This week’s edition of Digging for Gold contains not one, but two references to Twilight. No reason why, that’s just how we roll at Popdose.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#6: Ozark Mountain Daredevils, “Jackie Blue” – #3 U.S.
Jon Cummings - I’m willing to lay odds on the likelihood that, if you lined up every single various-artists hits anthology ever released – K-tel, Ronco, Adam VIII, Rhino, Time-Life, etc., etc. — “Jackie Blue” would be the most anthologized single ever. Did this song even exist before it became a licensing gold (no…silver; no…copper) mine? It’s just “rock” enough to go on a guitar-driven comp, just Southern enough to make the country-rock LPs, and plenty pop enough to go on all the rest.
Dw. Dunphy - Has there ever been as much of a disconnection between the name of a band and the sound they make? I cannot speak to the rest of Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ output having only heard this song from them, but nothing about this song screams “Ozarks” or “Daredevils.” It’s a decent enough tune though. I had a 45 of it twice; once when it was originally issued (as a birthday present, I suspect) and the second time as one of A&M Records’ “forget-me-not” reissues, so I cannot say I dislike the tune at all. Yet what I hear audibly is a West Coast soft-rockin’ kind of sound and what I’m reading should sound like white-trash Knievels with guitars fueled on moonshine and chaw-spit. So weird.
David Lifton - Oh, the early ’70s, when even double-tracking the vocals couldn’t add character. Still, the music’s pretty solid and the production is a little muddy in a good way, even as you keep hoping they’d pick up the tempo a bit. I blame the drummer, who makes Don Henley sound like Stewart Copeland.
David Medsker - Anyone else hear the birth of Smashing Pumpkins here? That would certainly explain why the Pumpkins covered this song during the Gish sessions.
As for the song itself, it’s very much of its time, yet unlike everything else around it. As Dunphy said, it’s a little bit rock, a little bit mellow (dig that mostly falsetto vocal), and therefore the textbook definition of a crossover smash. I can’t imagine that the Ozarks contrived the song to achieve that purpose – though we’re fools if we think that didn’t happen back then – because otherwise we would probably know at least one more song by the band as they latch on to the next trend, They came up with one killer, unique song, and that was all they had.
Jack Feerick – Annnnnd it’s our second fake ELO song of this session! Nice post-Beatles songcraft, and I dig the slow spacey slide guitar. I agree the name of the band is an ill fit — probably left over from previous incarnation as a more country-leaning outfit. And they couldn’t go by OMD, or they’d end up with rooms full of confused New Romantics wondering why they wouldn’t play “If You Leave.”
Okay, they’d have to be New Romantics with time machines. But still.
Cummings - It’s funny for me to hear you guys talk about how the Daredevils in terms of soft rock and/or ELO, because (as a Southern boy) my childhood/teenage experience with them consisted not of endless hearings of “Jackie Blue” — which, in fact, I practically never heard, despite its frequent anthologization — but instead of endless radio hearings of their prior hit, “If You Wanna Get to Heaven.” That song (next line: “You got to raise a little hell”) was no more hardcore than your basic .38 Special single, but it fulfilled the once-an-hour quota for “hellraising” Southern rock on a Virginia AOR station. In any case, “Jackie Blue” raises no hell whatsoever, and it’s difficult to accept that the two songs come from the same band – but then again, I should own up to the fact that until I watched the YouTube video, I thought “Jackie Blue” was sung by a girl.
#7: Michael Martin Murphey, “Wildfire” – #3 U.S., #1 U.S. Easy Listening
Dunphy - Women LOVED this song. It is non-threatening in that it sounds like Bread at their yeastiest. It is about a horse. It is about doomed love and the afterlife. It’s like The Black Stallion mixed with Twilight with a dollop of southern bull-pucky binding the two together, and it is so damned pretty. I so very much want to hate the song and can’t. I feel my testosterone just wasting away while listening to it. Crap, where’s my Abilify when I need it?
Lifton - Snooze.
Medsker - That poor, dumb horse.
Feerick – There’s a constant danger for me, in listening to this music, of falling into the trap of nostalgia — of judging the songs too generously (or too harshly, I suppose) because of pre-existing associations, rather than on their own merits. Sometimes it helps me to imagine the song is by a contemporary band — like, if this were a new song, and I were hearing it for the first time, would I still like it?
And when I listened to “Wildfire,” and found myself admiring the flat-out gorgeous melody, and the creepy imagery of killing frosts and hooting owls, I imagined it was a new song, and imagined a working band that could convincingly write an Americana mood piece, a ghost story about a grieving lover with an ecstatic death wish, waiting for the revenant of his beloved to come and carry him home.
And then I realized that the band I was imagining already exists, and they’re called the Decemberists. And now I desperately want to hear them to cover this. Does Colin Meloy read Popdose, d’you think?
Cummings - I suppose it’s nice to have some mysticism mixed in with the C&W-ified AC singer-songwriter stuff — paging Mr. Fogelberg! – but isn’t “Wildfire” basically “Wuthering Heights” re-set in horse country? This song creeped me out a little when I was a kid, and I harbor little love for it now, but at least it had a bit more on its mind than your standard England Dan & John Ford Coley single.
#8: Phoebe Snow, “Poetry Man” – #5 U.S., #1 U.S. Easy Listening
Dunphy - A song wrought with conflict. Who could argue Phoebe Snow had one of the great voices of all time, and who could argue that this song was as smooth as a bowling lane? No one. But if you ever worked somewhere that had Muzak feeds pumped in all day long, you heard this track perhaps two times a day, and ten to twelve times a week, every week, for as long as you were working there. By that time, the seduction coo and the vocal flips and the occasional vocal flutter grew to be a lot less attractive to the listener. So while I have immense admiration for the singer, and understand the intentions of the song itself, I can’t listen to it with objectivity now.
Lifton - She had such a great and versatile voice that it’s a shame that it was wasted on songs this bad. This is the nadir of the Let’s-Write-Songs-About-Art genre. Joni Mitchell could do it because, well, she’s Joni. And Joni would never come up with a lyric as bad as ”You are a genie and all I ask for is your smile each time I rub a lamp.”
You know, if a girl can’t get a smile out of a guy while giving out handie, she’s doing it wrong.
But is that Michael Brecker on sax? I’ll bet it is.
Medsker - What the hell is this? Sounds like a freeform jazz experiment gone horribly wrong. This really made it all the way to #5? Drugs are awesome, man.
Feerick - Listening with fresh ears, I’m hearing the weird mishmash of sounds — and how each sonic signature contributes to the narrative. This guy make Phoebe feel like a crushed-out, awkward teenager, and that halting, out-of-tune guitar makes us feel it. The dizzy swirls of harp are like a vortex of cartoon hearts around the lovelorn Betty’s head in an Archie comic. The rhythm section seems flown in from Astral Weeks; those cold, synthetic strings, from some realm of pure ideas.
Where it all falls down is for me is the voice, believe it or not. Phoebe’s got great chops, but you can hear her sweating her way through the phrasing—what should be a spontaneous, blurted-out True Confession comes off as way to studied for my taste.
Cummings - It IS amazing that this song did as well as it did on the radio — particularly, for me, because it got NO love whatsoever from stations in southwestern Virginia during that winter of ’75. Nationally, it slotted in snugly between Joni’s run with “Help Me” during the spring/summer of ’74 and Janis Ian’s arrival with “At Seventeen” the following summer — but I never heard “Poetry Man” until years afterward, and have only heard it a few times ever. It’s OK, but it surprises me that such a hook-free single could break so big.
#9: Orleans, “Dance With Me” – #6 U.S.
Dunphy - The Orleans song that hasn’t become a joke. “Dance With Me” is a soft rock staple with vocal harmonies that could saw a car door off in an emergency situation, and it hasn’t suffered as badly a fate as “Still The One” which I’m sure we’ll be getting around to soon.
Lifton - Say what you will, at least it’s got great harmonies and a good chord progression, and with this batch of songs, that makes it the clear winner this week.
Medsker - This is a perfectly pleasant, sweet little song. What I can’t get past is the cover of the album that spawned this song. Look at those hairy, bespectacled men and think about this: they probably got more ass than a toilet seat. No wonder people are nostalgic about the ’70s – that just isn’t happening today. Then again, Carey Mulligan is engaged to a guy from Mumford & Sons, so don’t listen to me.
Dunphy - At least they kept their shirts on for this cover. Isn’t their next album cover the one where they’re playing for the “Skins”?
Feerick - The secret origin of Sixpence None the Richer! Which may sound like a slam, unless you know how much I loved (and still love) “Kiss Me.” And if neither group ever made another record quite as purely magical, well… there’s beauty in a sunset, friends, and it only lasts a moment.
Cummings - The hopeless-romantic in me has always adored this song, though I’ve always found the “dance” theme disconcerting. Nothing about the arrangement, the sentiment, or Congressman Hall’s vocals corresponds with the type of dancing most pop singers were urging during the ’70s. That said, the arrangement did help spark my undying love for acoustic guitar-driven pop, along with “Amie” that same year. And let’s face it — apart from geography and an ever-so-slight twang, don’t Orleans and Pure Prairie League belong eternally in the same sentence?
#10: Jessi Colter, “I’m Not Lisa” – #4 U.S., #1 U.S. Hot Country
Dunphy - Boy oh boy. Another strike against women’s empowerment as poor ol’ Julie finds her man saying the wrong name in bed. Funny; as pop music was starting to assert itself as a forum where women could start demanding respect, attention, and not be caught up in such a weepy, soap-opera of a concept (except, maybe, “Torn Between Two Lovers” which we’ll have to suffer soon enough) the country side was getting ever more melodramatic. Colter is the wife of Waylon Jennings, so you might expect her style of country music to lean on this more traditional version of gender roles, but in contrast to what else was going on in A.M. Radio-land, it sticks out like an old, rusty, barn-door nail.
Lifton - Well, do you have Lisa’s number? I’d rather spend time with her than you.
Medsker - This is a parody, right?
Feerick – Um. Your name isn’t “Julie,” either, actually.
With only one verse, there’s a huge lacuna at the center of the song. We hear a lot about the guy and his past history, but nothing about the relationship between him an Julie. Ho is she, and what is she to him?We assume she’s an insecure new rebound girlfriend, but there’s not a lot of intratextual evidence. She could be a new steady, or a one-night pickup, or a sympathetic hooker.
Or maybe Lisa walked out a long time ago, and Julie is a caretaker, sitting by some demented old man’s bed in his nursing home, as he calls out the name of his long-lost love while drifting in troubled sleep. That might make a better song, actually.
Dunphy - It’s a country song. Clearly this is a one-night hook-up after meeting at the Proust Appreciation Society.
Cummings - Guys, your cynicism about this song is killing me. I think “I’m Not Lisa” is over-emotional and overdramatic and not too well written (“My eyes are not blue, but they won’t leave you” – huh?), but I’m a sucker for this trope of the new lover trying to climb out of the shadow of the old lover. One of my favorite country songs of the ’90s was a Trisha Yearwood number called “The Woman Before Me” that approached the trope from a different angle — a man so traumatized by the hurt inflicted by a previous lover that he can’t open up again. It’s a theme that resonates … though I think it was probably the hyper-emotionalism of “I’m Not Lisa” that really resonated with listeners, the same way Tammy Wynette did on songs like ”D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” that also, to some, sounded like parodies.
Keith Creighton - One fun addendum to your “I’m Not Lisa” chat — have any of you heard “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again” by Nora O’Connor (from Bloodshot Records’ 5th Anniversary disc Down to the Promised Land) – a modern update on the songs you discuss, and a delicious one at that.
OK, carry on…
Cummings - Tom Waits wrote that song and recorded it in 1971 — it’s on his Early Years album. Great song, though, and O’Connor’s version is wonderful.
Creighton - Thanks for the insight – that’s awesome.
Tom Waits’ music is on that list of things I should like, but can’t seem to get into; alongside Dylan, Pearl Jam, Sgt. Peppers, Scarface, sushi, jazz, baseball, video games and that chick from Twilight.