Pure Bathing Culture: “Moon Tides”

pbcAs the summer winds down, popsicles and swimming pools give way to the ennui of the dog days. An eagerly anticipated season has overstayed its welcome yet again. Pure Bathing Culture has crafted an album perfectly suited to the waning summer, suitable for weekend drives and one last visit to the lake.

Consisting of vocalist Sarah Versprille and guitarist Daniel Hindman, PBC captures the best of 80s-era Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of Kate Bush. The mystical lyrics of songs like “Pendulum” and “Temples of the Moon” paint a dreamy picture of the collision of nature and the spiritual world, while the gently chiming guitars recall hazy early-90s pop by the likes of the Cranberries and the Sundays.

moontidesWith strains of 80s synth-pop bleeding into many of the songs on Moon Tides,  the sweetly catchy choruses could easily have scored a John Hughes movie. While “Scotty” wouldn’t sound out of place on 1988’s hit list, “Only Lonely Lovers” manages to merge Phil Spector’s 1960s girl groups with Echo and the Bunnymen. “Temples of the  Moon” summons Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”; a fitting end to an album that seems to revel in the bittersweet end of a golden season.

Although clearly adept at melding styles of the past, Pure Bathing Culture still claims a spot of their own in the music realm. This debut makes summer’s farewell sound sweeter than ever.

The New York City Soul of Laura Nyro

“Amber was the color
Summer was a flame-ride
Cookin’ up the noon roads
Walkin’ on God’s good side
I was walkin’ on God’s good side…”
-Laura Nyro, “Lu”

lauranyro3For thirty years, Laura Nyro believed she had been booed off the stage after her performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. At just 20 years old, it was only her second live performance ever, and her brand of New York City soul contrasted sharply with the west coast-dominated lineup of pop and rock bands. Footage of Laura performing was not included in the Monterey Pop film, reinforcing the idea that she hadn’t gone over well with the audience. The story of this perceived failure followed her throughout her career, tempering her confidence, until the producers of the film unearthed forgotten footage of the festival in 1997. Their discovery was shocking: no one had booed before, during, or after Laura’s set. Instead, there were shouts of “Beautiful!” and “We love you!” The producers immediately phoned to tell Laura the news, reaching her just weeks before she died of ovarian cancer at age 49.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine failure of any kind for a singer and songwriter as brilliant as Laura Nyro. Her songs, with their dynamic shifts in tempo and mood, incorporated elements of jazz, soul, Broadway, and pop; her vocals were soulful and rich. Staunchly feminist in her vision, her lyrics questioned commonly held views about gender, race, religion, and politics. She boldly confessed her desires and asked for no judgment in return. As a result, her songs dwelled at the top of the charts, but only in versions recorded by other artists. After laboring in obscurity despite releasing five classic albums, she announced her retirement from the music business at age 24.

lauranyro4Born in the Bronx, Laura grew up knowing that she would do something creative. After teaching herself to play piano, at age eight she began to compose songs, and her future profession was chosen. By age 17, she had written most of the songs on her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, including “And When I Die”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, and “Stoney End”. These songs would go on to become massive hits for Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Fifth Dimension, and Barbra Streisand, respectively. The album was released in 1966, and led to Laura’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.


lauranyro2Despite the high quality of the songs on her debut, it was Laura’s next three albums that would cement her reputation as one of the most exciting (and most overlooked) performers in rock music. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession marked a step up from her debut, with lush arrangements, wildly inventive lyrics, and more hit songs (Three Dog Night successfully covered “Eli’s Comin’”, and “Stoned Soul Picnic” returned The Fifth Dimension to the pop charts). The album visits characters throughout the urban landscape, culminating with “The Confession”, a song with lyrics that, in the 1960s, were positively shocking for a woman to sing.


Laura continued her vision with her next album, the gritty, mysterious New York Tendaberry. A love letter to her beloved NYC, the album’s title renders Laura’s invented word, “tenderberry”, in a way that evokes her Bronx accent. More stripped-down than her previous records, the album is mostly Laura at her piano, with occasional blasts of horns that feel like gusts of blazing-hot wind on a steamy city street. The painterly lyrics evoke the city at its dirty best. Her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, included a “Seasons Suite”, wherein each song represented one of the four seasons.


lauranyroAfter experiencing her biggest chart success with a cover of “Up on the Roof”, Laura decided to record an entire album of covers. Enlisting her friends LaBelle to sing with her, she recorded Gonna Take a Miracle. She chose what she called her “teenage heartbeat songs”, and brilliantly reinterpreted each of them. After the release of this album, Laura announced her retirement from the music business. Although she would eventually return and record a few more albums before her death, they did not match the simultaneous power and vulnerability evinced by her first five.


lauranyro5Today, Laura is remembered for the hits other bands had with her songs, and the influence she had on other, more popular artists. Her devotees include Jenny Lewis, Elton John, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, and, most famously, Joni Mitchell, who admitted that hearing Laura’s early albums inspired her to take up playing the piano again after a hiatus (resulting in all those lovely, piano-driven ballads on Ladies of the Canyon and Blue). Despite her lack of commercial success, one listen to a Laura Nyro album removes any doubt of her maverick genius.

Cover Girls: “Always Something There to Remind Me”

Sandie_ShawFirst recorded in 1963 as a demo by Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic “Always Something There to Remind Me” landed in the lower regions of the charts the next year for Lou Johnson. It wasn’t until England’s Sandie Shaw recorded a version later in 1964 that the song reached #1 in England. Known for performing barefoot, Sandie enjoyed several other major chart hits in Europe after the success of “Always Something There to Remind Me”, including “Girl Don’t Come” and “Long Live Love”. She found further success with her own clothing line in the late 6o’s.

In 1983, with her fame largely behind her, she received a letter from Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, urging her to collaborate with them and record some of their songs. Sandie ultimately recorded three Smiths songs: “Hand in Glove”, “Jeane”, and “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, the latter written especially for her by the duo. The Smiths appeared with her to perform the songs on “Top of the Pops”, and the band performed barefoot in homage to her earlier career. The single with The Smiths reached the top 40 in England, but she wasn’t able to duplicate the huge success of  her first hit:

In 1983, just as Sandie was in the midst of her collaboration with The Smiths, a new band called Naked Eyes was hitting it big with a synthpop cover of “Always Something There to Remind Me”. This time, the song would have its biggest success on the U.S. charts, where it hit the top ten. The fame of the Naked Eyes version would far exceed any other in the states, where none of Sandie Shaw’s songs had cracked the top 40 and she was largely unknown. Vocalist Pete Byrne, a lifelong fan of the Sandie Shaw version, recorded his vocal in one take.

The Black Belles

blackbellesThere’s something to be said for a good story. According to their official Third Man Records bio, the Black Belles met at the boarding school where each member had been sent by their despairing parents. The bio shares the reasons why each girl was the black sheep of the family (sample: “Kicked out of girl scouts for poisoning cookies. Allegedly.”), before stating that the boarding school was where she “found others just like her.” Of course, given Third Man Records founder Jack White’s propensity for mythology, the bio is just good (un)clean fun.

blackbelles2In actuality, the Black Belles are Olivia Jean, Shelby Lynn, and Ruby Rogers, who were introduced to each other by Jack White. Olivia Jean, the group’s lead singer and primary songwriter, met Jack back in their Detroit days, where she formed and fronted a surf rock band. Combining the aggression of garage rock with a “friendly goth” sensibility, the ladies of the Black Belles recorded their debut in 2011. With their trademark hats and dark clothing, their look caught people’s attention right away, but their musical talent runs far deeper than their image ever could.

Songs like “Honky Tonk Horror” and “Wishing Well” deliver the hard-rocking sound Olivia Jean developed through years of playing live and as a studio hired gun. The album is uniform, but sets a mood—specifically, that it was recorded at a dance hosted by the Addams Family (a compliment if there ever was one!). The girls have toured extensively in the U.S. and England, where audiences are treated to originals and an excellent selection of covers, including the Sonics’ “The Witch”, a song that allows Shelby Lynn’s drumming to shine.

The Belles have been (mostly) quiet since the release of their album two years ago, but let’s hope they release a follow-up soon.

Sweet Inspiration: Winona Ryder

winonaActress Winona Ryder burst onto the scene in the 1980s and quickly made a name for herself with quirky, alternative film roles. As her star continued to rise in the 90’s, she became nearly as well-known for her relationships with other celebrities—musicians, in particular— as for her acting skills. Some of her famous paramours wrote songs for her, while other musicians were inspired by their crushes on the actress. The trend of “songs about Winona” reached its fever pitch when Ryan Adams’ 2001 album Gold was rumored to be almost entirely about his passionate affair with the actress. He later explained that he had never dated Winona at all.

Matthew Sweet released the song “Winona” on his third album, Girlfriend, in 1991. He later confessed that he’d named it after Winona Ryder, although the two never dated.

 

After her high-profile relationship with fellow actor Johnny Depp, Winona dated Soul Asylum lead singer Dave Pimer. The band’s song “Just Like Anyone” is said to have been written about Winona, although the video features Claire Danes.

 

Old 97’s lead singer Rhett Miller claims to have written their song “Rollerskate Skinny” after his first date with Winona. The song’s title is a reference to The Catcher in the Rye, one of her favorite books.

 

Beck dated Winona briefly in 2000, then wrote several songs about her that appear on his Sea Change album. “Lost Cause” is just one of the many sad songs from this classic album.

Girls on Film: 20 Feet From Stardom

20feetAt the midpoint of 20 Feet From Stardom, the new documentary film about background singers, Mick Jagger’s eyes gleam with tears. He’s listening, on camera, to Merry Clayton’s isolated vocal track from “Gimme Shelter”, recorded in 1969. As Merry’s voice reaches its breaking point, he shakes his head in admiration and disbelief. Her performance helped make the track a heart-wrenching, harrowing classic, but Mick admits to not knowing her name until well after the recording session concluded. Background singers were interchangeable to many of the musicians who employed them to sing on their tracks, in those days. In a twist, the audience learns that Merry didn’t know who the Rolling Stones were, either! She got the call to come to the studio late at night. Heavily pregnant, with curlers in her hair, Merry got out of bed and went down to the studio, where she recorded three takes. As she told NPR, “I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said ‘Ooh, that’s really nice’…It was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.” Merry suffered a miscarriage later that night. Rumor had it that the strenuous effort she put into the recording caused her to lose the baby, although doctors did not confirm it.

Merry is just one of many legendary background singers profiled in this excellent film. Viewers meet Darlene Love, leader of the Blossoms, who sang backup on countless classic songs, including those by the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. Signed to a recording deal by Phil Spector, Darlene was cheated out of stardom by Spector’s practice of releasing her songs under other groups’ names (that’s her singing the #1 hit “He’s a Rebel”, credited to the Crystals). After leaving the recording industry in frustration, Darlene found herself cleaning houses to make ends meet, until she heard one of her songs on the radio and decided to get back in the game. We also meet Claudia Lennear, a former Ikette who was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and the uber-talented Lisa Fischer, who has worked with everyone from Sting to Stevie Wonder. She currently tours with the Rolling Stones, singing Merry Clayton’s part on “Gimme Shelter”.

Many background singers were preacher’s daughters who grew up singing in the church choir. That gospel fire soon became a huge selling point for background singers, brought in to add soul to recordings by artists who were anything but soulful. And, as Merry Clayton points out, learning to sing with others is a skill unto itself, one she had to learn when she was singing with Ray Charles’ backup singers, the Raelettes. The film illustrates this with footage of a flock of birds flying together, taking their cues from one another.

There is a catch-22 involved in being a background singer. Nearly all background vocalists have dreams of solo stardom, and become background singers in order to get their foot in the door and pay the bills. However, too many years spent singing backup have the opposite effect, grounding the vocalist in background limbo as their dreams of stardom slide away. While this has been the case for many of the artists profiled in this film, including Tata Vega and the Waters Family, the filmmakers clearly hope that things will be different for Judith Hill.

Judith, a young vocalist who was working with Michael Jackson at the time of his death, came to national attention with her performance of “Heal the World” at his memorial service. A former contestant on The Voice, Judith performs her soulful, self-penned songs to small crowds. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a background singer, she often sings backup in disguise to pay her bills while she pursues her solo career.

20 Feet From Stardom‘s title expresses the irony of the background singer: just as talented as the performers they back up, they are literally and figuratively just outside the spotlight. For too long, their stories have gone untold and their efforts unappreciated. With this entertaining and thoughtful documentary, they can become household names at last, as they always should have been.

Char Vinnedge & the Luv’d Ones

luvdOffstage, Char Vinnedge was bespectacled and unassuming. Onstage with her band, the Luv’d Ones, Char became someone else. Her fuzzed-out guitar sound was innovative and heavy, creating a noise that few could believe an all-girl band capable of generating—at least, not in 1966. Along with her sister, Chris, and their two friends, Mary Gallagher and Faith Orem, Char formed the Luv’d Ones in 1965. Completely obsessed with music, Char had already been part of one all-girl band, the Tremolons, although that one didn’t really count since she’d played all the instruments herself. With the Luv’d Ones, Char had finally surrounded herself with like-minded ladies who just wanted to play rock n’ roll in a time when girls just didn’t do that.

luvd2The Luv’d Ones were quickly signed to a deal with Dunwich Records, and the label sporadically released singles from the band over the next few years. None of them charted, but Char was always sure they would make it with the next single. She devoted all her time to promoting the band, writing songs, and even making flyers for their shows. Her guitar playing became very impressive, and their sound evolved from typical 60’s garage rock to something more complex. Char came to idolize Jimi Hendrix, and began to play with a fuzz pedal to emulate her hero. Despite their talent and Char’s drive to succeed, the Luv’d Ones called it quits in 1969.

luvd3Char formed another group, Syrup, which quickly dissolved. Then, in 1971, Jimi Hendrix Experience bass player Billy Cox asked Char to be the guitar player in his new band, Nitro Function. Thrilled to be acknowledged by one of her biggest influences, Char joined the group, which only lasted for one album. Char’s life quieted down for the next two decades. In 1997, Sundazed Records signed the Luv’d Ones in order to reissue their singles and unreleased demos. Just after the deal was inked, Char died of a heart attack. The Luv’d Ones have since gathered new fans through the reissues of their music. Arguably the most talented of the all-girl bands of the 60’s, the Luv’d Ones are a lost treasure.