LEGENDS OF SONGWRITING: Yip Harburg, The Man Who Brought The Rainbow to “The Wizard of Oz.”

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By PAUL ZOLLO

He’s the man who brought the rainbow to The Wizard of Oz.

Knowing Dorothy would sing a ballad yearning for escape from the monochrome farmland of her Kansas home in the film’s opening sequence, the lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg gave his collaborator, the composer Harold Arlen, a dummy title, a fragment of lyric to use to hang a melody on, a direction, a mood. As a symbol for all l the colors unseen to Dorothy in her black and white world, he conceived the rainbow, although the word “rainbow” is never used once in L. Frank Baum’s book, or in the original screenplay for the film.

Yip handed Arlen a title: “I Want to Get On the Other Side of the Rainbow.”

Arlen took that title and ran with it, composing the famous melody for the song. Yip, however, was less than pleased when he heard it, as he recalled in an interview late in his life:

“I said, ‘My God, Harold, this is a 12-year-old girl wanting to be somewhere over the rainbow. It isn’t Nelson Eddy!’”

Arlen, although crest-fallen, labored all week to write a new tune, but nothing could match the power and poignancy of the original. He asked Yip to reconsider, so Yip went to Ira Gershwin for advice. Ira suggested Arlen abandon his grandiose piano accompaniment, to play it instead like a pop song, and that that made all the difference. Yip relented.

But writing lyrics for it was tough, considering that Arlen began with a dramatic octave leap. Yip realized it would work by changing the line from the “other side” to “over the rainbow,” for the mellifluence of the long “o,” and that led him to the opening word, “somewhere,” which fit the octave ascension ideally. It was everything he wanted and more.

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It became one of the most famous songs ever written, declared the “No. 1 Song of the 20th Century” by the NEA and the “No. 1 Film Song of All Time”  by AFI. But Yip also wrote lyrics for many other classics, including “April In Paris,” with music by Vernon Duke, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” with music by Arlen and co-lyricist Billy Rose,  Groucho Marx’s signature song “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” also with Arlen, and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” written with Jay Gorney.

That Yip wrote “Dime” is significant, as unlike many of his contemporaries writing Broadway musical songs, Yip’s songs were about the common man, reflecting an America beyond Broadway. He affirmed the political symbolism he found in Oz-the scarecrow heartland farmer who feels he’s too dumb to think though he has abundant wisdom; the factory worker so dehumanized by the assembly lines that he’s reduced to a tin man with no heart. Even “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” rings with the exultation of the little people rejoicing at the fall of a tyrant.

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A dedicated socialist his entire life, even his name represents his politics. Though born Isadore Hochberg and called Edgar Harburg as a kid, he became Yip not for the Yiddish name Yipsel, as it is often assumed, but for YPSL, an acronym for Young People’s Socialist League. Born in 1896 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he attended high school with Ira Gershwin, who shared his love for the ingenious lyrics of W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan. They attended City College together, after which Yip went to work in a Uruguay factory rather than fight in World War I. “He did not believe that capitalism was the answer to the human community, and that indeed it was the destruction of the human spirit,” said his son, Ernie Yarburg, “and he would not fight its wars.” After the war he came home, got married, had two kids, and became a co-owner of an electric company. When it went bankrupt following the crash of 1929, like many others in those circumstances, he turned to songwriting.

Via Ira, Yip hooked up with the composer Jay Gorney and began writing Broadway musicals. The lyric for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was originally written to the tune of a Russian folk song Gorney used in the show New Americana, and it became the anthem of the Depression, a song both remarkably colloquial and poetic, rooted in the plight of the American everyman who was now on the skids, his hand outstretched.

He wrote a multitude of Broadway musicals and songs for movies. But never did he forsake his political conscience. Besides Oz, his most famous show is Finian’s Rainbow (with music by Burton Lane), which examined American racism and broke precedent with its racially integrated cast and chorus.

He won an Oscar with Arlen in 1940 for “Best Song,” but the blacklist kept him from working in movies from 1951 to 1962.

Though he’s famous for his songs from Oz, few know he also wrote much of the dialogue in the film, and conceived the integration of the songs into the plot five years prior to Rodger & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma receiving acclaim for this same innovation. Yip was also the final script editor, conducting the rhythms of the narrative exactly as he had for years in Broadway shows.

He died in 1981, his work is forever woven into the fabric of American culture, and his promise of a land over the rainbow is as alive today as when he conceived it 70 years ago.

COOL HAND DOC: A Review of AKA DOC POMUS

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 AKA: DOC POMUS

Directed by PETER MILLER, WILL HECHTER

Conceived by SHARYN FELDER

Produced by WILL HECHTER, PETER MILLER, SHARYN FELDER

Edited by AMY LINTON

A Review

By JASON WALDROP

Polio put Jerome Felder, a.k.a. Doc Pomus, on crutches at age six.  Those crutches went on to give a hard limp to “Lonely Avenue” (Ray Charles hit, 1956) and continued to prop up Felder until a bad spill in 1965 permanently confined him to a wheelchair.  Reviewers have sometimes gone hoarse calling one film or another “life affirming”.  And, yes, the Doc Pomus story, the story of a Jewish blues musician who was only “technically white”, is about overcoming obstacles.  But Pomus himself wrote, “I was never one of those happy cripples who stumbled around smiling and shiny-eyed, trying to get the world to cluck its tongue and shake its head sadly in my direction. They’d never look at me and say, ‘What a wonderful, courageous fellow.’”

Put this life in tune.  Not the same as “put it in balance”.  Although Lou Reed, a close friend of Pomus, reads occasional passages from Pomus’ journals, there is no omniscient creature narrating A.K.A. DOC POMUS.  Instead, writers, performers, family members, friends, students, promoters, and colleagues describe the stories behind the tunes—what was going on in Pomus’ life and how those events—and the misery, joy, heartbreak attached to the events—played into the song.  Not too many minutes go by before it becomes clear that Doc Pomus is the tune, and the soloists make up a huge, bizarre and loving Greek chorus.

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“Songwriting is like gambling,” – Doc Pomus.

As a kid, Jerome dreamed of compensations for his crippled legs:  to become a heavyweight boxing champ (during the reign of Joe Louis), a lover of beautiful women, and, thanks to Big Joe Turner (“Piney Brown Blues”), a blues singer.  Performing in clubs, penning tunes, and cutting sides, Jerome Felder renamed himself Doc Pomus.  “Doc” because—choose one:  he admired the blues singer Doctor Clayton; because he was too young to call himself Professor; because a physician can heal others but not himself; because he needed to keep his real name off the marquee so his mother wouldn’t know.  All this should already be more than enough to make anyone want to learn about Doc Pomus, the man who wrote “Save the Last Dance for Me” (inspired by holding his crutches while watching his newlywed wife, actress Willi Burke, dance, at his urging, with his father, brother, and cousin.)

Doc and Willie's 1957 Wedding invitation, on which he scribbled lyrics.

Doc and Willi’s 1957 Wedding invitation, on which he scribbled lyrics.

Director Peter Miller (Q&A, 2013 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival) explained that Sharyn Felder (Doc Pomus’ daughter) had collected enough material for a sixty-five hour documentary on her father, one hour for each year of Pomus’ life.  Miller was quick to praise his team and, in particular, his filmmaking partner, Atlanta based editor Amy Linton, for her expertise and key role in giving shape to A.K.A. DOC POMUS.  Discussing method, Linton explained that the songs were used to structure the film, clearly the underlying narrative strategy of the 98 minute documentary.  Less obvious is the filmmaker’s sleight of hand in dealing out the archival material, interviews, award ceremonies, scrapbook photos, home movies, telethon performances, commercials, and sheet music—which fan out on to the screen in rapid rhythmic visual editing.  The Doc Pomus catalog comprises more than 1,000 titles.  Throughout the film, selections from this grand total ground and punctuate a smooth flow of illustrating images.

The still images are stroked, scrolled, marked, fanned out, scanned.  Taking their cue from Pomus’ life, they wait to be discovered like notes for lyrics written on blank wedding invitations or they suddenly slide under the door like the notes and poems that Pomus wrote to court Willi Burke when they both lived at the same hotel.  These images combine to make longer rhythms, spanning decades of Pomus’ life and the lives of the viewers as well.  The editing touch, whether the sequence is rapid-and-subliminal or liquid-and-patient, is always light, witty like Pomus himself, and can shift the story in a second from the gambling table to close magic, from “take your cards and place your bets” to “is this your card?”  An interviewee commenting on a song returns to play as a lover or friend.  A Billboard playlist anticipates a favorite restaurant menu.  Filling up—on love, ambition, and food—figures big in the film, the last act beginning with a joint birthday party where the Felder brothers, Jerome and Raoul, share a cake made in the shape of their childhood Brooklyn apartment.  But this editing technique, so much like shuffling, dealing, hiding, and playing cards, goes beyond craft, the skilled ways that the sounds and images inform each other.  Its ingenuity knows and respects Doc Pomus’ life, referring to and redeeming for the viewer Pomus’ darkest years, the decade when he had given up composing and was hosting gambling parties for a living at his apartment in the Westover Hotel.

ImageThe number of suits in the Pomus deck (family, health, fantasies, hotels, favors…), as well as the number of cards within the suits, is hard to guess, let alone count.  Naturally, many of the cards played will be surprising.  Pomus contracted polio at the Connecticut summer camp where his mother sent him to protect him from a Polio scare in Brooklyn.  What would that maneuver teach a young boy about “escape”?  He spent a year in the polio ward, listening to the head physician walk up and down the aisle, reviewing his patients, “operate, don’t operate, operate, don’t operate…”  Pomus’ entrapment was often the subject and mood of his songs.  But didn’t he make others recognize and benefit from their own traps?  Dion comments on the hit that Pomus gave him (“Teenager in Love”): “No teenager wants to sing about being a teenager”.  Pomus’ edit: “Why must I be a teenager in love?”  Indeed, Why must I be the thing that I obviously am?  The lessons learned from our fantasies, however, have to be searched out.  As a “boxer,” Pomus planted himself in his wheelchair in the center of the ring, the lobby of the Forrest Hotel across the street from the Brill Building, the home of the music industry, and held court with coffee and doughnuts, warmth and advice, taking on all comers, becoming Doc Pomus, The-Man-Who-Was-Culturally-Unbound.

At the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, an audience member remarked that the life was so impressive that perhaps a major player should pick up the story to make it into a flashy biopic?  The question begs to be reversed: why can’t more biopics follow the model of A.K.A. DOC POMUS?  This documentary shows us enough of Doc Pomus on camera that we don’t have to wonder if Robert DeNiro or Robin Williams have put on enough weight to play the part.  Nor do we have to wonder if real people were harmed by making up composites in the interest of plot and time.  Again, you could say, A.K.A. DOC POMUS is a story about overcoming obstacles, but, like Doc himself, the film is much slyer than that.  For one thing, it is determined to soak every tear from your eyes.  For another, the film gives new twists, new dimensions, to the “life affirming story.”

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You will leave the theater knowing the answers to questions, including, “Who did Doc tell not to die in his john?”  “Who sang `Save the Last Dance for Me’ to Doc’s daughter?”  And, best of all, “Why did Doc leave in a huff?”   The “longer rhythms” here can be understood in the sense of returning a card to the deck in order to play it again later.  In A.K.A. DOC POMUS, there are two cases where one man’s death resurrects another man’s career.  In the first, Elvis’s death brought about reissues and increased sales of Elvis’s records.  That revenue, in turn, boosted Doc’s own royalty checks, allowing him to give up gambling and return to songwriting.  The other, the second, life-affirming case, occurs late in the film.  Death, like almost every other character in this story, is related to every other player.  Death is so often absurd, and absurdity itself can be the great motivator.

Doc with his brother, the attorney Raoul Felder

Doc with his brother, the attorney Raoul Felder

We hear Doc Pomus say that songwriting is like gambling.  Certainly the game of music production is, but the song itself can be medicinal, a three minute cure, both for the songwriter and the person turning on the radio.  In the Pomus story, limitations shaped into a three minute popular tune is the product of strange partnerships and circumstances.  And the relationship between business demands and creativity is intriguing stuff, but there’s more to this story.  Returning the favor—a.k.a. Is this your card?—where more often than not in Pomus’ case no original favor had been perceived was one of Doc Pomus’ great gifts.  Music saved his life, so Pomus used the phone, his smarts, and any resource he had at hand to champion the poor, neglected, and forgotten.  It is that generosity of spirit that the filmmakers make clear in A.K.A.  How successfully?  When you leave the theater, you know that the documentary of his life, A.K.A. DOC POMUS, is itself a glimpse of the world that B.B. King commissioned.  “There must be a better world somewhere.”  For most of us, A.K.A. DOC POMUS is a better world than we’ve yet known.

Jason Waldrop is the author of the dystopian novel, THE LAST CIGARETTE.

Thanks to Frank Kogan for the title of this piece.

New Reviews. February, 2013

By PAUL ZOLLO

  • bluerailroad Charlie Musselharper

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite * GET UP! A happy merging of two great talents, this duo album serves up much great blues and soul material in a wonderfully raw setting. It starts with “Don’t Look Twice,” which opens  with essential soul etched in one voice, one guitar and Musselwhite’s monumental harmonica, which breathes with the quintessence of the blues; when the man weeps on the harp, you hear the age-old cry of a human in the world, getting through. A band kicks in a little while into the song  – as you might expect – and it then winds down back to these two men, alone. It’s a great effect and a beautiful start to a fine and fiery musical journey. “I’m In I’m Out and I’m Gone” resonates like a stomping Willie Dixon classic with Muddy Waters-like exhortations throughout and  the harp woven deeply into the groove. The songs are all written or co-written by Harper, who said he had hoped to work with Charlie for more than ten years. “We Can’t End This Way” has a visceral Dylanesque vibe which shape-shifts beautifully to Gospel, aligned with a sly and angular ¾ time groove which propels the listener to a world of hope kept alive.  Besides Harper on slide and electric guitars and vocals, and Charlie on harmonica, the band is has Jason Mozersky on guitar, Jesse Ingalls on bass and Jordan Richardson on drums. If you’ve been hungering for some brand-new timeless blues, hunger no more. Here it is.

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Marc Platt * Blue Collar  That the man is a very serious songwriter is evident from any one of his songs you hear. His previous album, Bitter & Sweet,  was so strong that one might have expected him to peak already, but it just pushed him higher:  to this collection of strength, an EP of songs  about the world at hand, entirely timely but still timeless, like the best music. Like Springsteen, who has discovered many avenues by which to express the plights of the common man in songs, Platt has delivered here a song cycle which faces modern times head on. But lest you worry these are heavy message songs that are no fun, have no fear  – he’s a savvy songwriter who loves great pop and rock; each song here is soulfully inviting.

The opening  “Undervalued Underpaid” has a clear and strident message of the hardship of today’s working world. But it does it in with great musical appeal, the chorus a strong hook, and with CSN-like harmonies it rings with great power and poignancy. Produced by Lisa Nemzo, as was his previous record, these are modern protest songs written by a songwriter who knows his way around a song. Well regarded in  the L.A. songwriting community for his breadth of knowledge, Platt’s a rock and roll kid grown up, and somewhat of a pop and rock and roll historian. He brings that knowledge and savvy to all of his songs: “I’ve Been Told” is a conversational saga which unfolds with a jaunty confidence accented by slide guitar; it’s a song Johnny Cash could have nailed. “Whole World’s Watching” is another perfect wedding of a serious message with a wonderfully propulsive and visceral melody. Set around an unexpected Lennon-like chord progression, it’s  both alarming and deeply haunting, and also boasts one of his most passionate vocals. Nemzo beautifully lets it simmer slowly over an acoustic guitar edge before it bursts out into many sonic directions.

“Living On The Edge” is masterful songwriting, opening with mournful harmonica before launching into the deeply beautiful melody which underpins this story of those on the very edge. Living through these days, in which so many souls walk that razor’s edge which separates us from those on the streets, this one comes across with great power and sensitivity – but is not slightly contrived or false. Like Dylan, Platt finds music and phrasing as serious, and yet inviting, as the magnitude of the subject. Whereas most songs about the homeless are well-intended but very maudlin, and result in a trivialization of the situation, this sounds so genuine, so from the heart that it’s stunning. If only for this song this album would be worth the price of admission. Nemzo’s production of this one is so loving and tender that it underscores the sorrow with delicate dynamism. It’s a track you can listen to over and over, as have I, and it works. It holds up.

“Work In Progress” is a beautiful elegy abut the progress of the heart, and boasts one of Platt’s most magical melodies with finely etched words and an aching but expansive spirit which just seems about to burst;  imagine Bono singing with Mumford & Sons and you get near the idea. He takes what seems like a fairly pedestrian phrase, “Work In Progress” and shows us new possibilities we never expected, the essence of fine songwriting.

It all comes to a close with the single Platt-Nemzo co-write “There’s a Road,” an epic cinematic journey down inevitable pathways of life. This is seriously good. In an era when people complain that nobody writes meaningful songs anymore, here comes Platt with the goods:  Beautifully crafted songs of great depth and spirit with timeless  melodics. This is Rock & Roll for adults. Not to be missed.

To see the great video for “Undervalued Underpaid,” which has been viewed by millions:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJrcTu-u-hY

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Christopher Lockett * Road Songs for the Reckless  He writes songs like a much older man, like a songwriter weathered and wearied by the musical life, but with an ample amount of remaining soul. “Heartbroke, Drunk and Restless” starts this party, and it’s a powerful opener. Powered by great organ playing against a driving groove, Lockett sings from his heart about the multitudes of experience that all exist within one iconic Golden State, California. “I got a love as big as California, I can’t deny it,” he sings. Sounds like his heart is about that big. He writes lyrics with the earthy grace of Merle Haggard, who he tips his hat to in the first song.  “Cold Night For A Suicide Girl” resounds like some miracle collaboration between Hank Williams and Marilyn Manson.  As haunting as a 3 am truck stop with a full moon above, this is grim Americana, the dark side of the heartland. “When This Old Car Was New” is a perfect song: beautiful with an earthy, gutsy beauty, and Lockett’s voice deepening into rich Tom Rush bass pedal tones, and an absolutely gorgeous and essential chorus, “We are still in the summer of our lives.”  He’s a country songwriter swimming against the prevalent Nashville current of pop country to return to the deep waters of songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.  “Mbira Mboogie” is a remarkable and unexpectedly spirited  instrumental of that rings exotically, like a marimba in a pawnshop, displaying his multi-instrumental chops, as do a few other intermingled instrumental excursions, such as “A Road Back Home” and “Heart Like A Train,” a great title for him as his heart seems both locomotive in its range.  “Nobody’s ever made a dime singing any song of mine,” he sings, “but if you don’t mind I’ll keep trying.” We don’t mind at all; he’s writing the kinds of songs a whole lot of singers could sink their teeth into. A substantial and soulful songwriter of the highest degree, and a deeply emotive singer, Mr. Lockett is making deeply satisfying music, the kind of music that keeps you going even through the toughest of times.

Bluerailroad - Lee Feldman

Lee Feldman * Album No. 4  He’s a songwriter of some special character, a guy cut from old-fashioned cloth, it seems, not unlike Van Dyke Parks in the sincere Americana of his tunefulness and sweetness of vocal delivery. His  new album starts with a song which crystallizes the challenge of songwriting, “Trying To Put Things Together That Have Never Been Together Before.”  That is the aim, to make those new connections in terms of language and tune and the ways they intersect, and Mr. Feldman is a brave purveyor of the form.  He writes fresh, creatively tuneful songs, songs which spring with the sweet early Brian Wilson braintrust vibe at times mingled with a little Nilsson, such as the exultant “Halo” and the lovely “That’s The Way The World Used To Work.”  Especially nice is “The Magician,” a gentle piano-based  exploration that is sonically spiced unexpectedly throughout with horns and synths that intensely outlines the isolation of the performer.  It starts light and slowly becomes quite thick and heavy and remarkable.  “River” is a happy expedition streamed with happy horns and a kind of inverse samba.   The album’s 14 song cycle concludes with “Thanks,” a direct appeal to the listener that is wholesome and lovely in its grace. Lee Feldman’s a good songwriter, something this world always needs more of. Thanks.

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Shannon Hurley * Ready To Wake Up  Shannon Hurley is a beautifully expressive singer-songwriter, who really knows how to make songs work. The opening  “Matter of Time” is really savvy songwriter, the music propelling the words along the very subject of imminence – something about to happen, to burst forward – and to paint this picture, she builds up brilliantly with a pre-chorus on the title, which builds before she breaks into a magnificently melodic chorus. Her voice is perfectly suited to the elegant flow of the melodics; her high notes ring with the purity of a bell, like Judy Collins in her highest register, and her low notes resonate with a conversational grace. “Sunrise” is another which merges an elegiac lyric with a glorious melody, the tunefulness of which is so welcome and heartwarming in this age of often cold sonics. The album has several different producers, but it’s the work of the great Israeli producer-songwriter Guy Erez that really distinguishes this album; his great mastery of dynamics to propel a song goes a long way in bringing all the beauty  out of these beautiful songs, which are so well-written it makes his job easy.  Unafraid to be pretty musically, Shannon Hurley writes those kinds of songs people say nobody writes anymore, tuneful songs that do right to the heart. Excellent musicianship throughout sparkles,  with Shannon on keys, Guy on bass and guitar, Ben Eisen on bass and Grecco Buratto on guitars. “Breaking Down” is a wonderfully dimensional saga that wraps up the album, with a beautiful remix by Celeste Lear. This is serious great songwriting, beautifully performed by the singer and her band, and so tuneful throughout that it makes a song lover smile all day long. This is great work which makes one yearn for what’s next.

bluerailroad falldown

FALLDOWN* Falldown  A brave young Chicago band led by multi-instrumentalist Jared Rabin, Falldown, on this, their eponymous debut, sounds like a real band, a band like Wilco or The Band itself, all about musicians playing together, about rich harmonies and acoustic instruments and unique, personal songwriting. Rabin, who plays guitars, lap steel, violin and mandolin, is also the lead singer and songwriter, and he writes tuneful and appealing songs which merge a vast range of influences, embracing  country, jazz, folk and rock & roll. Beautifully colored instrumental touches laced with the fine playing by Patrick Lyons, another serious instrumentalist, on slide guitar, pedal and lap steel and vocals, propels all of these songs in colorful and unique directions. “Couch Sleep” has the winding melody of early Steely Dan with a hint of Country-Western. “Slay Me,” a nifty country-shuffle, is invigorated by Rabin’s fiery fiddle, the perfect complement to this saga which unfolds within the indie-rock realm where early R.E.M. used to dwell- before a great swaggering country breakdown which ignites the track. “Sarah Says” is a romantic ballad about the aspirational if ungrounded existence of musicians,  brought down to earth by love.  With a sweet waltz-time melody reminiscent of Ben Folds that bursts into a wonderful chorus, it unites the ethereal with the earthy, landing on the line, “I’ll see her next Thursday.”  It all comes to a close on “Steal Again,” another with jazzy Steely Dan-like cadences wed to country sounds.  It’s a song about California dreaming from a distance – that of their native Chicago. Falldown is that rare band whose songwriting matches the high level of musicianship throughout. There’s only six songs here, but each is so strongly realized, it makes one hunger for what is next. They seem capable of anything.

bluerailroad ellie lawson insights

Ellie Lawson * Insights  So great was her debut album, with its wondrous mix of brilliant songwriting, strident vocals with rich harmonies and hip-hop tinged soundscapes, that I’ve long looked forward to its follow-up. This doesn’t disappoint. She co-wrote all the songs this time around with Dave Harewood, with whom she concocted musical tracks, and then wrote the words and tunes herself. Her melodies are invariably exotic, often mixing fast rap phrasing with Turkish and Arabic-flavored melodics. The opening song, “Back On Track” is deliciously multi-dimensional, a rich, deep panoply of sweetness and groove. “Try” starts with just voice and guitar before moving out in many directions, and  matches the elemental subjects of her other titles here, “Why” and “I Know.” “Try” takes that one word and wrings magic out of it, showing what songs can do. She’s at once conversational and formal, cannily contrasting sections of fast phrasing, with many words, against sections like this chorus, focusing on long melismatic turns. “I Know,” for example, plays with dynamics of wordiness, playing the simple phrasing of the short title as a great hook against the complex shifting colors of the verses. Her music has everything; like Beck, she’s as creative with the words as the music as the arrangements and song structures. Produced and mixed by Ian Grimble, it’s very new and fresh sounding, while still related to great soul records of the past in the deep grooves and sweet melodics.   This is inviting music; you hear it once and you need to hear it over and over, and each track so rich as to encourage maximum repeats.  It all ends with the great “Why” which brings up the question Why? Why isn’t Ellie Lawson a superstar? She’s got everything and more. Here’s hoping this is the album that brings a vast audience to her beautiful work. She writes the kinds of songs, and make the kinds of albums, that are meant to be around for a long time. This is one not to miss.

bluerailroad jeannie willets

Jeannie Willets * anywhere I go She’s long been beloved on the L.A. folk circuit with good reason; she’s not only a fine and seasoned songwriter, she’s a tremendously appealing vocalist who could have had a career singing other people’s songs if she didn’t write her own. Delicately produced by Jeannie with the team of Franklin Spicer and Bruce Ablin, who also engineered, the tracks are all elegantly understated: finely focused around Jeannie’s sweet vocals, and accented gently by acoustic guitar with tasteful percussion, drums and other subtle touches. Most of the tracks don’t even have bass, but it works. These are stately, aching melodies, often with jazzy turns throughout. She’s a seriously good melodist – the songwriter wisely providing the vocalist with some seriously good material. “Since You Went Away” is an ideal ballad of loss, which bursts into rich harmonies (sung by the legendary Alex Del Zoppo of Sweetwater along with Kris Jarvis and Pam MacLean, who also team up to bring great richness to other tracks, reminiscent of Todd Rundren at his most lushly harmonic).  “Paris Song” is a lovely romantic wish to live a life of love in the City of Lights. Dale La Duke’s elegiac accordion is the ideal ingredient  to lend  this track a Parisian spirit. Several of the songs detail equations of the heart, such as “The Heart Is The Place,” and the closing song “Plans With You.” Set only against a single acoustic guitar and keyboards, she sings, “They say a heart knows at a glance/but now and then must take a chance” and leads into one of her most sumptuously poignant songs. This is a beautiful collection of songs by a singer whose purity of spirit comes across on every track. Check it out – it’s heartwarming.

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