Sunday, April 05, 2009

Kat's Korner: When you build your house . . .

Kat: When you build your house, call me.

For a huge number of readers that just said it all. They're already adding lines like "Well I think I had met my match . . ." For those who are searching a more distant memory or just confused, it's "Sara." A huge top-ten hit for Fleetwood Mac in 1979, one that's never really left rock radio's playlists.

1979. Fleetwood Mac was America's biggest rock band and the country was geared up for the follow up to the mammoth seller Rumors (still the best selling studio album by a rock band). There was joy in some parts over the decision to release a double album -- two sides of vinyl. Wow, some thought, it would be like Rumors doubled. Or squared.

Square more like it. Lindsey Buckingham, the faltering and failing songwriter. Is he really as bad as he seems in retrospect? I think so. By 1979, he'd lost the sex appeal that some had seen. I never saw it and always pinned it off on his being onstage with the biggest band and being the guy holding the guitar. Guitar heroes, sort of an automated response, Pavlovian for many.

Christine McVie was part of Fleetwood Mac as well. Some idiots, like Danny Goldberg, forget that. They take, for example, her amazing pop confection "Don't Stop" and insist (wrongly and deceitfully) that Lindsey wrote it. He didn't. It's all Christine. But he sings on it, so he must have written it!

Right there you have all the answers as to how Warner Bros ended up with the turkey that was Tusk. Christine McVie could write wonderful melodies and lyrics and there's not a rock band (especially not a British one) that she couldn't have held her own in during the rock era. By contrast, if Lindsey showed up with any of his 'songs' at a Beatles session, you get the feeling even Ringo Starr would have snickered.

Throughout the seventies, Lindsey attempted to crib from the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys. He'd steal a phrase here, a line there and try to make it his own -- mainly by taking something brilliant and making it banal. Which is how you end up with, for example, "Monday Morning" and "Go Your Own Way" (think "Monday, Monday" and "Go Where You Wanna' Go"). He couldn't compete with Christine. 1975's self-titled Mac album (the first with Stevie and Lindsey) and 1977's Rumors found Christine grabbing attention with "Say You Love Me," "Sugar Daddy," "You Make Loving Fun" and "Don't Stop."

Christine was already in the band when Nicks and Buckingham joined. She was the band's keyboardist, a songwriter and a vocalist. She wrote her songs by herself. She was married to John McVie. Lindsey couldn't claim any credit for her success.

Stevie? She and Lindsey were involved back then. She was a songwriter and a singer, brought into the band, she's often said, as part of a package deal because the band wanted Lindsey. And while Christine was already an established part of the rock group, Stevie was a newbie like Lindsey and his lesser, right? He was the big bad boy on guitar, right?

Well, no. Because Stevie was like no other. The songs she wrote, the ones Lindsey frequently dismissed, the ones he'd end the decade dismissing and mocking on stage, were the ones that brought the fans to their feet. "Dreams" (the band's only number one hit), "Landslide," "Gold Dust Woman" and "Rhiannon." Songs for the rock canon.

But, hey, Lindsey wrote some good ones too, right? Like "Crystal" and "I Don't Want To Know."

Nope, Stevie wrote those. Lindsey sang on them. And that's how it was in seventies rock and roll and how little pigs like Danny Goldberg still see it: If a man sang on a song he must have written in. By this way of thinking, Lindsey was letting Stevie and Christine bask in his alleged manliness. Reality was the gals were carrying his ass and he knew it.

Which is how you get Tusk. There's one disc worth of material worth listening to: All Stevie and Christine. Eleven tracks and you've got an album that would have performed on the charts for months. But there are twenty tracks.

Christine and Stevie were the songwriters, the proven ones, the ones who could point to repeated chart success. Going into the recording of Tusk, each could point to having written (all by themselves) multiple top ten hits. Lindsey, by contrast, had managed only one top ten hit. ("Go Your Own Way," one of four top ten hits from Rumors, squeaked up to number ten -- the lowest charting 'hit' from the album.) On pop radio or rock radio, his songs got the least spins. So it's past time the question was asked: How did the least successful songwriter of a group with three songwriters end up with nine tracks?

Combined, Stevie and Christine, the group's hitmakers, got eleven. Christine got six songs on the album, Stevie got five. And songwriting failure Lindsey got nine.

In what world did that make sense?

In the cock and roll world of the seventies.

Since he couldn't write a hit, Lindsey decided to take his weirdness and market it as intentional. Which is why photos from this period (including inside the double album) show him with dark circles under his eyes and his curly locks ironed and cut into some sort of homage to Edith Piaf. He thought it passed for punk and the coming new wave. But then, he thought his songs did too. And if the hair didn't have you laughing, the songs would.

"Counting on my fingers, counting on my toes . . ." Trite and with no where to go, Lindsey slapped "The Ledge" on top of the ditty that sounded like it has been 'written' in thirty seconds and called it a song. Needless to say, it did not work itself into rotation. "Not That Funny Is It" was another of his musical disasters on Tusk and, no, it really wasn't. But it was funny to watch the male rock critics lavish him with praise and declare these non-punk songs were punk (by way of Walt Disney?) and that Lindsey was reshaping rock. "Tusk" did hit. Mainly because Lindsey's weird voice doesn't sing on it and also because of the outstanding work of USC's Trojan Marching Band.

The wounded ego of a barely talented male is part of the story of Fleetwood Mac and of rock criticism of that era. What should have resulted in a loud critical slap upside Buckingham's head instead became a revisionary tale of him as the force behind the scenes, the real power. Which is how, after the disaster of Tusk, he'd be able to call the shots on the disaster that was Mirage. Seven of the twelve songs worked. Wanna guess who wrote those? Stevie and Christine. And the hits from the album? Stevie and Christine. Five songs written by the non-songwriter Lindsey while hitmaker Christine only got four songs on the album and hitmaker Stevie only got three songs on the album. As usual, he sang on a Christine song ("Hold Me") and, as usual, a lot of people pretended he wrote or co-wrote it.

Between Tusk and Mirage, Stevie finally went solo. It had been a longtime building and for years before and after (and even today), she spoke of how she just had too many songs and Fleetwood Mac would only allow her to have X number on each project. So she had this huge stockpile of songs, screaming to be released.

If the details above didn't make it clear for you, examining the solo careers of the three singers from Mac will. Stevie got multiple hits off her albums, Christine racked up two charting hits off her self-titled 1984 album and Lindsey? "Trouble" (number nine) and "Go Insane" (number twenty-three). Both 'quirky' and from a solo recording career that spanned six albums -- six poorly selling albums. The press created 'brain' of the band wasn't any more successful on his own than he was pretending to front the group. (Mick Fleetwood was awfully kind to Lindsey's ego all those years he let Lindsey pretend.)

But Stevie went after a solo career and actually had one. Multiple tours, multiple hits, multiple albums, Grammy nominations. Even a three disc boxed set charting her solo career (Enchanted), as well as two greatest hits collection (Time Space and Crystal Visions). The one thing she's never had was a live album.

Stevie Nicks The Soundstage Sessions

Until last Tuesday. The Soundstage Sessions is Stevie's first live album (with 'sweetening' added after the live performance -- added in a Nashville studio). It's an interesting mix especially when you grasp that live albums are stand-ins for greatest hits. Joni Mitchell, for years, refused all offers of greatest hits. She knew that once you had your best of, the stores stocked that and cut back on your catalogue. Avoiding a greatest hits meant any real music store had to stock her Court & Spark, yes, but also her Blue, Ladies of the Canyon, Hejira and one or two others. You couldn't sell what the stores didn't stock and keeping, for example, Blue on the shelves, through multiple formats, for decades allowed that rock classic to finally hit the one million mark. But even Joni had to make a concession of some sort to her label and it was the live album Miles of Aisles from 1974, a live recording collecting all the favorites ("Both Sides Now," "Woodstock," "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio," "Big Yellow Taxi," etc.) and two new tracks. The format, especially the inclusion of new tracks, would be followed by many others over the year. For example, Fleetwood Mac's monster selling live album, The Dance (1997), would follow that format as would their previous live album, Fleetwood Mac Live (1980). And as that became the format, there wasn't a great deal of difference between live albums and greatest hits except for the applause and whistles.

So Stevie's just released The Soundstage Sessions and it would be easy to assume that it would just be her recording a sampling of her forty or so tracks that have gone on to become hits. Maybe she'd divide it up by album, offer up two or three to a solo album?

This being Stevie Nicks, she, of course, went another way.

And, as is usually the case for her, it works.

She does two covers, Dave Matthews Band "Crash Into Me" and Bonnie Raitt's "Circle Dance."

At Third, we already weighed in on "Crash Into Me" and what an amazing cover it is. "Circle Dance" was a big surprise for me and it seemed vaguely familiar. I started thinking maybe it was on Buckingham Nicks (the album Lindsey and Stevie recorded in 1973). But that wasn't it. It finally hit me it was a track off Raitt's Longing In Their Hearts (1994) -- an album so strong that the track was really buried on it. Vanessa Carlton duets with Stevie on this song and the vocals mesh perfectly. They mesh so well that I wasn't even paying attention to the lyrics being sung the first few listens and just enjoying the notes.

So you've got two covers, what else? Stevie picks through her solo songbook as well as the songs she penned for the Mac. And the choices really aren't obvious.

"How Still My Love" is a great song from her first solo album (Belladonna, 1981); however, it wasn't one of the four hits singles and isn't an obvious choice. (Of non single tracks from that album, the title track and "Outside The Rain" are popular Nicks' concert staples -- the latter often merged with "Dreams.")

My favorite Stevie solo album is Wild Heart (1983) and it fairs best in terms of the songs here. "Stand Back," the huge hit, is the live album opener and it's probably one of 1983's sturdiest songs. While many other hits from that year can be mucked with (and have but I'll be kind and not name names), "Stand Back" can be done pretty much anyway and still stands up. It's sort of the "Louie Louie" of its decade. And a foot stomping opener. "No one looked, I walked by . . ." Even what sounds like the electronic equivalent of a car backfiring (drum machine?) before the second verse can't harm the song. "If Anyone Falls In Love" was another hit from Wild Heart and here I think Stevie's strongly improved on the original. She's added a bit of a range to expand the original vocal and she's also got some brighter shading that really works. In the second verse, she's just as likely to speak the lines as sing them but, check out the first verse. The live version also honors the wonderful interplay with the backing vocals so evident in the original although there's less call and response on the bridge which quickly becomes a Stevie solo. "Beauty and the Beast" is the song that closes Wild Heart and is the closer proper for the new live album.

"Fall From Grace" and "Sorcerer," two tracks from Trouble in Shangri-La (2001), make the album and "Sorcerer" wasn't one I really cared for prior to the live versions. The studio arrangement of this song always struck me as too fussy and reserved. Here, with what I'm assuming is some amazing work by rock guitarist god Waddy Wachtel, the song really comes alive.

You may be wondering which of the above tracks is my favorite? I haven't gotten to my favorite. C.I. has sworn by "Sara" as the best for over two months and I have been so curious to hear it and so sure that it wouldn't be. I remember a live version from Stevie's solo tour in the early eighties that used to get played constantly on rock radio. It wasn't piano based, it was guitar based, and it had higher tones in it. For years, that was the best version of "Sara." Then Mick Fleetwood did some dates with her on her 1986 Rock A Little tour and I heard a version of "Sara" that had my bawling my eyes out in the second row. This version has those high tones in the guitar work and a degree of the reflective nature of the vocals Stevie laid down when I saw her live in 1986. It sort of blends those and the version most of us know best. And it's not only an amazing song, it really underscores how Stevie is never finished with any song. Her songs touch so many of us and possibly that's because they're still alive.

One of my sisters has two nine-year-old girls. I called her Thursday to check on a few things and also to tell her about "Sara." It's one of her favorite songs and not just because she's also named "Sara." I didn't have to tell her too much. She'd gotten the CD at Best Buy. She told me, "strangest thing," when "Sara" comes on, her girls rush to the center of the living room and start twirling around the room. Doesn't the song have that effect on most of us? I can remember a horrible break up (he went back to his ex-wife) in March 1980 that left me unable or unwilling to get out of bed for the bulk of the day. Done with my pity party around 10:30 that night, too late to go out, I put on "Sara," blasted it and danced and twirled around the room. "Drownin' in the sea of love," indeed. "Where everyone would love to drown."

(We covered "Landslide" at Third, as well, so for thoughts on that track, click here.)

And that's pretty much the album . . . if you buy it. Well, if you buy it at Stevie's website, with the DVD concert, you can get various extras (including an autographed lithograph). If you buy it at Amazon as a download, you can get "Enchanted" as a bonus track. If you buy it at iTunes, you can get "Gold Dust Woman" and "Edge of Seventeen" as bonus tracks.

So, Kat, what are those three tracks like?

Well, what I'll tell you since you asked (nod to Judy Collins) is iTunes remains the crap-fest of downloads. I downloaded the album from Amazon with no problems as is generally the case. To get the two extra tracks, I also downloaded it from iTunes Tuesday. And?

If iTunes was my first stop or only stop, I'd be pissed as hell. I got error messages on "Circle Dance" and "Fall From Grace" and if there's a way to reload them (without paying), I'm not figuring out how. I've got the tracks via the Amazon download, so I'm fine. But that's the sort of problems that community members repeatedly have with iTunes and why Amazon is the download choice community wide.

So with that little bit of consumer reporting, let's turn to the tracks.

"Enchanted" (also from Wild Heart) is a powerful closer to the Amazon download and is really something. I didn't expect to feel the same about the iTunes bonuses. But I was surprised. "Edge of Seventeen" is so strong that I would actually argue it, and not "Stand Back," should have been the opener for the live album. An over twelve minute track might have seemed too much, however. Back in the day, we would have grooved on it endlessly but we live in the age of short attention spans. ("Land of snap decision, land of short attention span," Joni Mitchell, "Dog Eat Dog.") And "Gold Dust Woman"?

Amazing. You have to imagine the background vocalists repeating, "Running in the shadows." And over that you need to hear Stevie ripping into:

Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, you don't feel me now

You don't feel me

Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, you should see me now

You should see me

Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, you can't save me now

You can't save me.

But you can buy the concert. And you should. As a CD, DVD or download, it's an amazing testament to one of rock's greatest and most unique artists. And what men refuse to correct, history sometimes does. Which is why Stevie is the rock legend coming out of Fleetwood Mac, the one surviving, the one standing. The Soundstage Sessions captures all the reasons why that's the case.