Thursday, November 23, 2006

Italo Disco

It's always nice to discover a new sub-genre of music to obsess about. All of a sudden there are artists I've never heard of, new songs to experience, obscure websites I never knew existed.
In this case, the sub-genre is something called Italo disco, which, it turns out, has been around since the early '80's.
Italo disco, as you can guess, was an outgrowth of regular disco. It's emergence coincided with the introduction of cheap synths and drum machines. It was greatly influenced by European disco producers like Frank Farian and the great Georgio Moroder.
What I love about the Italo disco of the early to mid '80's is the long slick melodic lines (ala ABBA and the Eurovision song contests - European pop has always seemed to favor melody bordering on bubblegum). There is also a hint of that French MOR trashiness I would hear in songs that European MTV used to play in the '90's. Finally, because the rhythms were defined by the drum machines, there is a slight up and downess to the beat that is less sophisticated but more rocklike than American disco of the '70s.
I was actually a fan of Italo disco without knowing it. Back in 1984, I worked on some off off Broadway one act plays directed and produced by a friend of mine and written by his wife. I was the stage manager, or production manager, or something like that, but more importantly, I also programmed the music. One of the plays, called "Slam," involved a couple of guys slam dancing at a club that, as I remember, was supposed to be a suburban CBGB's that had somehow degenerated into playing disco. The disco-ish music starts playing and one of the guys goes into a rant about disco. Somehow, they end up listening to Flipper ( I was so cool!) , and slam dancing their happy hearts out. But the record I chose to signify the club's descent into disco was a 12" single by a band called Club House that was a medley of Steely Dan's "Do It Again" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." (Same bass line, check it out.)
Club House - Do It Again/Billie Jean Medley

I discovered (or re-discovered) Italo disco when I read about a Swedish singer named Sally Shapiro and her producer, Johan Agebjorn. Ageborn is an electronic music composer and producer who discovered Italo disco when he was in school and never lost his affection for it. Shapiro is, apparently, a singer so shy no one is allowed in the studio when she is recording.
Her album, "Disco Romance," is out this month. Shapiro's voice is sweet but distinctive, and works perfectly with Agenborn's updated electronic disco tracks.

Sally Shapiro - By Your Side
There are a several more excellent free downloads on Sally Shapiro's website, including a cover of "Anorak Christmas," as well as some great posts by Agebjorn, including his "10 Favorite Drum Machine Sounds."
Find out more about Italo Disco at Euro Flash.
(Thanks to Big Stereo for introducing me to Shapiro and Agebjorn.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dirty on Purpose

I don't know much about Dirty on Purpose. I know they come from Brooklyn. Their most recent album is called "Hallelujah Sirens." They are melodic, but with an interesting noise component and an aggressive, messy rhythm section that is much heavier than you would expect in a band that makes music this sweet. (It reminds me of a less doctrinaire Teenage Fanclub.)
I like this song because it makes me think about Texas.
Dirty on Purpose - Marfa Lights
"Hallelujah Sirens" is available on

Monday, November 13, 2006

Monsterbuck to play Lakeside Lounge in NYC

Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis died last week at the age of 64, from lung cancer. She was a feminist writer and social critic who wrote for a long time for the New York Review of Books and The Nation. However, I remember her as the rock music critic for the New Yorker in the late 60's and early '70's, before there was any serious rock criticism to speak of in mainstream journalism, and I was desperate to read anything I could find about music.
Ellen Willis turned me on to, among others, Big Star (long before they became critical faves) and Five Dollar Shoes, a band that created one of my top-five never-gonna-be-released-on-cd-unless-I-do-it lps.
At a time when most rock criticism seemed like it was written by ten year olds for ten year olds, Willis never patronized. She took the music seriously, she had good taste, and her writing was strong enough to stand alongside that of Pauline Kael, Roger Angell and John McPhee.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Tim Hardin

In September, 1971, I was a freshman at Windham College in Putney, VT. Not very happy, didn't really know anyone, was in the middle of a slow but painful break-up with my girlfriend.
One weekend, I got a call from my friend Michael, who worked for a company that supplied the sound equipment for most of the rock concerts that were produced in the New England area. He was coming to Windham to do the sound for a Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen concert and wanted to know if I would help him out. Which I was, of course, happy to do, since it meant I could hang oout backstage and act cool. (Even if it was a Commander Cody show, and I was definitely moving from a hippy, San Francisco/Allman Brothers thing to a Velvet Underground/Stooges/Alice Cooper thing.)
So Michael showed up Saturday afternoon in a big truck with the PA, and I met him and we unloaded the equipment into the student union, and then hung out while the Cody band sound checked. While that was going on, a slight wiry-haired guy wandered into the studen union with a battered guitar case and a little Fender VibraChamp amp. I asked Michael who that was and he said that it must be Tim Hardin, the opening act.
I had heard of Tim Hardin; I knew of him as a 2nd generation New York folkie, but I don't think I'd heard any of his songs. I knew he'd written "If I Were a Carpenter," which had been recorded by both Bobby Darin and Joan Baez. But I didn't know he also written "Reason to Believe," and "Misty Roses," and "How Can You Hang On to a Dream?" and "Black Sheep Boy" and "Lady Came from Baltimore" and "Red Balloon."
Hardin went and sat on a metal chair in the corner of the backstage space (which was just a curtained-off area to the side of the stage.) He kept his head down, didn't speak to anyone, just sat there. Even in the midst of the Commander Cody band's stoned vibe and hippy-commune antics, he remained completely isolated.
At the time I didn't know about Hardin's drug problems. I don't even know if he was high. All I remember thinking is that he was a very sad, lonely person. I remember being puzzled by that, because I thought of performers as incredibly cool and therefore incredibly lucky. But at the same time, I had had enough experience with both sadness and loneliness to feel a certain amount of empathy with him.
I don't really remember his performance, although I have the feeling it probably wasn't very good. (Turns out he suffered from stage fright.) It certainly didn't make me go out and buy a Tim Hardin album. But the image of him, isolated and miserable, haunted by demons I didn't know but could imagine, has stayed with me ever since.
It wasn't until 20 years later, when I bought a greatest hits compilation, and then a couple of years later a live album, that I began to appreciate his songwriting ability, and to make a connection between that small sad man sitting on a chair waiting to go play for an unappreciative audience and the performer who so profoundly expressed that sadness in his songs.
Tim Hardin's songs bridge the gap between folk music and its antecedents - blues and country - and American popular songwriting, with it's roots in jazz and European lieder. (It's no accident that the two most popular covers of "If I Were a Carpenter" were by the leading folksinger of the time - Joan Baez - and the 50's pop idol who most resembled a throwback to Frank Sinatra - Bobby Darin.) At the same time, they are entirely personal. Once you listen to his versions of his songs, it's impossible hear them as anything but Tim Hardin songs, no matter who sings them.
Tim Hardin - Misty Roses

Okkervil River released an album called "Black Sheep Boy" this year. The title song is a great cover of Tim Hardin's song.
Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy

Tim Hardin last released an album in 1973. He died of a drug overdose in 1980.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

My apologies to anyone who has tried to download from my site lately. The web hosting site I was using underwent some changes, the end result being that it no longer supports MP3's. I'm in the process of finding a new site to store my MP3's.