Priest Picks #8: Our Weekly Top 10 List
Welcome to week #8 of the Pickled Priest Top 10. I’ve been listening to a lot of older stuff this week, but there’s always plenty of new music to be had (we haven’t run out!). Since we’re planning on doing the critically mandatory “Best of 2020 (So Far)” next Monday, I thought I’d catch up on a few things that I have been thinking about, but never getting around to. It's cleaning week here at Pickled Priest!
1. CHRISTIAN LEE HUTSON / Beginners
It’s a good time to be a Phriend of Phoebe! Bridgers or Waller-Bridge for that matter, but in this case I speak of the phormer. Christian Lee Hutson has been a “phriend” and pseudo behind-the-scenes guy for her prior to 2020 (he co-wrote a song for the boygenius project that teamed Bridgers with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in 2018 and then one for her Better Oblivion Community Center project with Conor Oberst), but his near total anonymity ends with Beginners, his first solo album. The appropriately titled record was produced by Bridgers and it’s strong enough to earn him a spotlight of his very own, even if it’s a hazy beam of soft light, stage right, visible only to a select few. I have a feeling he’d prefer it this way.
This is not the kind of album that’s going to launch a new star into the pop galaxy, but it should give him a deserving cult audience who will flock to hear his beautiful songs on the small club circuit. I don’t know for sure what Christian and Phoebe’s personal relationship was prior to this year, but the songs seem to indicate it was a close one. “Keep You Down” sounds like it could’ve been a cathartic moment for both in the studio. “I could’ve told you they loved you/From the way they stood still/But I hope you didn’t notice/And that you never will,” seems to be about the fear of losing Pheebs to phame and phortune. Later, Hutson, resigned to this fate, sings “I think you should’ve considered/No one remembers my name.” It seems too specific not to be based in fact (perhaps die-hard phans can help me here). At the very least, you can tell they have a deep creative connection and they do have a lot in common in that respect—each write songs that take awhile to get under your skin (or at least mine). I was reasonably impressed with both on first listen, but until I gave them my undivided attention, lyric sheets in hand, they didn’t reveal themselves fully. I would say Hutson was more immediately striking than Bridgers for me because he reminded me of Elliott Smith, a comparison I don’t throw around lightly. Normally, that’s sacred ground. His songs have an overwhelming air of fragility, much like Smith’s, and his hushed, almost whispered vocal style is almost too close for comfort at times.
Smith comparisons aside, Hutson clearly isn't a one-trick pony as a songwriter. “Athiest” has thematic ties with Paul Simon’s “America,” about two travelers (siblings here, not lovers) seeing the world through a window (airplane, not bus) with an air of melancholy setting in; “I don’t remember getting older, but I’m slowing down,” sings Hutson. Like Simon, he has the ability to work a little humor into a song that also conveys a sense of world-weariness, which indicates a songwriter who plies his craft with a keen appreciation for life's contradictions. After all, there’s often humor in even our lowest moments. “Talk” is kind of a Millennial version of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” with Hutson “Raised over the phone/Your word was a wave then/Endlessly breaking,” followed by the realization, “I’m a chip off the old block/’Cause I’m all talk.” Hutson has a way of writing songs with a quiet underlying desperation that you still want to listen to even when you’re not battling your own internal conflicts. Even at his most accessible, like the Dawes-esque “Get the Old Band Back Together,” he cuts to real emotional truths. The song, about an aging guitarist yearning to get his band back together (despite the fact they've never played a gig or recorded a song) is charming. “Let’s get back in the room and let the magic happen,” promises Hutson, but the band is about to be derailed yet again by real life. In the old days, the lure of a steady paycheck interrupted things, now the band has to deal with the next official step toward suburban domesticity, “After the baby, everything changed/I only have a couple a nights these days.” It’s the tale of almost every band that never went anywhere—the "moment of compromise" in the face of harsh reality. When Hutson’s song ends, questions linger: Is it better to leave pipe dreams behind (and embellish a “We could’ve really been something!” claim around a neighborhood fire pit) or is chasing your dream one last time the only real choice? That’s why Hutson’s songs are often special. They bring you to places you'll remember long after they’re over. If he’s this good now, it bodes well for the future.
2. FANNY / Fanny
If you’ve heard of Fanny, and their self-titled debut record from 1970, you may know this story already. They were the first all-female band to be signed to a major label (Reprise) and paved the way for likeminded "girl" bands to follow. When I saw the record up for re-issue (on eye-pleasing white vinyl) by Real Gone Music, I put in my order immediately. To add more enticement, it even came with an original leftover promo sticker from back in 1970 with the slogan “Get Behind Fanny” (see below). It was the 70s, so leave it to the male-dominated record industry to sneak a little sexual innuendo into the marketing campaign. Scumbags. Fanny was already a pretty titillating name with “fanny” meaning buttocks in the US and vagina in the UK (which may explain why they drive on the wrong side of the road), but that was the group’s choice I assume. That said, it shouldn’t be surprising that the cover of the album featured the group facing away from the camera, fannies (clothed) on display. On the fanny (or backside) of the cover, it’s basically the same photo with the band face-front this time. So there you have it! The legendary Fanny!
Oh, the music. I should talk about the music. After a few listens to the LP, I totally see why they got signed. No, the record isn’t a lost masterpiece, but it’s certainly a very worthy early-70s rock and roll artifact with some pretty good songs and there's no denying its cachet as the album that broke through rock's glass ceiling. I was expecting it to be heavier than it is for some reason—it’s much more mainstream rock than anticipated. It features competent musicianship, good harmonies, catchy choruses, and brims with confidence. While it’ll never rank as a classic, to call this a “novelty” signing would do it a great disservice. What really sets this group apart is the fact that all members were singers and songwriters, which means there's a good deal of variety in sound and style throughout. In a better world, “Conversation with a Cop” would be on classic rock radio next to some other second-level warhorses we routinely trot out to fill time between Zeppelin and Pink Floyd tracks. The song has a pretty simple concept. A lady walking the streets after dark is stopped by a suspicious cop wondering why she’s out and about so late, like she’s got no right to be there (and it doesn’t sound like he’s worried so much about her safety as he is her “occupation”). Her response, “Do I have to have a license to be lonely?” is a snappy answer to a stupid question, and is followed by the real reason she’s out in the wee hours, “I’m just looking for some place to walk my dog.” As it turns out, there are a few other excellent tunes on the record after that, with current faves being “Candlelighter Man,” “Shade Me,” “Come and Hold Me.” All of which prove these girls deserved their fair shot at stardom back in the day, gender be damned. It doesn’t really matter that they ultimately weren’t up to the task, or maybe society wasn’t quite ready for them, I still appreciate the fact they were a groundbreaking act. All they wanted to do was be a band on par with any other, with no special favors asked for or granted. To prove their point, they even had the balls to cover Cream’s “Badge,” which, to risk critical exile, I’ve never been in love with in the first place. Fanny adds a different take on the song, and from now on, I’ll play this version of the song more than the sludgy Cream version (which I never play, admittedly). Fanny may never have reached the heights to which they aspired, but I’m happy they’re getting another deserved moment where the sun does shine.
3. CHRIS JAGGER / Chris Jagger
Here’s the first installment of what I will call “Relatives of the Stars,” where we look at a recording made by a family member of a bona-fide rock star and see if it’s any good. First up, Chris Jagger, who fashioned an erratic recording career back in the day, one slightly less illustrious and successful than older brother, world icon, and the quintessential rock & roll frontman of all-time, Mick Jagger. I would think it a lot easier to be a sibling of a famous rock star if you didn’t also aspire to be one yourself. If Chris Jagger were a real estate tycoon or custodian or bank teller, he’d just have a famous brother—maybe he’d harbor a little jealousy, maybe he’d be proud as a peacock; I can see it both ways or maybe a combination of both. But for Chris, who loved rock & roll just like Mick, I wonder what it was like for him to carry the Jagger name around during his career. Sadly, I still don’t know the whole story of their relationship (it appears healthy) so I’ll focus on the music. I happen to have Chris’s self-titled debut in my collection and it’s actually highly-regarded by some and you can see why. It’s a perfectly acceptable early 70s rock record with some more-than-decent songs (“Handful of Dust,” “My Friend John,” and my personal favorite, “Let Me Down Easy”). It’s an easy listen overall with moments of real inspiration—the perfect “lost” album you might rediscover someday and claim didn’t get a fair shake. Then again, perhaps it got more than a fair shake. Without the Jagger last name, would it have “soared” all the way to #186 on the Billboard charts upon its release? Would he have even been signed in the first place? We’ll never know. One thing I do know is that if Mick and the boys Stonesified any of the tracks on (the stronger) side one and added it on to one of their early 70s records, we might be thinking of the songs a bit differently now. Slip “Let Me Down Easy” onto Exile, with some Keith riffs, Charlie beats, and some Mick attitude added, and we might have yet another Stones song on classic rock radio. Alas, it was left to fester on Chris’s album, so it was forgotten by all but a few salivating record enthusiasts. If you look at Chris, you can see a little of that famed Jagger pout. His voice even has a trace of that classic Jagger cool. But the overall package just doesn’t amount to star material. If you think he could’ve been a contender on par with Mick that’s just your imagination running away with you.
Recording note: The album was recorded using the Stones fabled Stonesmobile (see photo), which was basically a traveling recording studio (think food truck, but substitute recording equipment for deep fryers). The studio was used to record some pretty good records: Led Zeppelin III, IV, Houses of the Holy, & Physical Grafitti, the Who’s Who’s Next, Deep Purple’s Machine Head (whose “Smoke on the Water” chronicles a fire at Montreux which nearly destroyed the truck entirely), Bad Company’s Run with the Pack, Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” and, logically, Life in a Day, the debut record from Simple Minds—not to mention Stones’ classics Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. If it could serve up an empanada and/or red velvet cupcake, too, that would’ve been even more impressive.
4. MILLIE / “My Boy Lollipop”
Eulogy alert! If you didn’t notice, Millie Small, truncated to Millie for artistic reasons, died in early May of this year. She wasn’t a global star, but she did break some ground during her career. When I heard the news, I immediately fired up everyone’s favorite Millie song “My Boy Lollipop.” Strangely, for a song that sold seven million copies worldwide, and went to #1 in the UK and #2 in the US upon its release back in 1964, you don’t hear the Jamaican pixie’s smash single very much anymore. You might assume that the song was the early-60s equivalent of one of our modern-day junk-pop singles—meant for a quick payoff, but not built to last. But you’d be wrong on that front, because the song still sounds fun and fresh today—over 55 years later! “Lollipop” is an adorable two-minute sweet tart of a single that blends an impossibly perky vocal teeming with playground vocal inflections, a killer harmonica solo (not by a young Rod Stewart as once rumored), and a then-rare-for-radio ska backbeat. In fact, it was, and still is, one of the earliest and biggest-selling ska or reggae singles in history. Not only that, the song was the very first hit single on Chris Blackwell's Island Records, one of the most important and influential labels of all time (not to mention the eventual home to Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, U2, Tom Waits, Nick Drake, and an embarrassment of other riches). So, not only is it a great song, it has significant historical value, too. If you require something a little more titillating to convince you to listen, I’ve always been suspicious of this song’s “my boyfriend is such a sweetheart” sentiment. To me, and I may be exposing myself as a pervert here, it sounds like a thinly disguised blow job song. I know I'm not alone here and I’m pretty sure I’m right.
5. WAS (NOT WAS) / “11 MPH (Abe Zapp Ruder Version)”
We never wanted our Top 10 lists to act as a weekly accounting of dead rock stars, but this week I’m making an exception in order to spend a little time acknowledging a couple artists whose lives and deaths went largely unnoticed. First was Millie and now I briefly memorialize Sweet Pea Atkinson, one of two soul singers (Harry Bowen being the other) for legendary producer Don Was’s musical side-project Was (Not Was). Don’s band was an anything goes affair with a revolving cast of characters. Don was a restless sort and rarely said no to a crazy song idea. Hence, their albums were stylistically all over the map. If you wanted to turn someone on to their music, you’ll need a few tracks to do it, as you’d be really hard-pressed to find one track that adequately sums up the band's diversity. On one record, you’d have a demented spoken word oddity like “Hey Dad, I’m in Jail.” Then you’d be treated to Frank Sinatra Jr. guesting on “Wedding Vows in Vegas” a genius lounge lizard number. After that, maybe a dynamite pop song (and shoulda-been NCAA tournament montage tune) like “Anything Can Happen.” And I’ve only focused on one of their albums, the wonderful What Up, Dog? from 1988. Also included on that same album was an R&B workout centering around a JFK assassination conspiracy theory called “11 MPH” (the speed JFK’s limo was going when he was shot in Dallas) The song works mainly because of an absolutely killer performance by journeyman singer Sweet Pea Atkinson. He can sing it rough, he can sing it smooth, and this song proved he could tackle a song about anything and make it work. No wonder Lyle Lovett recruited him to be a part of his Large Band years later. So, we’ve got you covered here—a song combining one of the most notable deaths of all time and one that flew under the radar for most people.
6. THE HOUSEMARTINS / "The World's On Fire"
7. SON HOUSE / "Grinnin' In Your Face"
Sometimes the impetus for writing about something is pretty simple—I stumble upon something that interests me, I’m doing something that reminds me of something else, something comes into my field of vision; you get the idea. So this week, I was staring at the book The Birth of Loud by Ian S. Port, which has been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for far too long. That reminded me of It Might Get Loud, a movie I really enjoyed featuring the Edge, Jack White, and Jimmy Page basically circle-jerking their guitars for two hours. The the rest of my highly secretive thought process is detailed below.
The Housemartins were another in a seemingly endless procession of British bands who burst onto their local scene like a jack-in-the-box, fully formed with pristinely pop singles in tow, only to fade into the ether before we even get a chance to really become acquainted. It’s a strange phenomenon—credit the notoriously fickle UK press for adopting a “Next Big Thing” mentality as their business model. Thankfully, the Hull-based Housemartins did give us two stellar records in the late-80s before their mandatory implosion. (From the wreckage we got The Beautiful South and Fatboy Slim and I’ll leave it to you to decide if that was a fair trade or not.) “The World’s On Fire” from The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death (a distinctly cheeky British title if there ever was one) is our personal favorite because it announces itself like a Clash song, is written like a Kinks song, percolates like a They Might Be Giants track, and then, at the 2:03 mark, cracks out a falsetto that could only have been achieved with a thrice-twisted nutsack. But the joyous undercurrent, for those who like to parse lyrics, is the celebratory tone around the decline in interest for organized religion among today's younger generations. So, if you wonder why everyone’s grinning, it's probably because they no longer have a care in the world. Especially now that they’ve got their Sundays free again!
Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” gained some notoriety for a new generation of listeners after Jack White proclaimed it to be his all-time favorite song during the rockumentary It Might Get Loud from 2008. The backstory of the great Delta bluesman Son House is an amazing American tale, which I won’t even attempt to summarize in one paragraph. Suffice it to say, if you have even a passing love of American music history, or the blues in general, you owe it to yourself to read the story in Ted Gioia’s phenomenal book Delta Blues (Norton), easily the best book I’ve ever read about the land where the blues began. “Grinnin’ In Your Face” is one of House’s many masterpieces, and its sage advice cuts right to the bone. You’re better off not trusting anyone but your truest friends (and even that’s a risk). House’s voice is coated with hard-earned life experiences and here it’s accentuated only by an insistent thigh-slap rhythm. You can almost see the puffs of fertile Delta soil lifting from his pants and hovering in the sunlight.
8. THEE SACRED SOULS / “Give Us Justice”
As a society, we can’t move on from the Black Lives Matter movement assuming it is on auto-pilot now. We know how that has approach has worked in the past. This short little single from Daptone artists Thee Sacred Souls (signed to the label’s new Penrose imprint) is a short PSA to remind us of that fact. “Give Us Justice” sounds like a classic gospel single from the 60s, but it couldn’t be more current in its message. “Coulda been me/Lying on the concrete/There’s a knee against my neck/Pleading for my breath” followed by “There’ll be no peace/Until there’s justice.” The song takes the mourning from the church to all people with a unity of purpose and message. Heed it.
9. JEB LOY NICHOLS / Season of Decline EP
It’s no secret we’re big Jeb Loy Nichols fans at the Priest. If a front porch had a sound his would be it—organic songs that flow like sweet molasses, offering deeper substance if you’re so inclined. And inclined you should be. Season of Decline is a little quarantine gift that features Jeb stripped back to just the basics (his other songs aren’t, shall we say, “heavily adorned”). In the bargain, you get “Season of Decline,” one of his better recent songs and it goes down like a glass of smooth hooch even if you’re currently in the throws of the titular “decline” like me. But Nichols, predictably, isn’t going to decline the usual way. In his “decline” (we should all be so lucky) he’s sometimes up to no good or something in its vicinity, “Some nights I go out breaking into people’s homes/I just sit and watch TV, leave their stuff alone.” Born in Wyoming, Nichols has always loved all forms of American music—blues, R&B, funk, jazz, soul, country, folk, you name it—which makes it surprising that he’s now a longtime UK resident, tucked into the rolling hills of Wales somewhere. Perhaps that remote location is what makes his music sound so homespun and genuine. There’s not a bad song on his new six-song EP mainly because he follows his own personal mantra, “Don’t overthink it, just get in the groove and let it happen.” In my opinion, he’s an artist many will be kicking themselves for missing some day.
10. SCOOTERS IN ROCK & ROLL, PT. 1
Welcome to a new feature in our Top 10 where we talk about that ultimate rock & roll artifact, the scooter! We’re kidding! (Or are we?) Every once in a while, we’ll discuss how scooters (not mopeds!) have influenced rock and roll culture. Today, we’re going back to the very origins of rock & roll itself for our first ride.
Yes, one of the architects of rock & roll, none other than Bo Diddley himself, was an avid scooter rider! He was so unapologetic over his love for his scooter he even featured it on the cover of his 1959 LP, Have Guitar, Will Travel. And travel he did! On a real slick 1957 Cushman “Step Thru” Scooter with a beautiful two-tone red and white (more of an eggshell) paint job customized with his name on the rear flank, and, I assume in a tribute to his signature beat, his first name is written twice, “Bo! Bo Diddley!” (speculation only). His choice of scooter model was perfect as it had the same chunky rectangularity of his iconic Cigar Box guitar. I take some issue with his recklessness behind the wheel, however. He’s not only driving one-handed, he’s also carrying his guitar over his shoulder, which could cause catastrophic damage to the guitar in case of accident (and less importantly, possibly interfere with the safe operation of his scooter). I really wish they had left the photo on the album cover alone, as the image of Bo zipping by on his scooter, guitar in hand, waving to his fans, is perfect as is. But somebody thought superimposing a business card the size of one of those novelty checks they give Lotto winners was a good idea, which it wasn’t. Still, as an artifact for scooter lovers (like me) this is a priceless endorsement of our lifestyle.
Thanks for reading. See you next week with our 10 favorite records for 2020 (so far). Until we meet again, keep the peace and keep six feet away from me. Gotta scoot!