Paul Zollo’s Favorite Books & Records Of 2013

Paul McCartney-New
Paul McCartney

The greatest, most inspired McCartney album in decades. Not that Sir Paul
needs to be compared against the greatness of his own work. But this so
stands out, as it simply changes the game. That this man – whose work has
not only impacted but completely shifted the very course of the popular song
as we know It – is still plugged into the source to this extent some half
century since his remarkable debut – it’s nothing short of miraculous.

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He’s always been the great collaborator, creating his finest, freshest,
most infectious and brilliantly inventive work when collaborating with
other gifted minds. Of course, there is no collaboration more monumental
than his with John Lennon, in which each inspired and empowered the other to
perpetually aim higher, deeper and farther. Even after having been to the
top of the proverbial toppermost that they spoke of as lads, Paul and John
found places beyond the toppermost to go – and doing so, they rewrote all
the rules. They paved the musical way for the world we still live in,
musically, in which the recording of a song – the production – is created
with as much loving brilliance and inventive flair as the writing of the
song. And so it makes sense that when Paul connects with some of the most
gifted producers making records today, as he has here, that the results
would be fresh and great both musically and sonically, and indeed that’s
what we got.

Here are brave, brilliant and beautiful songs written and produced with Paul
Epworth, who wrote with and produced Adele, Mark Ronson – who wrote with and
produced the late great Amy Winehouse, and Giles Martin – son of Sir George
Martin – who teamed up with his dad on the brilliant Love. Put those guys
together with Paul, and he’s at his best. He’s so famous for his beautiful
melodies, that we sometimes forget he’s the guy who invented “Helter
Skelter,” and has always loved to truly rock out seriously. So the opening
song, the infectious and inviting “Save Us” is built around a raw and
raucous guitar riff, both brash and unafraid, and leads us into a pure gem
of McCartney genius. And it plays around with a fun and impudent rhyme, a
rhyme that shows this guy is in there swinging, making it work as
brilliantly as he did when the movement was on his shoulder: “In the heat of
battle/you got something that’ll/save us…” Battle and that’ll! A rhyme to
make Sammy Cahn smile. And harmonically it’s one of those songs like the
kind he wrote back with Lennon in which the tunes turned unexpectedly on
great sly chords, delighting us and inviting us at the same time – the kind
of secret chords that songwriters have come to know as Beatles chords, those
sly, inventive, quick turns of harmony as ingenious in their simplicity as
were Cole Porter or George Gershwin in the ways they also subverted the
changes of popular songs, with melodies that slipped into and out of major
and minor keys, effortlessly transposing and returning. This is one of those
songs that make you want to grab your guitar to fathom just exactly how he
did that – what makes that effect so delicious and so precisely McCartney?
It’s the essence of the best of what this man has done in his remarkable
career, and that he does it as this age – and with layers of heavenly,
perfect vocal harmonies and miracle bass lines, it’s a reason to rejoice
that such good music is still being made, and by a man who has already given
us so much.

And from there we get a chain of songs that is intimate and playful, melodic
and lyrical as the finest, and imbued with genuine joy throughout.
“Alligator,” created with Ronson, is fast and funny: McCartney stretching
out with long, rapid lyrical phrases. It’s big and small, sad and
laughing, and exceedingly, generously joyful. “On My Way To Work” evokes
his early solo work, acoustic and intimate, a calm after the storm.

And rather than run from the imposing shadow of the Beatles, he embraces it.
In “New” he celebrates the heady triumph that was their recognition that
this hunch – this thing called Beatles – was paying off in a rather colossal
way. And in “Early Days” we soar all the way back to when he and John were
fans, poring over records, hoping only for inclusion, never domination. It
was never about business. It was about joy. Paul McCartney shows all
songwriters there are no excuses anymore – when you rock this hard in your
70s – and so ingeniously – rock and roll has expanded, the popular song has
expanded, and the world is richer for it.

Rod Sphere & The Jet-Sets
Rivers and Rockets
Rod Sphere & The Hemispheres
mist & molecule
Rod Sphere & The Galaxies
Variant Twist
Trough Records

Rod Sphere – the artist formerly known as Rod Smear – has long been one of
the most inspirational and intriguing figures on the L.A. folk scene,
whether playing his own remarkable originals, or one of his folk-reggae
tinged takes on a classic Beatles or Dylan song. When Rod would step to the
mic, people would quiet down and sit back, ready for anything. And he never
disappointed. Live, that is. He has disappointed those of us, somewhat, who
love his music, with a steady lack of recorded output for the last several
years. But he’s made up for that now, and in a huge way, by releasing not
one but three remarkable records, a triumvirate of truly exceptional

If Beck collaborated with Elvis Costello and David Byrne, it probably
wouldn’t sound much like Rod. But you get the idea. Rod’s an artist with a
great love of classic songs – and weaves beautifully inventive covers of
famous songs here throughout his chain of originals. And when Rod takes on a
cover, it’s unlike anything you’ve heard. He’s as inventive with a Dylan
song, for example, as Dylan is! And there is the secret. True artists dig
down to the most essential passion for the moment ; like Dylan, Rod takes us
on profuse journeys of discovery, in terms of all aspects of this thing –
the singing, harmony, instrumentation and songwriting. All of these tracks
are rhythmic yet without any real drums: the grooves are built mostly on the
great percussive acoustic guitar rhythms he cooks up on his own, great rich
textures, as he does live – like Richie Havens, he’s an astounding rhythm
player on these steel strings – and that frame is a splendid and spirited
one for his tender and friendly singing.

Astounding originals are here, like “Aqua Blue” – which is plaintive and
ardent – it’s as harmonically angular as a Kurt Cobain song, but with the
tender earnestness of Brian Wilson – a fusion which is special and
endearing, and instantly memorable. “Ravi Shankar” is a beautiful rainbow of
a tribute to the great sitar master who inspired those who so inspired us.
“Mist and Molecule” embraces modern times thoroughly; it’s funny and scary
at the same time, about the great blur of over-extended, endless input: “My
attention span is shrinking, the media does my thinking.” He comments on all
of is as it unfolds with the indifferent “yeah yeah yeah,” an ongoing
dialogue with the self in the sad “whatever” age of the selfie. “I’m really
busy if you want me you can reach me on my cell,” he advises.

As beautifully as he conveys the madness of these modern times, he also
sweetly embraces the past, especially in certain covers. He takes on George
Harrison’s “Long Long Long,” from the White album, which is one of
Harrison’s lesser known gems, but with a gorgeous miracle of a melody that
Rod doesn’t discard or distort, he crystallizes its elegant eloquence. Who
knew he could sing with such soulful purity, conjuring up the spirit of the
great spiritual Beatle, the one who – like Rod – mixed in his flavors from
around the world into a heady gumbo of East and West unlike any which came
before? It’s one of those tracks you can put on endless repeat, and it
works. I know, because I have driven endless freeways for what seems like
days with only this one track playing over and over. And it worked. This is
spirit embodied. All the sense of the lesser Beatle, the little brother
George, trying to play with the big boys but not always taken seriously, is
cast out, replaced with a beautiful and essential focus on the transcendent
and timeless power of this work. Rod also does George’s “The Inner Light,”
a song written during Beatles time but never recorded. Leave it to Rod to
pick it up and bring us this beautiful bridge to the soul.

But then there’s his beautiful rendition of “Stardust,” in which he takes on
this famous standard written by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish, the
melody of which many consider among the greatest ever in popular music.
Rather than give us an alternate slant on this iconic work, Rod stays
faithful to the glorious melody, and it’s a revelation. Rod takes
“Stardust” and makes it his own. He sings it with the authority of Sinatra,
but with more tenderness, more grounded humility. Is there anything he can’t
do? He also gives us a delightful “Dream,” by Johnny Mercer, which is so
right for Rod, the promise and affirmation in the lyric so lovingly
expressed in the hopeful melody and great performance. Breathtaking
renditions of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (a very tough song to sing, and he does
it flawlessly), Lennon’s dreamy “Across the Universe,” and Fred Neil’s
“Everybody’s Talking” are also here. This is a tour de force. Had he given
us only one disc, this would be momentous and cause for celebration. But
three fully realized albums, it’s a true trove of musical treasure. Thanks
Rod. We missed you. You give us a reason to believe. As Johnny Mercer
wrote, and you beautifully sang: things never are as bad as they seem, so
dream, dream.

Eminent Hipsters
, by Donald Fagen

A hilarious book by Fagen, one half of the Fagen & Becker team that has
been the engine of Steely Dan for decades. Anyone familiar with the Dan’s
songs knows there’s both a lot of humor and darkness, often intertwined, in
Fagen’s soul – as well as a great and gifted way with classic soul and jazz.
This is an intimate exploration of that soul. Fagen’s a famous curmudgeon,
but nowhere has his powerfully negative sentiments about the human race ever
surfaced as overtly as they do here. In fact, much of the book is Fagen
griping. And griping, really, in the middle of a true rock and roll dream:
unlike 98% of the world’s musicians, the man has made a fortune playing
music, so really is in pretty good shape. He has earned it – sure – the
guy’s a genius, and with the Dan and solo has created countless
masterpieces. So what exactly does he have to complain about? Well, it turns
out, quite a lot. Cause he dwells in a world of other humans, and humans are
the main problem.

Though there’s precious little here about Steely Dan – (so essentially
Fagen, to skip over the thing we love the most), there is his diary of sorts
from his tour with the Dukes of September, the soul band concocted with Boz
Scaggs and Michael McDonald. There are also interesting essays here –
including a long and inspired take on the Boswell Sisters and an interview
he did with Ennio Morricone. But it’s here in this tour log, more than
anywhere, that the true Fagen spirit is exposed.

The problem stems from the fact that this isn’t a Steely Dan tour he’s on,
so it’s less grand in every way, in terms of transport, venue and reception.
But they aren’t crowding into a van: Each artist has his own bus, and
although both Scaggs and McDonald often sleep on their busses, Fagen insists
on hotel lodging, as living on a bus is, to him, tantamount to the “life of
an insect.” But hotels – like concert venues – are invariably populated by
other humans, which to Fagen is almost always trouble. They either want
something from him he can’t deliver, or ignore him when he wants to be
noticed. Even worse to him than the generation of “TV Babies” (those born
with few books but constant TV) is the new generation forever tuned into the
phones in their palms, rarely looking up at the world. He even has a hard
time with fans who come to hear the hits but don’t care as much about soul
classics. But that is why they are there, after all – because they love your
music! Then there is the challenge of staying in shape, physically and
psychologically, when on the road, which to Fagen is a supreme challenge, as
he writes:

“Swimming? Pools are grungy or freezing or crowded or there’s just not
enough time. Treadmill in the hotel gym? Go fuck yourself – I am too wasted
to exercise…. Bicycling? You mean, call the concierge, inquire about
rentals, roll around unfamiliar streets while cars and trucks are trying to
kill me? I can’t even get the hell out of bed.”

If it weren’t Fagen writing this, it would get tiresome. But because this is
a genius songwriter here, a man who has written countless miracle songs and
made so many classic albums, it’s different. So this is the mind that
created those songs with Walter Becker. This explains a lot!

Fagen also delivers what is probably the best, most succinct, and poignant
reflection on why so many musical artists turn to drugs than any I’ve ever
read. When he gets to Vancouver, he remembers you can get Tylenol with
codeine over the counter, and gets several bottles. “I mean,” he writes,
“William Burroughs definitely couldn’t be bothered, but if you take four of
them, it just might hit the spot… By showtime I was feeling a little
But this is the crux of it, the reason why :

“It’s no wonder so many traveling performers end up in rehab or worse. It’s
easy to see how it happens. They want to be alert and vibrant so that the
audience won’t think badly of them, won’t punish them for not being as
talented or magnetic as you thought they were. So your crush won’t suddenly
end. I know, it’s pathetic.”

Pathetic, maybe, but so real, and true. For this revelation alone, this book
is well worth reading. But there’s much more. There’s some about Fagen the
kid, loving jazz and science fiction and vocal groups. And a whole lot about
Fagen the human, and what it’s like to be a genius in the regular world.
Would I have liked several chapters about Steely Dan? Absolutely. I am
hoping he writes a second volume. But for now this will suffice. I’ve
already read it twice and remain enthralled. He’s got one of the most
distinctive voices around – as a singer but also a creator, a thinker – and
this is a rare and very fun opportunity to take in that voice, and revel in
the often-disgruntled but never boring world of Donald Fagen.

John Zipperer
Full Circle

A beautiful new album by Mr. Zipperer, produced by Nick Kirgo, who did an
exceptional job bringing all the joy and passion of John’s songs into full
view. This is uplifting music, a celebration in words and music. If only for
his tender, slowed down version of “Brown Eyed Girl,” which delivers this
famous melody with a wonderfully hushed elegance, this is worth the price of
admission. But there’s so much more. Great originals like the triumphant
“Sailing Away” and beautiful “To The River” abound, and with much of the
friendly, choral spirit of his shows with his John Zipperer and Friends
band. Laced throughout with the close, warm harmonies of Tara Sitser and
Jime Van Booven, and lovely instrumental touches throughout – such as the
perky steel drums on “Sailing Away,” played by Doug Lacey, or the multitude
of musical magic provided by Kirgo, who brings slide guitars, piano, organ,
banjo and more to the proceedings – this is a nourishing musical journey. A
friendly, inviting spirit pervades, as projected in “Sing With Me,” which
has all the open arm promise of the best folk – from The Weavers to
Belafonte and beyond. “Here By Me” is built on a great upright bass line,
and resounds like a 1940s standard ideal for the Ink Spots. “Know Who You
Love” is solo Zipperer, acoustic guitar and vocal, an elegiac song of
questioning. Full Circle is a beautiful and pure cycle of songs of love and
life that touches the heart and soul at the same time. Some years in the
making, it was well worth the wait.

Mick Jagger
Edited by Valeria Manferto De Fabianis, Text by Billy Altman
(White Star Publishers)

An absolute joy. Jagger’s long been one of this world’s most compelling
visuals, and this collection of photos of him with and without his famous
band is a delight. Pore over these photos of him from his earliest days to
the present and recognize he’s never been unplugged from the zeitgeist for
long. There is no dark period, or lapse in style or judgment. It’s been one
long poem of a presence in our culture, celebrated here with elegant
respect. Billy Altman provides deep text throughout, which is a plus: this
is both a great photo collection, and a substantial tome about the man
himself. Edited by Valeria Manferto De Fabianis, who has created similar
volumes about Castro and lingerie, it’s a poignant, and powerful collection
of the man who has brought us satisfaction for so long.

Acustica World Music
Cuatro Vidas

Luminous acoustic magic. The beautiful intersection of human voices with
passion, percussion and strings. They are a remarkable quartet producing
music of great spirit and beauty. Dolores Villareal is the lead vocalist,
with John Orr on vocals and guitars, Dave Ambrose on bass and Matt Chrichton
on percussion. If you’re feeling downhearted, and who isn’t sometimes, try
this on to lift the spirit. Whether in Spanish, as if most of this, or other
languages , the message is one of love and light. She sings Edith Piaf’s “La
Vie en Rose” in French with heartbreaking power and grace; this is the real
deal. And they wrap it all up with “Whatever Lola Wants” in English, a funny
and fiery song about empowerment, especially on this samba-tinged track
beautifully peppered by Ray Coffey on sax. This is uplifting, genuine music,
good for the soul.

Brad Parker
Days of Poetry

He said this collection is a suitcase of songs he’s been carrying around for
more than thirty years. Good thing he opened it up and shared. There are 14
beautifully lyrical songs here, songs of love and time, songs by a guy who
knows his way around a song. Tuneful melodies abound, as does gentle singing
and delicate backing tracks with old pals Marvin Etzioni on bass, Michael
Clarke on drums, Abe Parker on keys and Eleanor McEvoy on violins and
vocals. All is understated, and bolstered perfectly by the Days of Poetry
chorus – a dozen fine singers with voices rapped in harmony. So many
beautiful songs are here, but none which haunts me quite as much as
“Mulholland Highway,” a beautifully inspirational love letter to our angel
city; imagine if Brian Wilson wrote and recorded a song with the Eagles,
and you get close to the spirit expressed here, that spirit of innocent,
hopeful melodics linked to endless summers which have inspired romantic
songs forever. In a time of much turmoil and dissonance, these days of
poetry resonate so sweetly and peacefully, giving a reason to believe. Good
songs matter.


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