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June 29, 2009

THE GARY PIG GOLD REPORT, Vol. 15

GARY PIG GOLD'S ALL-TIME TOP 10 CAR TUNES

My pal Domenic Priore was just visiting from the left coast, promoting his grand new book Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film, and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom (Santa Monica Press) -- and required reading, by the way.

Now with summer once again en route, we began discussing the flat-out importance of The Road in rock 'n' roll culture, and teenaged society in general, back during that golden age of both. That got me to virtually compiling a Dashboard Top 10, as it were, for Medleyville.

So then, with tops down and volumes all the way up …

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1. "I Get Around" by The Beach Boys (1964)
Instrumentally (the arrangement and production effectively trounced all comers that summer), lyrically (though one can safely interpret "I'm gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old strip” as Brian Wilson's hint at the non-sun, non-hit, B. Boy phase to come) and atmospherically, it’s the hands-down, No. 1 car tune of all time. And, backed as it was on its original seven inches with "Don't Worry Baby," this just may be the greatest single single of all time.

2. "Cruisin' Music" by The Raspberries (1974)
The not-lately great Eric Carmen's definitive Brian Wilson tribute; it’s the logical descendant of "I Get Around" (by way of "Do It Again") and quite possibly the finest car/radio tune of its decade.

3. "I Want to Be Your Driver" by Chuck Berry (1965)
It can be argued that the great Berry not only invented not only the duck walk and the ding-a-ling but the car tune, too (eg: "Maybellene," "You Can't Catch Me," et all). Yet this little-heard wonder was cruelly denied hit status – even after John Lennon and Paul McCartney gamely rewrote it as "Drive My Car."

4. "Cycle Annie" by The Beachnuts (1965)
Another rockin' lil’ undiscovered gem that deserves to go Top 10 even more now than it did four decades ago. Odd to ponder the author of this masterpiece, against which all other sickle-songs pale greatly, later went on to foist such wheel-less wonders as "Heroin," "I Wanna Be Black" and "My Red Joy Stick" onto the airwaves.

5. "Schlock Rod, Parts One and Two" by Jan & Dean (1964)
The last – and funniest – word in 1960s hotrod songs: As always, give the self-styled "Laurel and Hardy of the surf crowd" a fad and they'll wickedly yet oh-so-skillfully deflate it quicker than you can say "Dead Man’s Curve."

6. "Dodge Veg-O-Matic" by Jonathan Richman (1977)
"Schlock Rod, Part Three" (Honorable Mention: Richman's immortal and much-covered "Roadrunner").

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7. "Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers (1964)
The automobile looms large in the annals of death rock ("Teen Angel," the above-mentioned "Dead Man's Curve," "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" ... ). But Wilson’s morbidly moody number contains all the necessary ingredients (a railroad crossing, a stalled car, an on-coming train and your fiancée) – and then some! (ie: cheesy "Runaway" organ, sounding appropriately ominous herein). Sounds good even on CD, such is the magnitude of this timeless tone poem.

8. "Hitchin' a Ride" by Vanity Fare (1970)
Lack of one's own wheels at the turn of that ‘70s decade did little to dissuade the restless masses from spending their summers alongside the nation's thoroughfares, thumbs erect, trouble afoot. As a result, a spate of hitchhikin' ditties suddenly materialized, of which this remains my personal fave. Sure fit perfectly amongst "Yellow River," "Going Up the Country" and, yes, "Sweet Hitch-Hiker" back in 10th grade.

9. "Highway Star" by Deep Purple (1971)
I know, I know: It's hard to believe these machine heads made a decent record after they last raided the Neil Diamond songbook. But this here "molten slab of heavy-duty rawk, as terrestrial DJs still refer to it, picks up nicely where "Born to be Wild" left off, helping motorvate car tunes confidently into the dreaded 1970s.

10. "There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" by Elvis Presley (1963)
As always, the last word on the subject goes to The King.

-- Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.

June 20, 2009

THE BALLAD OF TIM BRANTLEY

Rocker recalls his road to music and more

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Before Tim Brantley became consumed with music, playing baseball occupied a lot of his time. And even though his primary tools these days are guitars and pianos, not bats and spikes, he still makes baseball comparisons when talking about his music career.

One important lesson Brantley says he learned while making his debut album, Goldtop Heights (Blackledge Records), was discovering "what you're really going to get out of every guy on the team" while recording.

"It's almost like making a batting order," the Georgia-based singer says. "When you go into the studio to make a record, you have to know that you can't push this guy too hard, and this guy is going to give you exactly this -- the balance of all that can really make or break a record."

Goldtop Heights (released in April) is a record that was a long time in the making, and the same can be said about Brantley’s decision to pursue music professionally.

Brantley played piano as a child but says he never really harbored a serious interest in being a musician, nor did he want to spend his adult life working a 9-to-5 job. But during his early 20s, while attending a community college in Georgia, Brantley says he caught the music bug and chose to leave academics behind.

When asked if there was a specific moment that influenced his decision to become a musician, Brantley sheepishly recalls seeing a David Gray video around 2001 for the song "Babylon."

"I just loved his voice; he was one of my favorite artists at the time," Brantley says. "And I said, 'Man, I'd love to do that.'

"It's just as simple as that," the 29-year-old adds. "I'd love to tell you that I was listening to a bunch of [Bruce] Springsteen records or Led Zeppelin and started playing guitar and figuring it out that way, but really, it's not that cool."

While working plumbing and construction jobs for his father’s company, Brantley studied old albums, rediscovered the piano, began to learn the guitar and eventually wrote songs and played gigs around Georgia.

A turning point came when his de facto manager at the time – "a local guy who helped me to get going in the beginning," Brantley recalls – pressured him into playing a band competition around 2005.

"I didn't want to do it – [mostly] because I was scared," Brantley says.

He won the competition, and that led to recording an album of material with Russ T. Cobb, whose studio credits include Avril Lavigne and Bowling for Soup.

When that project was finished, there was a period of about two years during which Brantley says he "sat back and tried to understand how I made that, how I went about it and what would it take to do it again – and how much of that record was really because of me."

Brantley came to the conclusion that for his next project, he should be the primary producer.

"I did consider other producers," he says, "but in the end, I knew that I had to have a period of time where I could just, by trial and error, make this record. And I knew nobody was breathing down my neck to get this finished."

Brantley built a studio in an artsy district called Castleberry Hill in downtown Atlanta, and he, his regular backing band and select "specialists" spent about a year working on Goldtop Heights, which he likened to an obsession.

"It was a beautiful girl I could never have, so I treated it that way," he says. "Day and night, it's all I lived and breathed. Thank god I had my friends around me who at least knew I wasn’t crazy so they could tell other people, 'No, it's OK. He's fine. He's going to be OK.'

Brantley often went with the fourth and fifth versions of songs, and there was lots of overdubbing. He had "notebooks full of lyrics for individual songs," and in some cases, he would finish a track and then decide to rewrite the lyrics for the entire tune.

"I'm a pretty good judge [when it comes to] overproducing something and also overthinking something, and I really only got into a spot maybe twice where my head was spinning," Brantley recalls. "[When that happened], I just put it away for a little while."

There is an element of spontaneity throughout Goldtop Heights, a dynamic, mature collection that conjures up thoughts of the best rock singer/songwriters of the 1970s. Brantley cites the process behind the song "Brooklyn" as the way he often worked.

"I sat down with my drummer to work that song out," he says. "I always push 'record' when we're working something out, and I almost exclusively work on my songs with him in the beginning because that's the foundation for everything.

"We played one take through … and I [took] that recording and put it in a safe place. And when we went back to actually track the song after I worked everything [else] out, I made him play exactly what he did [the first time], note for note.

"So in a sense, you capture that freshness, but you have to know when it feels right."

-- By Chris M. Junior

Tim Brantley on tour (schedule subject to change):

* June 21: Stubbs Jr. -- Austin, Texas

* June 22: The Prophet Bar -- Dallas

* June 24: Workplay Theatre -- Birmingham, Ala.

* June 25: Vinyl -- Atlanta

* June 30: The Social -- Orlando, Fla.

* July 1: Jack Rabbit -- Jacksonville, Fla.

* July 4: Evening Muse -- Charlotte, N.C.

* July 6: The Canal Club -- Richmond, Va.

* July 7: Jammin Java -- Vienna, Va.

* July 9: 8x10 -- Baltimore, Md.

* July 10: The Canal Room -- New York

* July 13: Middle East Upstairs -- Cambridge, Mass.

* July 15: House of Blues -- Cleveland

* July 16: The Space -- Evanston, Ill.

* July 17: Intersection -- Grand Rapids, Mich.

* July 19: Birdy's -- Indianapolis

* Aug. 1: 12th & Porter -- Nashville, Tenn.

June 08, 2009

STRIKING A BALANCE

The Clarks find the time for work, family

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It's been five years since The Clarks released a new studio album, but the Pittsburgh-based quartet hasn’t exactly been loafing since 2004's Fast Moving Cars.

There have been children born, outside projects released and continuous band touring leading up to Restless Days, due June 9 on High Wire/Fontana. It’s the latest hummable, rockin', toe-tapping album by the longtime no-nonsense band – still featuring the original lineup of singer/guitarist Scott Blasey, guitarist/singer Robert James, bassist/singer Greg Joseph and drummer/singer David Minarik Jr. -- that typifies the hard-working and humble character of its home city.

James recently discussed the band's new album, the band's longevity and other subjects.

Medleyville.us: Restless Days ends the longest gap between new Clarks studio albums. Were there any specific personal or professional circumstances behind that?
Robert James: "Both Scott and Greg released solo discs in that time period, so they wanted to get that out of the way. We also did a live recording called Still Live, so we got that done and filmed a [companion] DVD [that covered] the latter part of our career thus far.

"So those were projects that were keeping us busy. But also, Scott had for a time moved to Texas, but he's now back in the area. … That's really gotten things rolling back in a positive direction. [Side projects and band touring] are exactly the kind of things that have been filling our time. And fortunately, with the careers that we've chosen and with the level of whatever success you can say we’ve had with things, it affords us time to be able to really contribute and raise our families. … That's what we've been doing with our time."

Talk about the origins and inspiration behind some of the songs on Restless Days.
James: "Well, 'Midnight Rose' – I know Scott was just talking about this the other day. He was actually writing a song about his second daughter, Ava Rose, and he just chose to turn it somehow or another [into a story] about catching a train, and the train was called the Midnight Rose. … On 'Inside,' that line catches me: 'Even if your broken heart's a hundred miles wide/I just want to see what's on the inside.’ I think that's really some of Scott's best lyrics.

"Over the course of the year, we basically wrote [the songs included on Restless Days], and there's one song that will be available on iTunes that's not on the record. So we really wrote, like, [a dozen] songs. For having that much time off, Greg doing his solo disc and Scott doing his solo disc, we weren't really as a band very prolific, but there were other ideas thrown out there that were sort of like 'eh.'

"Now with 'True Believer' – Greg brought in that idea, and lyrically it was one of those things that was half-baked, but we knew we really had something with that. The lyrics Greg had were really not working. That was one where Scott said, 'I think I can do something with this,' so he came up with that story.

"We worked on the album piecemeal, the recording as well as doing all the writing and pre-production, whenever we could. We rehearsed in the factory that makes our T-shirts. It's really centrally located … because everybody's sort of at four corners (laughs). It turned out to be a cool thing.

"[Producer Sean McDonald] would come out to the pre-production rehearsals and record what we had going on. He had a lot of really solid ideas about what he wanted to do in the recording process when we got there. … He has a real good approach to making the guitars sound big and having a big, rocking mix. Even when things are at mid-tempo, he always finds a way to give it some kind of a wallop. I really enjoyed working on a full record with him; we’ve only been doing little pieces here and there [with him].

"There were times I struggled with it, though. He had me doing stuff, and I'd be like, 'I don’t know, man. This guitar sounds really thick; it sounds really heavy – it's not really a Clarks sound.' And he would say, 'Trust me, man. It's going to be way in the back.' I ended up being really pleased with how the overall record came out."

Not many bands last 20-plus years, and even fewer do so with the original lineup intact. What factors do you contribute to The Clarks' longevity?
James: "I think we've always had role models like R.E.M. and U2. I wouldn't say that they're role models now, necessarily, but when the band first started, those were bands that we looked at and said, 'Look how tight those guys seem to be.' You didn’t think of one [member] without the other three.

"On top of that, I think we all have the personalities that lend to committing ourselves to each other and compromising on a lot of different levels and realizing the successes and short-term goals that we've set for ourselves and achieved. We realize the importance that all of us play; there’s a respect there – a brotherly love, a family kind of feel."

During the band’s career, The Clarks' style of rock 'n' roll has seen commercial peaks and valleys, and the mechanics of the music industry itself have changed dramatically. Do these frequent changes frustrate or motivate the band, and how do you guys deal with these challenges?
James: "To put it in perspective – I think I just told somebody this the other day – when we put out our first project, it was on vinyl and cassette. Very shortly after we released that, bands like New Order and The Cure -- those were huge bands, probably stylistically about the farthest you could get away from what The Clarks were.

"And over the course of years, you had everything from hair-metal, hip-hop and grunge -- things that the band's never really fit into. Like you said, there have been peaks and valleys.

"I just think that we’ve been always to – with the help of producers and other people who cared about the band – [continue] with forward motion in our career. We've really just tried to stay true to ourselves. I can tell you that there’s nothing that we've done that I feel like I’ve compromised at all."

It wasn't that long ago that The Clarks performed in California for the first time. What are some other goals on the band’s list?
James: (Laughs) "Staying together. Still having this career -- seriously. We're not young anymore, and as it keeps rolling along, it starts to have an importance to it. Like you said before, it's the same four guys who started 24 years ago or whatever it is. It's afforded us a nice life – to be creative and fulfilled that way with each other and as individuals. So that in itself seems to be a goal – just to keep it going and remain vital."

-- Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

The Clarks on tour (schedule subject to change):

* June 9: FYE in-store – Pittsburgh

* June 10: Primanti Brothers in-store – Pittsburgh

* June 12: Generations Pub – Wheeling, W.Va.

* June 13: Amphitheatre at Station Square – Pittsburgh

June 01, 2009

STORYTIME: EMILY WELLS

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Growing up, Emily Wells says she was surrounded by music. But it was after visiting a self-described "tiny jazz hole in the wall" during her teens that the experimental singer and multi-instrumentalist gained a greater appreciation for jazz and live performance.

Emily Wells: "It was called the Chatterbox, in Indianapolis, where I spent my formative years. One night – I was 16 years old, first car – I had that hunger for something new. I was stupidly fearless, and I heard this music, and it was literally one of those surreal [experiences], wandering around, trying to find where the music was coming from.

"And I finally found it, and there was this old man playing the upright bass. He was kind of motioning to me to come in. And I was thinking, 'I can't go in there.' But I did, and I thought, 'I'm just going to sit here until I get kicked out. I’m going to take it in as much as I can.'

"And the waitress came over and asked, 'What can I get ya?' I wasn’t going to drink and abuse the privilege, so I would drink coffee and hang out in there and take it in – watching these old guys play who were so tight and loose at once. It was so inspiring."

-- As told to Chris M. Junior

Emily Wells' latest effort is the EP Dirty, which was released May 26 on her own creative control label.

Emily Wells on tour (schedule subject to change):

* June 3: Cafe du Nord – San Francisco

* June 5: NW Pizza – Ashland, Ore.

* June 6: Mississippi Studios – Portland, Ore.

* June 8: The Vera Project – Seattle

* June 10: The Green Frog – Bellingham, Wash.

* June 11: The Triple Door – Seattle

* June 13: Cosmic Pizza – Eugene, Ore.

* June 19: Hotel Cafe – Los Angeles