Saturday, September 25, 2010

For the Birds: Hummingbird and Skylark and Owl, oh my!

Kris Delmhorst: Hummingbird


Bette Midler:


Carrie Newcomer:
I Heard an Owl


I must say I was quite pleased when I heard what this week's theme was to be... because I had made a Birds mix CD a few years back and thought I could cull some good songs from there - upon perusing the tracklist, it turns out that most of them have the generic word Bird in the title (rather than a certain type of feathered friend). Ah, well - plenty more where those came from, especially in my aviary of female artists...

I adore anything Kris Delmhorst sings and writes... and this is a breathy confessional of hiding her light, flower and voice until the object of her affection is out of sight/earshot, at which point she shines brightly, blooms profusely and sings beautifully - over the years, she's perfected The Art of Melancholy Sweetness...

I've been a Bette Midler fan for decades, having been turned on to her music by a college roommate - this classic reinterpretation is from her first album and, in retrospect, would have worked perfectly for our Torch Songs theme a few weeks back...

Carrie Newcomer's repertoire consists of lovely, inspirational songs that cut straight to the heart and spirit - this is her reaction to the events of September 11 ("the only peace this world will know can only come from love")...

For the Birds: The Owl and the Pussycat

Donovan: The Owl and the Pussycat


From Donovan's curious children's album, H.M.S. Donovan, comes this 19th century Edward Lear nonsense poem set to music. I have a fondness for this whimsical aspect of Donovan's music, though I wonder how many children actually listened to it.

Today's photo is another favorite of mine--a captive Barred Owl winking at the camera.

Friday, September 24, 2010

For the Birds: The Crow on the Cradle

Show of Hands: The Crow on the Cradle


The Crow on the Cradle was written by Englishman Sydney Carter. Carter was a Shaker and a pacifist, and his best known song was Lord of the Dance. In the mid 1960s, the world was gripped by the fear of nuclear war, and The Crow on the Cradle reflects that. The crow was a symbol of death from pre-Christian times in England, so finding one on the cradle of a newborn would not be a good sign. Judy Collins and Pete Seeger both recorded the song, but it sounds best to me when a British male sings it. I first heard The Crow on the Cradle performed by Nick Dow, and he instilled the song with the appropriate sense of dread. Unfortunately, Dow’s version is not available, but English duo Show of Hands come pretty close to the feeling I remember.

For The Birds: Rubber Duckie

Ernie: Rubber Duckie


Kelly Hogan: Rubber Duckie


Larry Paulette: Rubber Duckie

[scavenge out-of-print '77 album]

Love Pigs: Rubber Duckie

[download out-of-print sesame street punk covers compilation]

The Buffalo Chips: Rubber Duckie

[purchase other in-print CDs from SUNY Buffalo's only all-male a capella group]

As a long-time cover collector, I tend to have a handful of different versions of pretty much any beloved song lurking in my collection. In the LP world, these coversongs were often hard to keep track of without some sort of overly obsessive catalog system, but the highly manageable universe of iTunes and digital music feeds my obsession, making it easier both to store and collect single tracks, and to find those tracks easily.

The fruits of such a media shift: I have not one but five versions of Rubber Duckie to offer up for this week's theme, and each one is decidedly different. Ernie's original is a classic, of course. But sweet-voiced alt-country crooner Kelly Hogan's piano-driven lounge take is delightful in its sultry innocence, all the more noticeable next to openly gay seventies artist Larry Paulette's funky, slippery, sexually charged take. And the contrast between the thrash punk of Love Pigs and the barbershop a capella arrangement from male group The Buffalo Chips should go without saying.

This isn't my whole collection, of course. There's also an oddly pedophilic-sounding Little Richard cover out there, plus a marching band cover from a prison band, and a disco take with Robin Gibb and the Muppets that sounds exactly like you'd think it does, among others. But I just couldn't bring myself to share those alongside the "good" ones today - perhaps we'll take on a "questionable cover songs" theme for April Fools Day this year, and I'll dig 'em up then instead.

Thanks to long-time cover blog Fong Songs for introducing me to two of these covers, by the way. Host Jamie Fong closed down the shop just this month, but he went out with a bang, and his final series - a top 101 covers countdown - remains up for the nonce.

For the Birds: The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree

Ted Leo/Pharmacists: The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree


Ted Leo's third album with the Pharmacists, The Tyranny of Distance, is mostly an electric affair. But there is this one acoustic track, the short but lovely "The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree".

Around these parts, the Eastern Goldfinch is ubiquitous. So ubiquitous in fact, that I've rarely bothered to photograph them. Which is a shame, because the males of the species are quite colorful in their summer plumage. At any rate, several years ago I did take a few shots while a half-dozen Goldfinches were feasting on one of my back porch feeders, and that's where today's photo comes from. Not my best work, but I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to share this beautiful song.

For the Birds: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

The Manhattan Transfer: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square


This week, we have been treated to some beautiful, realistic nature photography, as well as some more humorous images. But this post needed a romantic picture. For a few moments, we leave the real world behind, as The Manhattan Transfer transports us to the world of idealized romantic love.

I am a long time hater of love songs. They are often presented in huge productions, drowning in schmaltzy strings. Or the singer belts out the song with no nuance whatsoever. Or someone decides to jazz it up, and it sounds hokey and false. All of this and more has been done to A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. The song is a standard, which means that it has been ruined in more ways than anyone can count. The song dates from 1939, just before Britain’s entry into World War II. Berkeley Square is in London, and no one has ever seen a nightingale there. To do so would be as miraculous as the love described in the song. The Manhattan Transfer would revisit the song on an album they did with a full orchestra. But this was how they first recorded it in 1981, with just four perfectly blended voices, and no instruments at all. And this simple arrangement is as lush and romantic as anything I have ever heard. So, I don’t actually hate love songs at all. I just hate how they are often performed.

For The Birds: The Wild Goose

Kate Rusby: The Wild Goose


I was introduced to Kate Rusby by one of our early contributors here at Star Maker Machine, the first female to join our little band; since then, I've become an avid, almost rabid fan of the singer-songwriter's well-crafted interpretations and originals, despite continued frustration that she will not tour in the states due to her fear of flying.

Though Divinyl has long since ceased blogging with us, in her honor, I post this favorite take on a traditional piece from the UK-based folk songbird whose gorgeous voice and ability to channel the sorrow that defines so much of the British folk tradition are, in my heart and ears, essentially unparalleled.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

For the Birds: Ride A White Swan

trex white swan

T. Rex: Ride a White Swan


If I were a newspaper writer, I might posit this as today's headline: London, 1970 - Marc Bolan and T. Rex Go Electric, Launch Glam Rock. 'Cuz it was this song, their first British top-ten hit, that started a whole 'nuther genre in what was then swingin' England.

I was more aware of some of their other hits that made it across the pond just a bit later: Get It On, Metal Guru, Jeepster. It wasn't until I first discovered the 2000 British movie Billy Elliot, with its terrific soundtrack that includes four T. Rex songs, that I fell in love with this tune. It's about as pop-cheery a song as you can imagine. Billy Elliot is one of my top 5 movies – I mean, the kid (a cutie-pie to be sure) turns into Adam Cooper, FFS!

Keeping up with the Joneses is getting hard this week – here's a photo of some swans that Mr. Geoviki snapped last October in Bath, England (kind of fitting for the featured group, right?)

For the Birds: Sparrow

Simon & Garfunkel: Sparrow


Pity the titular bird in this early Paul Simon song. Unloved by all, she dies, tired and hungry. Released on the first Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., the heavy-handed allegory shows a songwriter still refining his craft. Fortunately for us, greater things were to come from Mr. Simon.

And fortunately for me, the Swamp Sparrow in today's photo did find a comforting place to land and eat in an area not far from my home known as the Six Mile Run Reservoir Site (despite the lack of any actual reservoir). It's one of my favorite photos, not least because it was the first, and so far only, time I've encountered a Swamp Sparrow.

For the Birds: Canary

Liz Phair: Canary


When most songwriters use bird imagery they use it to express freedom and contentedness, but Liz Phair found another side of the story. In this song, from her fantastic major debut "Exile In Guyville" she sings of a bird that is beautiful and meant to be free, but now is just the obedient little songbird. Metaphor, much?

This is a muted number for Phair, but has the charm and the sexuality in it that we'd expect from her.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

For the Birds: Blue Jay Way

The Beatles: Blue Jay Way


The song has nothing to due with birds. "Blue Jay Way" was simply the name of street in the Hollywood hills. As the story goes, George Harrison was staying at a house on said street. One day, George was waiting for Beatles press officer Derek Taylor to stop by, but he was running very late. To pass the time until Derek arrived, George sat down at an organ in the house and wrote this song about waiting for Derek to arrive.

Today's photo was taken on my back porch in November of last year.

For the Birds: Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens

Asleep at the Wheel: Ain‘t Nobody Here But Us Chickens


It’s always a pleasure to share some western swing from Asleep at the Wheel. The band was inspired by the pioneers of western swing music, especially Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. It was not unusual for those bands to adapt swing tunes to their style, and Asleep at the Wheel follows suit here. Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens was originally made popular by Louis Jordan.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For the Birds: Last Lonely Eagle

New Riders of the Purple Sage: Last Lonely Eagle


"Last Lonely Eagle" comes from the first NRPS album, when the band was practically a Grateful Dead side project, with Jerry Garcia flexing his pedal steel muscles and Mickey Hart playing drums on a few tracks (including this one). It was also around this time that the band played the middle set of many Grateful Dead shows, bookended by acoustic and electric sets from the Dead. So it's no surprise that the album slots in well with the Dead's contemporary albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.

The song's lyrics seem to be about the end of the '60s hippie dream, but in the chorus the eagle metaphor kicks in, tying it nicely into the rising eco-consciousness of the times. It's possible that John Dawson, who wrote all the songs on the album (and also co-wrote the Dead classic "Friend of the Devil"), had the Bald Eagle in mind when he wrote it, but for this post, I'm sharing a photo of a captive Golden Eagle I snapped a few years ago down in Gloucester County, N.J.

For The Birds: Lesbian Seagull

Engelbert Humperdinck: Lesbian Seagull


It wasn't easy thinking of a song to post this week as I did a mix of birds songs on my blog last year (fifteen songs, all naming a different type of bird) and not only did I not want to re-post any of those songs, but I didn't even want to re-use any of those fifteen birds. I'm not a bird guy, couldn't think of anything.

Then boyhowdy's post the other day made me realise the mix didn't have a seagull song and immediately thought of Engelbert Humperdinck's Lesbian Seagull from the Beavis And Butt-Head Do America soundtrack. A song originally recorded by Tom Wilson Weinberg in 1979.

I know what you're thinking: Is the song as preposterous and amazing as the title implies?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Monday, September 20, 2010

For the Birds: Baltimore Oriole

George Harrison: Baltimore Oriole


Somewhere in England is nobody's favorite George Harrison album. If it is remembered at all, it is for the single "All Those Years Ago", a leftover from a session for a Ringo Starr album that George rewrote into a Lennon tribute in the wake of John's murder. I bet most of you can't remember another song from the album.

One oddity about the album is that it contains not one, but two Hoagy Carmichael songs, including the theme-appropriate "Baltimore Oriole".

I don't know much about the song, but I do love how many bird references Hoagy squeezed into its lyrics.

As for the bird itself, I always enjoy seeing one when I'm out birding in the New Jersey summer. Like many male songbirds, they are ludicrously colored, and I love that. While mammals and reptiles are busy blending in to their surroundings, these guys could not be more visible. And that is to our everlasting visual benefit.

And a for the photograph, this one is from the Franklin Park Natural Area in central NJ. Not one of my better shots (they like to hang out way up at the tops of trees), but the color comes shining through.

For the Birds: Penguins

Lyle Lovett: Penguins


I'm really not sure how a penguin manages to be sensitive to his needs, but oh lord, I go for "Penguins" too, the song at least. This song always makes me smile. This particular version is from his live album.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

For The Birds: Song To A Seagull

Joni Mitchell: Song To A Seagull


Birds can go where we cannot, and most of us envision the open endless aether as pure somehow. It's no wonder their winged journey through the sky seems much like escape to our literate, flightless race; no wonder so many birdsongs pay jealous tribute to flight, both literal and metaphoric.

Here, as in so many other songs about birds, our patron saint Joni projects her debut dreams into the air, giving them the feathers that she herself has shed, adapting instead to the hard concrete life of the city only to find that her life, like the seaside, has become deserted and unfit for survival - except for the seagulls, ever out of reach and alive, like her heart, overhead.

Yes, I know Darius posted the song last year, but I figure any chance to bring the woman whose lyrics form our mandate forward is a bonus. And yes, it's a bit overwrought, and a bit formulaic - Joni wouldn't truly master the confessional lens that made her so celebrated for a few albums yet - but this title track from her debut certainly hints of the mastery to come.

For the Birds: Bluebird Is Dead

Electric Light Orchestra: Bluebird Is Dead


Electric Light Orchestra cellist Mike Edwards died earlier this month in a freak hay bale incident.

Mike was in the band for ELO 2 and On the Third Day, the latter being one of the first albums I ever owned (as I recounted here), and I still have a soft spot for it. I didn't know it at the time, but it was probably my first taste of prog rock. This was ELO just before they became ubiquitous; before Jeff Lynne sanded down all the rough edges in his pursuit of pop perfection. It was also the last album for which ELO used its own members to create the illusion of orchestral backing. (By the next album, Lynne could afford to hire a real orchestra.) Mike Edwards was the lone cellist in the band at the time, so he had to overdub all the cello parts himself.

So I offer up "Bluebird is Dead" from On the Third Day as a tribute to one of the original rock cellists.

P.S. The photo accompanying this post is one of my own, taken earlier this year at the Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve in central New Jersey.

Blank and Blues/ For the Birds: Emu’s Blues

Darol Anger and Mike Marshall: Emu‘s Blues


Take a look at the picture above. If something like that asked you to post a second transition song, wouldn’t you do it too?

Seriously, Darol Anger and Mike Marshall both came to my attention when they were playing in the David Grisman Quintet. There, they were playing a kind of jazz on instruments that would normally play bluegrass, but it sounded great. Here, Anger and Marshall bring their mandolin and fiddle, and play with drums, bass, and organ. It still sounds like nothing else on earth, and it really cooks. Warning: Emu’s Blues is a playful title for a playful piece of music; this one has two false stops before it finally ends. Make sure you hang on for the entire ride.

Blank and Blues / For The Birds: Black Crow Blues

Townes Van Zandt: Black Crow Blues


Bob Dylan: Black Crow Blues


A twofer transition today gets us from the blues to the birds in one fell swoop.

First, it's been seven months since we last posted a Townes Van Zandt song here on Star Maker Machine - the longest we've gone without a tune from the cowboy troubadour since our inception. Happily, his Black Crow Blues - recorded early, and ultimately collected on 2003 posthumous release In The Beginning - is a typically sparse, morbid ballad.

Meanwhile, as befitting his early folk incarnation, Bob Dylan's Black Crow Blues uses a much more traditional form. The first song Dylan ever recorded on piano, it's has never been performed live, but the combination of Dylan's pre-rock tone, those cryptic lyrics, and the barrelhouse blues is certainly worth celebrating.