It’s time to salute the reclusive damaged blues singer with the four and one-half octave range who gave the world such memorable albums as Trout Mask Replica and Bat Chain Puller and important songs such as “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man” and “A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond”. Yes, it’s Happy Birthday time for Captain Beefheart (a/k/a Don Van Vliet), who deconstructed classic American music and made it modern and dangerous, inspiring countless bands along the way. To honor the good Captain, please get your iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 songs that come up.
Fleet Foxes — Ragged Wood (Fleet Foxes): I understand the My Morning Jacket comparisons, but that’s primarily due to Robin Pecknold’s vocal similarity with Jim James. But the Foxes have their own thing — making brilliant folk pop songs with masterful harmony vocals. Their performance at Pitchfork in 2008 was so special. To stun over 10,000 people into silence with the beauty of four voices is really something.
Johnny Cash — Hey Porter (The Sun Years): My friend Jody introduced me in college to a collection of Johnny Cash train songs, all recorded for Sun Records. Of all of those songs, this is my favorite. It’s in Cash’s classic spartan style, with Cash at his most insistent, a man who wants his bag since he’s so happy to be back in Tennessee. He must be smelling the biscuits at the Loveless Cafe.
Sparks — Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls (Lil’ Beethoven): The core concept of Lil’ Beethoven was stripping away the predictability of pop music, whether through odd song structures or odd sounds. This song actually has a verse-chorus-verse structure, but it is the hardest rocking Sparks song since 1973’s “Whippings and Apologies”, with Dean (Faith No More) Menta providing some blistering guitar and Russell Mael practically going metal in the piledriving choruses. The mix of blistering rock with Ron Mael’s classically influenced piano and typical smartass Sparks lyrics about what would attract a woman to an ugly dude make this something of a classic. And on stage, they always have a model type lady squired around the stage by Ron, to hammer home the title.
The Kingsbury Manx — Shoulder Stories (Ascenseur Ouvert!): I played a track from this 2009 Manx album on my beta show last week, but didn’t say the album title, because I can’t pronounce it. This North Carolina band makes delicate indie pop, sometimes with a chamber pop feel. I’m sure The Velvet Underground and Nick Drake provided some inspiration to these guys, but they don’t sound like either of them. There’s a sweetness to their sound without succumbing to the preciousness that has subsumed so much modern indie rock.
The Church — Too Fast For You (Under The Milky Way: The Best Of The Church): In America, this originally came out on the band’s first eponymous album, which took tracks from a few early Church songs. This is a fairly upbeat number featuring guitarist Marty Willson-Piper on lead vocals. This mixes some bright jangly guitars with a melody that pulls back and forth, followed by a nice contrast on the chorus, which is fueled by the drumming. The song has four distinct cool parts. Whoda thunk they’d still be going nearly 30 years later?
Rosanne Cash — If I Were a Man (10 Song Demo): For all of her early success on the country charts, Cash’s best work came when she shifted into more of an adult-alternative mode. This, her debut album for Capitol, may be her peak. The demo was so good, the label decided to release it as is. And why not? Her clear emotive vocals and pithy yet detailed songs are models of economy and stick in the head and brain long after they fade out. I hear a bit of Rosanne Cash in a lot of artists, from Diane Christensen of Chicago’s very own Dolly Varden to Ron Sexsmith.
Supergrass — Time (I Should Go Coco): Gaz Coombes seemed to come of the womb as a fully formed songwriter. He absorbed so much that was good about ’60s and ’70s pop music. This song has a subtle R & B undercurrent with a laid back feel that would have suited The Faces, though they probably would have approached it a bit differently. This is a cool breeze of a tune.
Pointed Sticks — No Use For U (Perfect Youth): This early Vancouver pop-punk band is back together! I need to order their new album ASAP. This song is very R & B oriented, and actually sounds a little bit like the Boomtown Rats or Bruce Springsteen or Graham Parker with a whinier more adolescent singer (mind you, not too whiny).
The Detroit Cobras — Can’t Miss Nothing (Life, Love and Leaving): The second Detroit Cobras is pretty much the ultimate statement by the band. Rachel Nagy sounds as sultry as ever, the covers are so well chosen and the band’s playing is spot on. Subsequent recordings have been fine, but they don’t have the same magic as this effort, which is simply great R & B played with a bit of a garage rock attitude.
The Beatles — Help! (Help!): The coolest thing about this totally cool Beatles song? That the backing vocals start the lyrics of the second line of each verse before John Lennon begins singing. For all of the influence of the Fabs, I don’t know if I’ve heard many other songs that try that trick. Help! is also a fun movie, though it’s so much looser than the brilliant Hard Day’s Night, and it’s pretty obvious that the boys were stoned during a lot of the filming.