Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Listen to the Rhythm of the Pounding Rain

This afternoon I was watching the local news during my chemotherapy treatment to track the progress of the third storm system invading southern California this week, which thankfully did not wreak massive damage today as predicted. My inner jukebox began playing a series of rainy day songs, mostly treasures from my childhood. With a big nudge from Mr. Jukebox, I created a list of my favorites whittled down to thirteen, which follow in chronological order.

Long before he was a convicted killer, Phil Spector was the most influential record producer of the rock and roll era. He single-handedly revolutionized studio craft, which had been the domain of record label executives, and emboldened other pioneering artists, most notably Brian Wilson, to take greater control of their own product.

Spector was not a performer, but he developed a stable of talent whose recordings were bound by his trademark "wall of sound." The Ronettes, perhaps the most famous of Spector's girl groups, were named after lead singer Ronnie Bennett, who became Mrs. Spector and whose ballsy vocals are echoed by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Shirley Manson of Garbage.

Walking in the Rain by the Ronettes (1964)

The career of Scott Walker is the cautionary tale of one man defying the odds, industry expectations and conventional wisdom. The Walker Brothers were an American trio, neither related by blood nor born with the surname Walker. During the 1960s British rock invasion of the U.S., they migrated against the tide to England where their chart success and fan club rivaled the Beatles'. Scott Walker remained in the U.K. but left the band for a solo career, embracing progressively more experimental styles and genres over the next four decades.

Walker was an early interpreter of Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel, introducing selections from his often risqué repertoire to the British audience on his first solo albums. David Bowie, who admits to emulating Scott's distinctive baritone and avant-garde sensibility, produced 30 Century Man, the acclaimed 2006 documentary about the reclusive Walker that is available on DVD.

Among his many achievements, Scott and the Walker Brothers recorded one of the very first music videos for their breakthrough single, The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore. At the age of ten, when my friends were still debating whether Paul or George was the cutest Beatle, I had my first serious crush on Scott Walker based on one album my sister left behind when she moved out.

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore
by the Walker Brothers (1966)

I owe my love of rock and roll to my sister, Donna, who was a decade older and had an eclectic music collection, which she generously shared with me despite the many vinyl records that I scratched and warped. She did some go-go dancing and modeling of sorts in the mid-1960s on the periphery of the burgeoning Hollywood rock scene when the East Coast folkies arrived to become the next big thing. Of all the folk rock groups she met, the Lovin' Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield were her favorites.

Rain on the Roof by the Lovin' Spoonful (1966)

The Cowsills were a real family, unlike the Partridge TV prototype they inspired, who were perhaps the first pop practitioners of what was later dubbed the bubblegum genre. Sugar in large doses can rot your teeth and overstimulate your pancreas, but who can resist a tasty, homemade confection like this?

The Rain, the Park and Other Things by the Cowsills (1967)

My sister enjoyed an amazing variety of music, none more than soul and R&B for which she had an undeniable mojo. I remember dancing with her in our den as a preschooler to the Brook Benton duets with Dinah Washington. Back in the early 1960s, she was often one of the few white girls at an Ike and Tina Turner Revue, but she was always a rebel and never let color lines inhibit her.

Brook Benton was an underrated talent with a fluid voice as smooth as ice cream melting on your tongue and prolific songwriting chops. When I was in junior high school, I thought his comeback hit single Rainy Night in Georgia was the most bittersweet romantic song I'd ever heard. In retrospect, I realize that my pubescent hormones were responding to the wistful, world weary sensuality of his vocal, especially his baritone range which he used ingeniously to punctuate his lyrics. Like Lou Rawls, when I listen to a Brook Benton record, I have a hard time imagining a better singer.

Rainy Night in Georgia by Brook Benton (1970)

Elvis Presley was a seminal rock and roll artist blessed with more charisma and soulful magic than was good for him. Regrettably, he was cursed with a greedy manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who attached his client to a long string of tacky movies and albums that tarnished the franchise. By the late 1960s, the King defied the Colonel to assert control over his languishing career. This redemptive era began with the milestone TV special, The '68 Comeback, followed by a series of Memphis recordings marked by great writing and production values that catapulted Presley back to his throne on the music charts, including If I Can Dream, Suspicious Minds and Kentucky Rain.

Kentucky Rain by Elvis Presley (1970)

I would have liked the Carpenters even if I hadn't met them repeatedly due to their close, longtime friendship with my high school chorus teacher. They seemed too normal and middle class to keep me in awe for long. Richard was an innately smart songwriter and arranger with a gift for picking the right cover song. Karen, a standout female alto crooner in an industry long dominated by sopranos and a competent drummer besides, was simultaneously the non-threatening girl next door and a unique musical presence. Her forlorn voice turned every melody into an ode to unrequited love, which paralleled her heartbreaking personal life.

Rainy Days and Mondays by the Carpenters (1971)

I am not really a John Mellencamp fan except for the brilliant Rain on the Scarecrow. Music is more compelling to me than lyrics and Mellencamp is foremost an unapologetic message artist, but his guitar lines hooked me immediately. Even my then two-year-old son Chris rocked out to the record.

Rain on the Scarecrow by John Mellencamp (1985)

Matt Johnson wrote and performed many wonderful songs that you probably never heard of but you should. After he disbanded The The, which was essentially Johnson backed by his session musicians du jour, he collaborated with revered artists including Johnny Marr and Sinead O'Connor, with whom he shared lead vocals on Kingdom of Rain. Johnson's incessant gum chewing distracted me from the romantic subplot of the video, but it's still a great song.

Kingdom of Rain by The The (1989)

Adrian Belew has carved out an interesting career as the singer and guitarist for the progressive rock group King Crimson, who recorded one of my all-time favorite songs, Heartbeat. Belew was also in great demand as a musician for hire by cutting edge artists - like David Bowie, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson - and a producer of two tracks on the Jars of Clay's debut album, including their crossover breakthrough hit Flood. I saw JOC at the Disneyland House of Blues in October 2007 and it was a completely satisfying concert experience.

Flood by the Jars of Clay (1995)

Shirley Manson of Garbage is one of my all-time favorite chick singers, the others being Roni Spector and Chrissie Hynde. I don't think Shirley would mind that description or being in such legendary company.

Only Happy When It Rains by Garbage (1995)

Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head was written by the inestimable Burt Bacharach and originally recorded by B.J. Thomas for the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack. For his TV special One Amazing Night, Bacharach asked the Ben Folds Five to perform the 1960s classic. Ben Folds never fails to entertain and I especially enjoyed Bacharach's smiles of unabashed delight when the trio tweaked the original arrangement.

Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head by Ben Folds Five (1998)

Day of Fire recorded an amazing debut, Fire, with well-crafted, hook-laden songs. Their successive albums are not as accessible nor, in my opinion, appealing. I don't understand why artists such as DOF and JOC who are so gifted and soar in Christian contemporary music would prefer to sound ordinary and uninspired like the world.

Rain Song by Day of Fire (2004)

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