What is it about certain cities that feeds a musician’s muse? New York is certainly one of the more popular cities where many ‘o band have found inspiration for a song. However, for every New York song, there are plenty that capture the pain of failure (“Oh lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again”), the emotional desert one feels after a bitter break up (Conor Oberst’s “Moab”), or a road trip from L.A. to Sausalito in a crappy car — jauntily chronicled by Dutch musicians (“Sausalito Summernight” by Diesel). In other words, a city serves as a sledgehammer that brings one back to an important time; a time that captures an emotion, an adventure, a moment of love, a tragic heartbreak in a way that transcends the personal reflections of the lyricist to a wider connection with their fans. So let’s get on with this musical tour of cities that — in one way or another — have become the material with which these six band have woven their musical tapestry.
“The Spirit of Jazz,” the Gaslight Anthem (Download)
Thanks to one of my Popdose colleagues, I was able to hear the new Gaslight Anthem album before most of the record buying public. I really enjoyed their last album, The ’59 Sound and wondered if they could continue with that big sound they’re noted for. The answer is a resounding “yes” and they have done so without sounding like they have no new musical territory to explore. What I love about “The Spirit of Jazz” was how this New York song charmed me with the chorus that certainly channels the Anthem’s major influence: Bruce Springsteen. Those are some mighty big shoes to walk in, but the Gaslight Anthem do an admirable job and never descend into John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band territory.
“Memphis,” PJ Harvey (Download)
A tribute song to Jeff Buckley — who drowned in Memphis after swimming fully clothed (with boots on!) in the Wolf River. Harvey used some lyrics from a Buckley tune that was slated to be on the album he was supposed to record with his band in Memphis, and crafted this haunting and emotional tribute to him.
“Cemeteries of London,” Coldplay (Download)
Trying to capture the feel of “Old London” — and by that the members of Coldplay mean London of the mid 1800s — the lads collectively crafted this folk song whose opening verse has a very similar sound to “House of the Rising Sun.” Now, how Coldplay can know what “Old London” was like is beyond me, but clearly this is a case of artistic license prevailing over historical accuracy. Nevertheless, it’s a song that has some chest-beating yelling in the chorus and a kind of Spanish/U2 musical underbelly in the midsection that certainly adds to the song’s rousing quality.
“So L.A.,” the Motels (Download)
An album that was originally rejected by Capitol Records because their A&R department didn’t hear any hits (and probably hated the fact that they called the album Apocalypso). What to do? Well, the band felt they had good songs, so they hired a new producer to give the tunes a more commercial gloss. And what was the fruit of that “redo?” The highly successful album All Four One that was all over the place in 1982. Because the Internet is wonderful place for many music geeks to post early recordings, here’s the original version of “So L.A.” that Capitol rejected. Oh, and for good measure, here’s the original of “Only the Lonely.” Listening to the mix on both songs, and the weird echo they used on Martha Davis’ vocals, it’s clear that these original versions wouldn’t have charted because, quite frankly, they sound like demos. Labels are often the whipping boys of the music industry; the soulless entities who suck that dewy-eyed ambition out of many aspiring musicians. But in this case, if the Motels submitted Apocalyspo and I was in the room listening to their latest and greatest, I would side with the label by pronouncing it DOA.
“Chicago,” Kate Voegele (Download)
Kate Voegele is one of those singer-songwriters whose not-so-subtle ambition to act was given a forum in the series One Tree Hill – where she played “Mia.” I watched the series when it first came out, and it started out as a drama about a two half-brothers from different economic classes going to the same high school in a town where the ratio of rich folks to poor was about 15,000:1. I gave up on the series when they shifted gears and made it a 90210 soap with far more sexual content – which is fine if it wasn’t so boring to me. Anyway, let’s forget One Tree Hill for now and focus on the song and artist at hand. Kate Voegele had some middling success charting on the AC charts in the US in 2008 and 2009. But this album opener finds the heroine/protagonist of the song escaping from a bad relationship to a city where she can be free to be herself. It’s an overused theme in songwriting, but she hooks me with the chorus, so I’ll forgive her.
“Wedding Vows in Vegas,” Was (Not Was) (Download)
Never has a band captured the sights, the sounds, the smells of Vegas. Okay, all references to This is Spinal Tap aside, I think Was (Not Was) made a truly inspired choice to ask Frank Sinatra, Jr. to sing this ode to short term marriages in a city where marriages and divorces happen very quickly. To wit: A Polaroid’s an extra twenty/Shoot the works man, we’ve got plenty/Witness is another ten/Thanks a heap and come again/Buffet dinner, nothing but the best/And check into some strip love nest. I’m so glad my wife and I weren’t able to get a flight to Vegas back in 1991 and 1992 after drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve. We were all set to trade wedding vows in Vegas, but I get the feeling that if we had gone through with it, we might now be singing along with Elvis Costello: It was a fine idea at the time/But now it’s a brilliant mistake.