Songs of the Week
January-June 2006

May 8, 2006

"Dani California"
Red Hot Chili Peppers
From the May 2006 Warner Bros / WEA album "Stadium Arcadium"
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Anthony and the boys return from two years in the basement mixing up the medicine for this thunking slab of trademark Cali-funk, outlaw chic and skitter-scat surrealism. The song doesn't break any new musical ground for the Peppers -- at times it almost verges on self-parody, in fact -- but John, Chad and Flea lay down such a tricky but insistent groove, and Kiedis shows some welcome teeth by laying down a little darkness over the usual sunshiney vibe in this tale of an outlaw chick up to no good that the song already sounds like a classic. Not bad for a band that's been around for over two decades. Alas, the long-awaited album it's drawn from doesn't shine nearly as brightly -- it's too long, and weighted down with too many mid-tempo cuts to really rock the joint -- but "Dani California" shows that when the move to groove comes along, the Peppers still have what it takes to fill the tube socks.

April 10, 2006
"Girl in the War"
Josh Ritter
From the April 2006 V2 Ada album "Animal Years"
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With his puppy love looks, unruly mop of hair, pin-up earnestness and Dylanesque affectations, Idaho's Ritter comes off as the new millenium's Steve Forbert, but that's a good thing. He's a little more oblique than Steve-O was, but his heart-on-his-sleeve, let the words-do-the-talking approach and the extremely sympathetic production (by Brian Deck of Modest Mouse and Iron & Wine fame) and just-right acoustic backing (a little banjo here, a little mandolin there) really bring the plaintive, delicate "Girl in the War" home. There's no overt us-or-them fingerpointing here (I hope Neil young will remember) -- more a confused, barely suppressed anger as the narrator tries to make sense of a situation where his girl's in the war and he's back home playing in a band, unable to do much more for her than "rock a little harder." And ask "Why?".

It's sideways protest music, more tender than tinder, but potent stuff nonetheless. And Ritter gets bonus points for the lyrical call-outs to Peter, Paul and Mary that put it all in historical perspective.

April 3, 2006
The Little Willies
From the March 2006 Down There album "Tick...Tick...Tick"
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March 27, 2006
"You Don't Know Me"
Willie Nelson
From the March 2006 Down There album "You Don't know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker"
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If Van Morrison (see below) brings his serious Soul Mojo to country music, it should be noted that Willie Nelson's been working that turf for most of his career.

March 20, 2006
Van Morrison
From the March 2006 Down There album "Pay the Devil"
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Finally! Speaking of the Devil (see below), The Belfast Cowboy finally pays back a long-promised debt, unleashing an entire album of country covers (plus a few originals). Of course, everything that oozes out of Van the Man's mouth is Pure Soul, but liike his idol Ray Charles, Morrison invests these tunes with such passion and aaaarrrgghh that they'll never be the same again.

March 13, 2006
James Hunter
From the March 2006 Down There album "People Gonna Talk"
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For anyone who mopes that they don't make 'em like that anymore, here's the rebuttal. Hunter honks and struts and croons and testifies like a one-man Soul Machine, spitting out echoes of everyone from Sam Cooke to Van Morrison, an early mentor. The party album of the year, you can dance to every tune here, whether you know it or not.

March 6, 2006
"Cindy, It Was Always You"
Steve Wynn
From the January 2006 Down There album "Tick...Tick...Tick"
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You'd expect that the long-anticipated team-up between perennial cult fave rocker/ex-Dream Syndicate axeman Wynn and long-time fan and hard-boiled crimewriter George Pelecanos would result in a fix for their mutual Boss jones; a little self-indulgent release of their respective inner Springsteens. But this thumping, harmonica-honking ode to the blown chances that happen when you get lead around by your dick recalls nothing so much as a boozy stab at the Stone's Midnight Rambler. Yeah, it's a man's man's man's world here, but is that all it is? Pelecanos' lyrics, plus Wynn's squeezed out vocals, suggest that this ditty just might be about more than a simple frustrated drunken suitor's lament after "one or two" -- the possibillty that the singer's actually stalking Cindy makes for a chilling prospect. Especially when he claims he's already "had" her best friend.

"Girl, you leave me haunted," he chides, but ya gotta wonder who's haunting who... And is it just me, or is that album cover a way-cool rip-off nod to the Velvet Underground or what?

January 30, 2006
"Handle With Care"
Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins
From the January 2006 album "Rabbit Fur Coat"
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Lewis, the voice and co-songwriter of LA indie faves Rilo Kiley, calls on the aid of the rather spooky Watson Twins (Chandra & Leigh) to drop her first solo album, presumably so she can really cut loose and flex her songwriting muscles. Which is why it's sorta perplexing, first of all, that's the album features any covers at all, and secondly, that the cover -- of the late, lamented Travelin' Wilburys signature tune -- is so reverent, almost a note-for-note recreation. But hell, when the song's this good, what does it matter? And to her credit Lewis, with a little help from indie pals Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberst and Ben "Death Cab For Cutie" Gibbardwho pop in to swap verses, seems to be having a lot of fun. Which is really the point. Toes will be tapped and you'll be humming the melody for days -- guaranteed.


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Kevin Burton Smith
The Thrilling Detective Web Site
3053 Rancho Vista Blvd., Apt. 116,
Palmdale, California

It might not be a bad idea to query me first though.