Saturday, October 18, 2008

Michael Murphey -- "Wildfire" (1975)

Boy, the things they dared to write about in the 70's soft rock era. "Wildfire" was a mid-tempo ballad about a ghost and her beautiful horse. Is that any better than Henry Gross crooning Beach Boys-style about his dog Shannon being swept out to sea and drowning? And America singing about "A Horse With No Name?"

It's possible that "Wildfire" has retained a small modicum of cool, simply because Michael Murphey sang it on David Letterman's show in May 2007. Paul Schaeffer even went to the trouble to learn the solo piano introduction.

Michael Murphey pioneered the whole "cowboy" thing with a soft rock production, a succesful trend hugely exploited by the "Urban Cowboy"soundtrack in 1980. Even now, many years after "Wildfire" was his one and only biggest hit, he markets himself as a "cowboy" as much as John McCain drops the word "maverick." He's a good looking guy with a beard and a ragged sort of wanderer look, and puts out albums of "cowboy songs."

She comes down from Yellow Mountain.
On a dark, flat land she rides,
On a pony she named Wildfire.
With a whirlwind by her side,
On a cold Nebraska night.

Oh, they say she died one winter.
When there came a killing frost,
And the pony she named Wildfire.
Busted down its stall,
In a blizzard he was lost.

She ran calling Wildfire. [x3]

By the dark of the moon I planted.
But there came an early snow.
There's been a hoot-owl howling by my window now.
For six nights in a row.
She's coming for me, I know,
And on Wildfire we're both gonna go.

We'll be riding Wildfire. [x3]

Sensitivity sold a lot of records in the 70's (see Dan Fogelberg, Eric Carmen), so "Wildfire" arrived at virtually the perfect time. You've got a good looking singer with a nice folksy voice, a gorgeous classical piano motif that both opens and closes the song, lots of nice major 7th chords, a poignant ghost story and a rousing chorus where there's a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' at the end.

In 1975, they ate that stuff up. Yes, there was a decent wimp factor, I'm not denying it. I remember not even knowing whether I was supposed to even like it or not when it came out. But I can filter out the slight sappiness because it's just really a very good song. I like that classical piano opening and closing, even if it does verge on the pretentious. When the song kicks in on smooth bounding major/major seventh chords, those high electric guitar notes can either be felt as "genuine wilderness outdoors" or "give me a break!"

So let's roll back to 1976, when Murphey performed "Wildfire" on TV's "Midnight Special."

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Soundtrack Of Our Lives -- "Sister Surround" (2001)

Never underestimate the Swedes when it comes to their ability to take classic rock and roll, and spit it back out to us in an even better form.

With The Hives leading the buzz with short maniacal garage rock a year earlier, TSOOL also took a hyped-up route to US shores, but pilfering different rock and roll. Instead of two or three minute grungy blasts, they were mixing up the melodic psychedelia and thrashing rhythm chords Their Satanic Majesties Request/Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones.

I admit it, I bought the hype and purchased their first US album which was generating all the talk, Behind The Music, without having heard one note from it. The raves sold me. Luckily, I was not disappointed. I liked the album so much that I tracked down the two albums and EP's that were released in Europe before it.

There's always a lot of talk about groups sound like "classic rock," but that genre has such a far and wide meaning, that it's hard to pinpoint what that is. When Coldplay upped the success ante with A Rush Of Blood To The Head in 2002, they were described as having a "classic rock sound" to me. If that meant the band performed fully realized memorable songs with guitars, keyboards, drums and distinct lead vocals, then I'd say these were the many attributes that were missing from FM radio who were wrapped up with hip hop, rap, and highly-produced modern teen bubblegum. A hipper group of music lovers in their 20's, 30's and 40's who didn't identify with Top 40 radio gravitated to the blatant and creative rock of The White Stripes, The Hives, The Vines, Coldplay, and Radiohead.

Like The Hives, having a basic four piece band wouldn't do for TSOOL. You needed at least two or three guitarists to do the job! And why just stand there when you can be flamboyant and crazy. TSOOL operated at the tempos of all the good rock and roll you know from the 70's, charging with spaced out echoes, throbbing beats, layered riffs in your face, stacked Marshalls, and yes, you could definitely dance to it.

"Sister Surround" reminds me a lot of The Dandy Warhols' "Bohemian Like You" with its "Gimme Shelter" style guitars. The Rickenbacker bass anchors those riffs on one deep gun barrel note in the verses, the drums snapping away in straightahead 4/4 time.

Remember in the film "Wayne's World" when everybody is shaking their head in time to Queen's "Bohemian Rhaphsody?" "Sister Surround" is a definite head shaker. Band leader, vocalist and songwriter Ebbot Lundberg -- a burly bearded character easy to spot on the album cover -- is not a screamer but a real singer, much in the vein as your classic rock Lou Gramm (Foreigner) or Steve Perry (Journey). On this song, a lot of his vocals are EQ'ed on both ends to create a variation of the "telephone effect." Lundberg sounds nothing like those guys or even like Mick Jagger, but he's a natural for this genre.

However, another certified Rolling Stones touch: chorus background vocals of "doo doo doo doo doo doo" -- even the Stones named "Heartbreaker" after those syllables.

When you listen to "Sister Surround," and you realize it's just seven years old, you know you are listening to something you really don't hear much of anymore -- the kind of "classic rock" song you may have heard 30 years ago, catchy as hell and makes you want to get out and dance. It's no wonder that the video below takes place in what seems to be a high school gym. A few band members seem to have gone to the Swedish School for Rock Performance Overacting, which the Hives definitely attended if you've seen their lunacy. Watch the rhythm guitarist calmly windmill his Gibson SG like Pete Townshend while the other guitarist close his eyes in deep nirvana.