Some weeks ago I received an advance copy of the upcoming third album by US singer/songwriter Brent Cash. Set for release in late January, Cash has once again recorded a batch of elegant songs with a delivery and production value that should appeal to Cue Castanets readers.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brent in 2015 and if you haven’t read that blog post I’ll advise you to do so to get a better understanding of his music and where he’s coming from aesthetically.
Honestly, listening to Brent’s crystal clear, relaxed vocals and intricate arrangements is akin to, say, discovering some sort of overlooked A&M Records soft pop LP. The tunes are sophisticated, elegant, groovy – defiantly soft. Yep, it’s really that good and since Brent serves as a one-man Wrecking Crew, laying down backing tracks with all sorts of quirky little details, his albums are like time capsules of all that was good within the more sophisticated pop of the 60s and 70s.
The right way to listen to Brent’s music would be to cruise down highway 101 in an open sports van, the sun reflecting in your shades and a beautiful blonde by your side. Instead, it’s December and a cold and rainy one at that where I live. Despite the grey surroundings I’ve tried my best to envision the breezy, sun-kissed landscapes that Brent’s music compliments while reviewing his latest effort.
Where the first two albums, ‘How Will I Know If I’m Awake’ (2008) and ‘How Strange It Seems’ (2011), were text book examples of well-produced harmony pop and soft pop that would make Bacharach toast with his dry martini, ‘The New High’ sees Brent expanding his sound.
I really love the dreamy soft pop aesthetic on the covers of Brent’s first two albums and you could say that the change of direction is already visible on the cover of ‘The New High’. A skyscraper with glass and chrome that made me think “oh no, I hope Brent hasn’t gone all New Wave on us!”
He hasn’t, luckily – the love of sophisticated piano-based pop is still at the heart of Brent’s music but he has expanded his palette somewhat with subtle nods towards the jangle sounds of folk-rock and Beatles-like songwriting.
Two things really stand out to me above all after repeated listening.
For one thing, Brent has probably never sung better on record. His voice may not be very unique but especially when he sings in his upper register his soft, pleasant tone really carries a lot of the magic on these songs. My favorite part of the album is the last one and a half minutes of ‘Dim Light’ where Brent goes into falsetto mode and sings skyhigh in an incredibly catchy and goose bumps-inducing section. Lesser songwriters would probably just take such a section and turn it into the basic hook in the chorus but Brent only introduces it at the last part of the song – to me, that’s always a sign of a superb songwriter at the top of his game, holding back a killer hook in order to unleash it late in a tag for maximum effect – the Beach Boys always excelled at that. There are a few other great examples of both tags and Brent’s smooth falsetto throughout ‘The New High.’
Secondly, the string arrangements on this album are incredibly effective and just ooze elegance – a testament to the care and length Brent and his string-playing friends have gone to to make each song gain as much from their playing as possible. Strings were also present on his other albums but I feel they’ve come more to the forefront here and all for the better of it. Listen to the strings in the latter part of title track ‘The New High’ – pure bliss!
Songs like ‘Dim Light’ and ‘All in the Summer’ show Brent’s evolvement as a songwriter and producer. The first one, with it’s strummed guitars, reminds me a little bit of Joni Mitchell’s more bouncy recordings while the latter has a bit of a John Lennon ‘Imagine’-vibe going on. Maybe it’s just me coming up with these reference points but if anything, such songs show that Brent tries to expand his sound. On other songs, such as ‘Every Inflection’ and ‘I’m Looking Up’, the latter one of my favorites, you hear a closer kinship to his first two albums.
Brent’s albums have always been growers for me, meaning that upon initial listening I’ve had a hard time distinguishing the tracks from each other only coming to single out songs after a few spins. The same can be said for this album.
I’m also of the opinion that the album loses a little bit of steam towards the end where a couple of slow and less orchestrated songs break the flow of the record. Songs like ‘The Dusk Song’ and ‘Fade / Return’ aren’t weak but they sort of make the album peter out rather than showcasing the variety of Brent’s songwriting on display during the first half of the tracklisting.
All in all, ‘The New High’ is a fine album that perfectly compliments Brent’s past releases– you’d be a fool to pass on these if you love melodic pop of the highest order that harken back to 60s and 70s LA or New York-based pop.
As of typing this latest blog post, Cue Castanets has been active for a year. I hope that those of you who check in here from time to time or, even better, subscribe to my posts via e-mail alerts have found some interesting writing on all things Spector and beyond.
I wish I’d been more active during the past two or three months but I’ve been busy with other things in my life which will make future posts on here more infrequent. But keep checking in – I have lots of ideas for interviews, reviews, song run-throughs and what not and I will eventually get around to those, I’m sure.
I had originally planned to post about something else tonight but then yesterday evening I learned about the sad passing of P. F. Sloan – one of my all-time musical heroes.
If I were to name my own, deeply personal holy Trinity of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and PF Sloan,… or Philip Schlein as he was known before donning the P.F. Sloan moniker. Naming Sloan along with those two musical giants should give you all the proof you need that he is a musician I hold in extremely high regard. I’ve been deeply in love with his music ever since discovering it in the early 00s.
It’s always difficult to put into words the effect your favorite music has upon you. With Sloan, a great part of it has to do with his overwhelmingly emotive and expressive vocals. I’m continually amazed at the urgency that seems to simmer beneath each and every lead vocal of his. And the hooks! Sloan equals hook heaven! Oh man, the stuff he wrote alone or along with partner-in-crime Steve Barri is the stuff of legends as far as I’m concerned.
Merseybeat knockoffs? Check. Beach Boys-styled surf pop? You got it! Elvis soundalikes? No problem. Girl Group songs? Sure, how many d’ya need? Jangly folk-rock or Bob Dylan type social commentary? Why, I have a bunch of songs scribled down right here!
One type of music that Sloan actually didn’t take a stab at was fully fledged Wall of Sound productions. Which is no surprise really. Along with Steve Barri Sloan was on such a tight, grueling recording schedule that he probably never really had the possibility to spend time developing bombast productions. But I’ll bet he could have worked wonders within that type of genre too. There’s a demo floating around among Sloan collectors – ‘Cry over You’ – that’s just begging for a over-the-top dramatic production. And Sloan gives it his all on the demo. It could have been a monster record, – either with his lead or someone else singing it, as was often the case with his early-to-mid 60s output.
Basically, Sloan could – and did – it all. He was a master at being versatile and inventive – a musical chameleon whose talent for spitting out hooks far outshone most other songwriters of the era. That’s my opinion of course but really, take a listen to any Sloan-Barri song and Sloan’s solo material and you’ll be amazed at what was achieved within a few, frantic years. Heck, the Fantastic Baggys album alone beats a few of the otherwise classic early 60s Beach Boys albums!
Yet, as fantastic as Sloan was he never achieved the amount of fame or recognition he should have and sadly withdrew during the 70s due to personal problems. To me, that’s one of the saddest tales in rock’n’roll. There was so much promise there, – so much talent that should have kept flowing and graced our ears. Why it didn’t happen probably amounts to a bunch of reasons, but it’s tragic all the same.
Anyone wanting to delve deeper into the Sloan legend should seek out Andrew Sandoval’s lovingly compiled ‘Trousdale Sessions’ demo collection that came out in 2001. It’s mindblowing! The sound quality is top-notch and listening to these rough demos you really get a sense of how good and versatile a pop singer Sloan was when he allowed himself to loosen up some of the Dylan voal mannerisms that dominate his two 60s solo albums. (‘Songs of our Times’, ‘Twelve More Times’)
There are actually more demos out there, passed on between collectors, but sadly with a sound quality that’s only so-and-so. Apparently, Sandoval had located enough demos to comprise a second demo collection but it never came out. What a shame! I hope that someday, somehow, other unreleased Sloan demos, known or unknown, will come out with the love and care that characterised the Trousdale Demos collection.
Sloan was one of a kind. A great talent, – one whose music has given me so much joy I can barely express it. Music that I know I’ll return to time and again for decades to come. So with this, allow me to bow my head and pay my respects to the one and only P. F. Sloan.
So far, the main focus of my blog has been the production values and instrumentation on various Wall of Sound recordings. But this is of course only the icing on the cake. If the song beneath the galloping castanets, the string arrangement and the giant chorus can’t cut the mustard, there’s only so much you can do to turn subpar songwriting into high art.
Spector and his contemporary pop producers were of course highly dependent of the skilled songwriters of the time. It is no coincidence that the early to mid-1960s are often referred to as the ‘Brill Building Era’ because the famed Brill Building on 1619 Broadway and 49th Street in New York was a sizzling hot bed of frantic songwriting activity. Housing a wealth of music publishers, record labels, management companies etc, the building’s small offices reverberated with the music of young songwriters attuned to the sounds of the day, hoping to score the next major chart hit as they sat by their pianos or strummed their guitars. Many a songwriter from those Brill Building days has reminisced about being holed up in tiny cubicles without windows and only a chair and a beat-up piano. Today, this almost sounds like a prison cell but despite the rather depressing surroundings these aspiring songwriters were able to come up with some of the most beautiful songs of the times.
The most well-known of these gifted writers are obviously the husband & wife duos that have come to personify the Brill Building era’s commercial pop songwriting – Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill. Spector collaborated with all three writing teams – and no wonder! Between them, these three couples notched up a mindblowing list of chart hits for both Spector’s acts and other artists during the 60s.
If these legendary songwriting duos were in the A league, there were hundreds or more obscure writers plying their trade in and around the Brill Building in New York or in similar places in Los Angeles, pitching songs or recording quick demos for publishers and producers on the look-out for their next hit record.
Author Tom Wolfe did an excellent piece on Phil Spector in the 60s that was re-published in the booklet for the Back to Mono box. It perfectly illustrates the hectic, hustling atmosphere at the Brill Building whenever hot producers like Spector walked the hallways: “He walks down the hall and kids sneak up behind him and slip songs, music, lyrics into his coat pocket. He finds the stuff in there, all this ratty paper, when he gets home. Or he is leaving the Brill Building and he feels a great whack on the back of his head and wheels around and there are four kids in the singing stance, their heads angled in together saying, “Just one bar, Phil-Say, wohna love boo-uh ay-yay bubby” (…)”
The Brill Building era could easily merit a whole blog of its own as there is so much to discuss and research. I won’t go into more detail here but if you’re interested in investigating further I can highly recommend Keith Emerson’s ‘Always Magic in the Air – The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era’. It’s a must-read! So,… what’s this about queer in the blog post title? I’ll get to it in a minute. But first, – try to imagine the kind of societal conservatism and constraining gender values of 60s America that Brill Building era writers catered to with their songs. It’s right there in the lyrics for most of the teen dramas penned by Goffin & King, Barry & Greenwich, Mann & Weill or other writers back then.
When the typical ‘boy meets girl’ scenarios were played out in the songs, the boys were often the active part pursuing the girl, – the girl being more passive, hoping that the boy would single her out, turn out to have a heart of gold, marry her etc. You get the drift. It was innocent times – at least judging by the lyrics of the day. Outright sexual references as lyrical content was of course a no-go and songs describing the raging hormones of everyday teenagers were typically veiled with safe imagery of dancing, kissing or boys walking girls home to their front door after parties.
In fact, even as late as 1966, a hit record like Lou Christie’s ‘Rhapsody in the Rain’ could cause controversy with lyrics about a teenage couple sitting in the backseat of the boy’s car “makin’ out in the rain” with the follow-up line “in this carour love went much too far.” Pretty tame by today’s standards, right? But back then, those lines were suggestive enough for radio programmers to pull the plug on the single. Consequently, Christie re-cut the song with “we fell in love in the rain” and “our love came like a falling star” instead of the original lyrics.
If a song like Christie’s couldn’t cut it back then what chance would one about homosexual love have? Love between two boys? Or two girls? Forget it! Writing teen-oriented songs about same-sex relationships bordered on the unthinkable at a point in time where homosexuality was sadly and foolishly still regarded as a sort of mental disorder.
How ironic then that a number of Brill Building era songwriting demos have survived that curiously would seem to portray same-sex relationships. Thus, the ‘unintentionally queer’ title of this blog post. Because make no mistake – none of these demos were ever intended to either go beyond the pitching stage or make a statement. They’re interesting to look into nevertheless.
Whenever a songwriter or songwriting duo had what they thought was a commercial-sounding song, they would quickly record a demo for their publisher to shop around. Often very sparsely produced, the songwriters would either hire a session singer to breathe life into the lyrics or sing the song themselves. And this is where it gets interesting,… even amusing for modern ears. Because when male songwriters sang their latest attempt at a girl group song for instance, the lyrics would spawn some rather unusual connotations for the time. Let’s roll out some examples.
Here’s Neil Sedaka’s and Hank Hunter’s 1963 demo of ‘My Best Friend Barbara’, subsequently recorded by Connie Francis.
The lyrics have lines like “My best friend Barbara told me Jimmy’s no good, and like a fool I listened to her, the way she knew I would, my best friend Barbara” and “My best friend Barbara, she’s going steady with him. And every single night I sit home and cry while Barbara’s kissing him, my best friend Barbara.” You could hardly blame the few people who eventually heard this demo for imagining a ménage á trois with Jimmy playing both sides of the field!
Another interesting example is the demo of ‘He’s Just that Kind of Guy’ cut during the early 60s by songwriting duo PF Sloan and Steve Barri. These guys were based in Los Angeles which had its fair share of prime songwriters butting heads with their New York competitors for chart action.
‘He’s Just that Kind of Guy’ is not on youtube, but here’s an excerpt from the lyrics sung by Steve Barri: “He won’t say all the things that I wan’t him to tell me / But I know that he feels that way deep inside / To other people he may have a funny way of showing his love for me, but I understand he’s just that kind of guy. / I don’t mind that he never thinks of bringing me flowers / And at times he does things that make me wanna cry / He never wears the presents that I buy for him / Still I’d die for him ‘cause I understand he’s just that kind of guy.”
That lyric is very typical for the times, obviously written to reflect a stereotypical understanding of a boy/girl relationship where the girl is at the mercy of her boyfriend’s whims. However, when sung by a guy like on this demo that same set of rather conservative gender roles take on a whole new meaning!
Gender bending demos could also work the other way around. Here’s Carole King demoing her and Gerry Goffin’s ‘Go Away Little Girl’, later a hit for Steve Lawrence. Go to 0:33 for the demo to begin on this youtube video.
“Go away little girl, go away little girl. I’m not supposed to be alone with you. I know that your lips are sweet but our lips must never meet.” That lyric certainly comes across as forbidden lesbian love when sung by a girl, right?
There’s also the same duo’s demo of ‘Just Once in my Life’, which Spector eventually turned into one of my all-time favorite Wall of Sound productions with the Righteous Brothers.
The chorus goes “Just once in my life, let me get what I want / Girl, don’t let me down / Just once in my life, let me hold on to one good thing I’ve found / Don’t let me down / Baby, say that you’ll be staying.” Again, when sung by King the song can be construed as referencing a lesbian relationship at the breaking point, one girl desperately pleading with the other to give it one more chance.
And a last one with Carole King on lead, this time the great ‘Stage Door’ which was cut by male singers acts Peter James and the Searchers.
“Here at the stage door I stand girl and wait for you each night. I watch while you sign your autograph for everyone in sight. Your dreams of fame have all come true, now I’m just a no one next to you and you just can’t look up to me like you used to do.”
Perhaps my two favorite examples are from the wonderfully gifted songwriting duo of Pete Anders and Vini Poncia, two transplanted New Yorkers who eventually ended up writing songs with Spector for the Ronettes and Darlene Love at the recommendation of Doc Pomus,- yet another legendary Brill Building writer who Spector had tremendous respect for.
Anders & Poncia were extremely versatile and could write in any genre; doo wop, girl group, soul, bubblegum, sunshine pop, Beatles knock-offs – you name it. Hardly surprising then, that they also recorded some gender bending demos where Pete Anders sang lines that were meant for a girl to sing – with eyebrow-raising results. None of these rarities are on youtube so you’ll have to be content with the lyrics.
First of the two is ‘She’s the Girl who Stole my Baby’. Like Sedaka’s ‘My Best Friend Barbara’; when sung by a guy this song conjures up the image of a love triangle between two guys and a girl: “He was mine yesterday / She came by and stole him away / He was mine for so long / Then she came by and now he’s gone.” And then: “Sat right down and had my cry / How could she ever steal my guy? / She smiled at him and winked her eye / Then he looked at me and he waved bye-bye / She’s the girl, oh yeah, who stole my baby from me.“
The second song is one Anders & Poncia wrote with Spector called ‘Mary Ann’. Rumour has it that there’s an unreleased Crystals recording of it lingering in the Spector tape vault. The song eventually came out by girl group Honey Love & the Love Notes on Cameo in a version that’s much inferior to the Anders & Poncia demo.
On their demo you can hear Anders sing “My boyfriend says that I shouldn’t go / to any place unless he tells me so / He won’t let me wear my hair up high / I’m gonna find me another guy / ‘cause he says ‘Mary Ann, too much make-up! / ‘Mary Ann, too much make-up!’ / Mary Ann! / I won’t change my make-up / don’t care if we break up.” Hair piled up high? Make-up? Now that was really camped up for a guy in 1965! :-)
Of course, this whole blog post is firmly tongue-in-cheek. And like I started out emphasizing, interpreting these demos as depicting same-sex relationships is totally borne out of our time. The writers probably never gave the gender bending lyrics in their demos a second thought. And why should they? They just followed the standard practice of the Brill Building era. You wrote a song, cut a demo yourself later that day and had a single hitting the street in a matter of weeks. Time wasn’t to be wasted getting hold of some female session singer just because the lyrics suggested that.
The results though do make for interesting listening. And although the demos can be seen as ‘unintentionally queer’, in lack of a better term, they are also strangely fitting when you consider the fact that a large part of hardcore girl group collectors and connoisseurs are of homosexual orientation.
The following post has been submitted to the blog by a fellow Spector fan and good friend of mine who I’ve discussed Spector’s music in-depth with for the last 10 years or so, both online and in person. He’s extremely knowledgable on the subject and I’m honored that he has offered to contribute here under the appropriate blogger-name ‘Spectorlector’.
If any other readers have ideas for interesting blog posts they’d like to contribute then please do contact me. I will happily publish relevant posts on here from guests and I’m sure that fans out there have a lot to say on various subjects.
Hopefully, over time this blog can become a platform of sorts where fans can have the opportunity to publish research and essay-like posts that are longer and more in-depth than your typical forum message.
And with that, I’ll get out of the way and let Spectorlector ponder the possible existence of a certain unreleased Ronettes track…
Waiting in the vault? – ‘I’ll never need more than this’ by The Ronettes.
It is no secret that Phil Spector recorded a lot of material, of which only a fraction saw release during the Philles label era. Sometimes, Spector would even record the same song twice with different artists using the same backing track, such as ‘Girls can tell’ and ‘A Woman in Love’. Other times he would record different backing tracks for the same song as heard on versions of ‘I Wonder’ and ‘All Grown Up’.
With this in mind, there are reason to believe that a Ronettes version of the Ike and Tina Turner track ‘I’ll never need more than this’ is still in the Spector vault – the original, perhaps?
Phil Spector’s favorite writers, the married couple Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, were responsible for many a hit on Philles: ‘Be my Baby’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’ and ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’. In early 1963 Spector had recorded a co-written song of theirs called ‘Chapel of Love’ with both Darlene Love and The Ronettes (prior to ‘Be my Baby’) None of the recordings were released at the time, and when Barry and Greenwich started to work at Red Bird Records under the wings of Leiber and Stoller, they choose to release a version of the song by The Dixie Cups to launch the label. The record went to number 1 on the charts, topped The Beatles in sales and caused Spector to cut his connections with Barry and Greenwich.
Sometime during late 1965, Spector decided to swallow his pride and call Ellie & Jeff back for a writing session. He had lost The Crystals and The Righteous Brothers, and he had to get the best possible material for upcoming recording dates. Unknown to Spector, the couple was going through a divorce, but they still decided to meet and write with Spector. At this time Red Bird was closing down…. and very soon Philles would be finished too. An era of great music was almost over, unbeknownst to the people involved.
The session was not a piece of cake. The former happy-go-lucky couple was now two broken hearts trying to turn words of love and sweet music into future Spector hits. Before the session was over, 4 very heartfelt song were completed: ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, ‘I Can Hear Music’, ‘I wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’ and ‘I’ll Never Need More than This’
Just look at those poetic, sad lyrics to ‘I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’:
“Baby do you know what you did today, Baby, do you know what you took away,
You took the blue out of the sky, My whole life changed when you said goodbye,
And I keep crying, crying.
I wish I’d never saw the sunshine
Cause if I never saw the sunshine,
I wouldn’t mind the rain.”
The lyrics for ‘I’ll Never Need More than This’ was in the same heartbreaking mold:
“Oh I love the songs you sing me, And I love, the love you bring me,
And you’ll never know the way I feel inside, I can only say that I’m all filled up with pride
Loving you, loving you…. And I’ll never need more than this,
No I’ll never need more than this
And I wish this could go on forever, and ever, and ever
Don’t let me go, I love you so.”
If you are a hardcore Ronettes fan (as I am) and if you listen closely to the back-up vocals on ‘I’ll Never Need More than This’ something strikes you: It sounds like The Ronettes on back-up?…Especially on the “I love you baby” parts, you can easily pick out Ronnie Spector’s vocals in front of a large number of back-up singers.
Ronnie has confirmed to me in 2014 that she is in the mix, though she insists she never worked on a Tina Turner recording session. This can only lead one to believe that a Ronettes version of the song was intended and that a basic track and back-ups were recorded with them in mind. Maybe Ronnie even recorded a completed lead-vocal? The song would surely fit the style of The Ronettes, bearing in mind ‘Everything under the Sun’ (which Tina Turner would later record herself) and ‘I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine’ from that period. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll even get to hear it?….
Unfortunately, the track Spector picked for his next magnum opus, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ bombed, and the rest of those great Greenwich/Barry songs either got shelved or was ignored by the public. Neither Barry, Greenwich or Spector would ever achieve an equal level of succes again. ‘I´ll Never Need More than This’ by Ike and Tina Turner was pressed as a single on Philles, but sadly either withdrawn or never officially released.
Musings on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and similar music…