “but virgins always get backstage no matter what we have to say.” It doesn’t fit neatly into the story, but it doesn’t have to.

I’d always thought the protagonist went through with the wedding despite her fears. The video — also stream of consciousness, not matching the lyrics in any linear fashion — implies otherwise.

And Tori herself has given a few interviews about this song, all slightly different but telling the same story. In real life, she thought about ditching her wedding and going to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee. (Coincidentally, I have only recently started to have Slurpees — it’s a way to cheat and get a soda without the carbonation eating away at my stomach, so it’s certainly a different impulse.) She views it as a sort of sliding-doors moment, and this song is for the girl who dashed off to 7-Eleven.

But even if you’re absolutely sure you want to run down the aisle, as I was, it’s easy to relate to this song. There’s a bit of innocence and frivolity that goes away with marriage — perhaps it’s no accident that she asks her husband-to-be to “make me laugh.” As scary as single life can be, competing with virgins and anorexics, there’s something safe about it compared with saying you’re either going to spend the rest of your life with someone or end up divorced. Or widowed, like Jackie.

And it still comes across to me as hopeful. Maybe if she strummed an acoustic guitar and sounded like any coffeehouse depressive, it would be different. Instead, it’s a gorgeous melody throughout — simple but unique.

Whether you get the ring or the Slurpee, you’re going to need that strength. But you can find it.

With that, I hope Tori Amos fans will forgive me. And I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. I’m wrapping it up, but I’m not going anywhere. Lord knows I need to write about something besides soccer every once in a while. I think even Jackie or Tori would throw up her hands if she were committing to soccer journalism.

Popdose Exclusive Video Premiere: Rachel Taylor Brown, “Wedding Song (Bag of Bones)”

Popdose is pleased to bring you the video for “Wedding Song (Bag Of Bones)” from Run Tiny Human, the latest album from Shelbyville, Oregon-based songwriter/singer Rachel Taylor Brown. The album was recorded and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Bloc Party, Menomena, Stephen Malkmus, Typhoon). This is is her tenth record and possibly her best ; two of her songs were featured in the late Scott Miller’s classic countdown-of-best-songs-ever book,”Music: What Happened?”

Brown explains the new album’s perspective:  “Half asleep one night, I thought about the space junk orbiting the earth looking down at the Pacific garbage gyre. The space junk got more and more obsessed until it broke free of Earth’s orbit and fell into the ocean, joining the gyre. Anyway, that’s where the song “Little Gyre” came from. A one-sided love song from the viewpoint of a kind of stalkerish bunch of sky garbage.”

“I guess I had garbage on the mind. Land and ocean and outer space, all filled up with garbage in an impressively short timespan–something I wouldn’t have thought possible as a kid. Just one of our relatively recent, awesome achievements. Go, humanity!”

“I’m struggling to come to grips with an increasingly absurd world, like anyone. Run Tiny Human is partly what my brain makes of it. And per usual, the way people behave and cope is what interests me and sometimes (ok, often) horrifies me. And also touches me.”

Rachel lives just outside Portland, in Shelbyville, Oregon with her husband and sister.  Not knowing about Rachel is easy. She doesn’t get out much and it can take some effort to find her music. Nonetheless, her devoted following now spans the globe, and new converts are known to buy all of her accumulated output, in one fell swoop, soon after they first discover her work.

Popdose has featured Ms. Brown previously, so see what you think of this latest excursion into her musical mind!

Run Tiny Human will be available on Friday, October 19, 2018

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Eighty-Four

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Eighty Four

There is never any rest for the not-quiet-wicked…  as Jon and Rob reconvene with yet another packed show that goes from one end of the spectrum to the other.  Among the many topics the boys tackle this week, the baseball playoffs; the sudden death of legendary recording engineer Geoff Emerick; the continuing look at retail giants suddenly collapsing – not just in the United States; the start of the hockey season; Jon discusses the MC50 live show and Rob offers his appraisal of Populuxe’s Lumiere album; critiquing a few television shows and a really fun and meaningful “In Our Heads” – and even more than that!
So come on aboard – they promise you they won’t hurt the horse…  and you’ll have a great time listening in!

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Eighty Four

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.