Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Emma Hath a Song: "Wedding Bell Blues"

In my high-school days, I was part of a student-run radio show that aired once a week. We were encouraged to develop our own recurring segments in the show, and mine was a segment mostly relating to the secret histories or stories behind songs. Something about my love of Shakespeare and my pretentious high-school personality made me name the segment "Emma Hath a Song" (which I realize is not necessarily grammatically correct for any stage in the English language, but bear with me). Once I exited high school and moved on to college, I decided I wanted to be a famous Youtube personality. One attempt to meet such an end was to turn my radio show into a Youtube show. Emma Hath a Song on Youtube lasted five episodes before I got slightly bored with it/realized I was never going to be a famous Youtube personality/got too busy with work and college. However, I would now like to bring Emma Hath a Song back for a third (and hopefully final) format.

A common tall tale about "Wedding Bell Blues" is that it was written by Marilyn McCoo and recorded as a means of proposing to Billy Davis, Jr. While this makes for a great story, the real story is equally fascinating (as well as being, you know, true).

Have you ever heard of singer/songwriter Laura Nyro? Nyro was one of the foremost songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s. At various times in her career, Nyro had three or four songs at a time in the Billboard Top 10. Her own recordings weren't usually commercially successful, but groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night, and The 5th Dimension saw a great deal of success with her songs. She has been cited as an influence by artists like Jenny Lewis, Elvis Costello, Elton John, and Alice Cooper.

Nyro wrote "Wedding Bell Blues" at 18, and recorded it for her 1967 album More Than a New Discovery. According to Alan Merrill, Nyro wrote the song about his mother's scandalous relationship with Bill Carter, a man married to Trink Wiman, the heiress to the John Deere fortune. Merrill's mother was never able to marry Bill because of his marriage [Source].

The 5th Dimension, who had already had success with Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic," were convinced by their producer to do a cover of the song for their 1969 album The Age of Aquarius. They decided it would be perfect for Marilyn McCoo to sing, since she and Billy Davis, Jr. had been engaged for quite some time without setting a wedding date. The 5th Dimension's cover of "Wedding Bell Blues" became a number one single. They played up the McCoo/Davis aspect of the song during live performances. McCoo and Davis did indeed marry in 1969.

Leslie Gore also recorded a cover of the song in 1969, but it failed to chart.

The phrase "Wedding Bell Blues" has since become an expression referring to those worried about being unmarried. It has been used as the title for several books and episodes of TV shows and a 1996 film.

Although Laura Nyro died of cancer in 1997, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

And to close this post off in the style of my radio shows (because I was never sure of how to end a segment): That's all that I hath for now!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Comparing and Contrasting: "A Lady Loves" vs. "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"

I know that this post is going to be a bit strange amongst all the hipster music, but I am a huge fan of old-school musicals.

Right! So in 1953, there were tons of new musicals released. There were a lot of classic musicals, like Peter Pan and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and The Band Wagon and Kiss Me, Kate (which, interestingly enough, was originally released in 2-d and 3-d). And another classic that came out in 1953 was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, what is arguably the best and most iconic Marilyn Monroe film. It features the musical number "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," which has been parodied and mocked more than almost any other musical number in history ("We're Off to See the Wizard," "The Sound of Music," and "Singin' in the Rain" are the only things that even come close).

I Love Melvin was also released in 1953, four months prior to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I Love Melvin is an early romantic comedy musical about Judy (Debbie Reynolds) and Melvin (Donald O'Connor). Judy has dreams of becoming a Broadway starlet when she meets Melvin, an aspiring photographer for Look! Magazine. Melvin insists that he can make her a cover girl, which is lucky, because it's the only way Judy's father will let her pick Melvin over Harry (Richard Anderson). The catch is of course, that Melvin can't make Judy a cover girl. I Love Melvin is a very cute and comical film with songwriting by Mack Gordon ("Chattanooga Choo-Choo") and Josef Myrow ("Autumn Nocturne"), known for their collaboration on "You Make Me Feel So Young." Melvin is, for the most part, an ignored film.

So why bring it up? What's the connection? Well, apart from the fact that I absolutely love I Love Melvin, there are some incredible similarities between the musical numbers "A Lady Loves" from Melvin and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I find this intriguing seeing as the more iconic number was actually released after Melvin.

"A Lady Loves" from I Love Melvin Featuring Debbie Reynolds.

"Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Featuring Marilyn Monroe.

So let's look at what we've got here: I Love Melvin was released March 20th, 1953 by MGM, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released July 18th, 1953 by 20th Century Fox. The films have different composers, directors, set designers and art directors. The film plots in general have nothing to do with one another. Yet there is an undeniable correlation between the two musical numbers. Both songs center around what "girls/ladies" really like, and portray women as at least a little bit materialistic. The sets are both adorned with swooping fabrics and chandeliers. Monroe and Reynolds both wear pink dresses with a bit of a bustle and no straps, pink gloves, and "diamond" bracelets and chokers (two bracelets each). The dances both rely heavily on arm gestures and male back-up dancers with flares of red in their costumes. "A Lady Loves" closes with the men freezing with their hats around Reynolds' face, while "Diamonds" ends with the men holding swatches of diamonds around Monroe's face.

What can we draw from this? My research indicates that the stage version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" was not staged or decorated the same as the film version. Did Gentlemen Prefer Blondes decide to copy their musical number from the far less successful I Love Melvin? Or is it just a coincidence? I am reminded of the wonderfully informative video series "Everything is a Remix." If it was a rip-off do we really have I Love Melvin to thank for the incredibly iconic Monroe scene? For every single parody and for Madonna's "Material Girl" video and for that scene in Hey Arnold! when Miriam stars in a beeper commercial?

By the way, no matter how you feel about Madonna, you must admit, they recreated that scene pretty well:

I find it intriguing that two movies released so close together could have a scene so similar. Had Melvin come first, it would make sense that the comedy was mocking another successful scene, but seeing as that's not the case, I find it perplexing. If you know anything about these two scenes, please drop me a line.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Concert Review: Peter Noone in Marion, Ohio

I don't hold classic pop concerts to the same standards I hold modern concerts to. Nothing is going to sound the same as it did forty years ago, even if the audience of primarily 50-60+ patrons had the same kind of energy that they did in the hey-day.

That being said, Peter Noone always puts on an energetic, entertaining show. He doesn't seem his full age in appearance or in the way he moves around physically. The show started off with "I'm Into Something Good," a song modern audiences may have heard covered by The Bird and the Bee for the film Valentine's Day. Personally, I remember listening to the Hermits' version while I cleaned my room as a kid, as well as thinking of it as a constant mantra the day after I met my boyfriend. Things like that give you a much more invested experience at a concert. 

They rolled through a couple more Hermits tunes before Peter Noone began to chat to the audience in the manner I had expected from the last show I went to. After a little talking, the audience seemed much more revved up for the show. I've noticed at several concerts that sometimes it just takes a little push by the artist to get the audience to feel connected. The show continued with a few covers and piss-takes, including an amusing mockery of Davy Jones. Forty-five minutes in, they broke for a short intermission, which I found slightly unusual, but not insane.

After the intermission, Noone and the band returned for the bigger hits of the Hermits' repertoire. The crowd was surprisingly good at singing along and knowing all the lyrics. Peter Noone stayed after the show to sign autographs.

All in all, I've been to better shows by 60s artists, including the first Peter Noone show I went to. I'm not sure he can be blamed for this entirely though, as I think my seating arrangement was not the most conducive to the sound. However, it was a good, fun show. Noone's sense of humor and energy made the show worth seeing no matter how hollow I feel some of the songs sounded. And it was great to hear the old tunes again. They're always catchy and fun. The 60s were a great time for music, and even I sometimes forget that when I don't have enough reminders such as this show.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Top 10: Albums of 2011

2011 was a strange year, musically. As usual, many long-standing bands broke up and some great musicians passed away. But amongst the sea of radio-catering, tweenie-pop, and simply bad albums, there were quite a few brilliant albums released last year. I think it's slightly telling that some of the best albums last year came from fresh faces. Bands like Cults and Foster the People took the world by storm with their first albums, following them up with a tour full of sold-out shows. 2011 also saw the incredible rise of the wonderful Adele, whose second album stayed in the U.S. top five for 39 weeks, also bringing her first album back into the top forty.

What did I listen to in 2011? Many of my favorite bands and artists finally released new albums around the same time, some better than others. While I found Metals by Feist to be a little less impressive than I'd expected, many new albums dominated my year.

10. Join Us by They Might Be Giants
Join Us has all the elements one should expect from a They Might Be Giants album, with added values like great production. "Never Knew Love" may very well be the most beautifully composed They Might Be Giants song of their career.
Key Tracks:
"Never Knew Love"
"You Probably Get That a Lot"
"Old Pine Box" 

9. Angles by The Strokes
This album's undoing was the fact that it was composed of 50% really strong songs and 50% mediocre songs. I liked it, it sounded great blaring out of my truck speakers while I drove around in the heat of the summer. But I'm not convinced it was as solid as an album as some of the competition.
Key Tracks:
"Taken For a Fool"
"Under Cover of Darkness"
"Machu Picchu"
8. Born This Way by Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga finally followed up The Fame with this year's Born This Way. Born This Way is filled with catchy radio hits, dance beats, and just a touch of meaningful lyrics. I'm not into radio hits or dance beats, but Lady Gaga usually manages to make them work, as is the case with this album.
Key Tracks:
"Marry the Night"
"Bloody Mary" 

7. It's a Corporate World by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
I was introduced to this duo through their cover of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." For their debut album, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. put together a series of catchy, well-written tracks. The use of instruments and sounds is beautiful.
Key Tracks:
"Simple Girl"
"Morning Thought"
"It's a Corporate World"

6. Ceremonials by Florence & the Machine
This is one of those albums that improve in complexity with each listen, as you dig deeper and hear the layers of talent put into it.
Key Tracks:
"Breaking Down"
"Shake it Out"
"All This and Heaven Too"

5. I Believe in Everything by Speak
I reviewed this album earlier this year. Speak put together a great, poppy forty-odd minutes of music, with a lot of maturity for a first album.
Key Tracks:
"Stand By Us"
"You Know as Well as I"

4. Wanderlust by Everybody Else
Everybody Else fueled this album with Kickstarter contributions. The finished product fell only slightly short of their first album- and only in places. There are many tracks that are much more complex than the first album, but I'm just a sucker for Carrick Moore Gerety's flowing vocals, which aren't featured as heavily on this album. It's a really great album. Were it just a notch better, it would have been higher than #4 on my list.
Key Tracks:
"Out All Night"
"Soldiers Without an Army"

3. Double Capricorn by Robert Schwartzman
I feel like I gave this album a half-hearted review, when really, it's brilliant. I really only had one complaint apart from the length, and that's uncommon. Schwartzman's near one-man album is beautifully composed and preformed.
Key Tracks:
"Out of My Mind"
"Love is All Around"
"All My Life"
2. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
When your favorite modern band releases a new album, you have no contractual obligation to like it. But I really do like Codes & Keys. It's nothing to compare with Narrow Stairs, which is one of my favorite albums of all time, but it's still a really good album. Some Death Cab fans were dissatisfied with this album, saying it was much too happy. Not only would I argue that that is not true, but I would also like to point out that it's okay to be happy once in a while. This album is solid, with lots of beautiful lyricism, gorgeous instrumentals, and several catchy tunes. I liked it from the first listen.
Key Tracks:
"You Are a Tourist"
"Unobstructed Views"
"St. Peter's Cathedral"

1. Good & Evil by Tally Hall
Six years after Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, Tally Hall finally released their sophomore album. Some fans seemed to give it one listen only before giving up and proclaiming it as "missing the fun of Marvin's." But the key to Good & Evil is that it improves exponentially on the second and third listens. Tally Hall achieved so much with this album, creating a cohesive, beautiful masterpiece that doesn't stray from the feel of their first album apart from having more constant themes and lacking a rap element. Furthermore, you can hear the advanced musicality of this album. As far as my personal feelings toward this album go, I lived and breathed this album for a good portion of the summer. Some of the songs on it have taken me near to tears, while others make me smile brightly as I recall how I spent some of the best moments of my summer. I'm sure I will continue to listen to this album as long as I can hear.
Key Tracks:
"Who You Are"
"Misery Fell"
"Out in the Twilight"