Now Hear This: Episode 5

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Song Notes:

STEELY DAN: “Instrumental Overture” Play this track
1993 was the year Steely Dan became a touring band after a 20-year layoff. When they recorded their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972, leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were surprised when their record company asked them to tour to support it. They were songwriters, not performers, and Fagen certainly didn’t see himself as a front man. The road provided no second takes, shoddy sound reinforcement and no particular allure for the band. But 1993 introduced a great band with a great sound able to project their great songs. Like the old Motown revues, the backing band would come out and play ahead of the duo’s arrival on stage. All the nuance, dynamics, and deep colors of each song were performed flawlessly. This version of “Bad Sneakers” was not officially released and its inclusion would have enhanced the Dan’s surprisingly unimpressive Alive in America live album released in 1995. —John Stix

THE BLUES BROTHERS: “Rubber Biscuit” Play this track
What can I say? This one gets me every time. Virtuosity gets results. Sublime. —Rock Stamberg

Who says great music can’t be fun? Not me. Really, aren’t you just smiling? —JS

FRANK ZAPPA: “Peaches En Regalia” Play this track
His most accessible number, apparently. The variations on a theme compliment the sugar-sweet dissonance hidden within. A choice example of Zappa’s compositional chops. —RS

“Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” Or “Peaches en Regalia.” “Peaches en Regalia” is American classical music for the rock generation. Zappa is on a par with Copland and Bernstein as one of America’s great classical composers. This is Frank Zappa at his commercial best, taking us on a journey as only he could. I rate it as one of the finest rock instrumentals of all time. The music is so good you don’t have to be a music fan, much less a Zappa fan, to enjoy it. —JS

SARA BAREILLES: “Single Ladies” Play this track
Sara Bareilles is one of my favorite contemporary pop songwriters. She writes hook-laden melodies and sings them in tune. I regard her as this generation’s Carole King. When I first heard “Love Song” from her debut album, I was hooked immediately. I love what she did with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Of course Sara reimagines it as a ’50s doo-wop song and the fun she’s having is infectious. What more can we ask for? —JS

NICK LOWE: “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” Play this track
So do I. —RS

Nick’s first album, Pure Pop for Now People (a/k/a Jesus of Cool outside the U. S.) was a pure pop delight when it came out in 1978. It was one of Lowe’s turns fronting Rockpile, the band used on Lowe’s and cohort Dave Edmunds’ respective solo albums. Nick and Dave had contracts with different record companies. They were Rockpile, but they couldn’t call themselves by that name. This song is a delight. Raucous barrelhouse piano, a happy melody, syncopated guitar parts, bass hooks, snappy handclaps and vicious lyrics form a juxtaposition of how much stuff you could put into one song and still have a coherent hit. Songwriters of the world take notice. —JS

ELTON JOHN: “I Need You To Turn To” Play this track
Now, this is something. An Elton John song and performance for the ages. Recorded live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1986. Elton’s vocals are strained — he’d have surgery for vocal nodes just days after — but the song is rendered stronger for it. —RS

LOVE: “You Set The Scene” Play this track
Love were considered one of the lesser bands to emerge from San Francisco’s psychedelic scene in the ’60s and they never had a hit record, per se. “You Set The Scene” is an acoustic suite that set the template for other bands to come. Encompassing folk music, bolero drums, strings and, horns, it’s a musical journey worth taking. —JS

ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: “Wild West Hero” Play this track
My favorite song from my favorite ELO album, 1977’s opus Out of the Blue. No wonder The Beatles were fans. —RS

THE BEATLES: “Within You Without You” (Instrumental Version) Play this track
A whole new way of listening to George Harrison’s Indian opus from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His songwriting ascends to a higher plane and, once again, George Martin produces and enhances, stirring occasionally until it reaches a full boil. —RS

The “Within You Without You” track sans vocals is pure George Harrison and clearly presents his artistic vision. Beatles fans had rarely heard anything like it. Yet we all immediately understood what he was doing. This mesmerizing song is totally original and accessible at the same time. —JS

DR. JOHN: “Right Place, Wrong Time” Play this track
The real “brain salad surgery” lives here. The song’s Morse-code-from-Mars kickoff fuels the voodoo P-Funk prescience that emerges. Not for the faint of heart. —RS

Back in 1973 this was one of those singles that seemed just too good musically to be a hit. But it was a hit and Dr. John was on the map. David Spinozza from Mamaroneck, NY took that cool guitar solo. This song doesn’t get tired for me. Maybe Little Feat should cover it. —JS

DIRE STRAITS: “Calling Elvis” Play this track
I confess, this is one of the songs that just does it for me, but I’ve never been sure how it rates for others. It’s got a chugging groove, some sweet pedal steel accents, and the quiet intensity of Mark Knopfler’s guitar. Knopfler recognized the perfection of this groove. No extras, no spotlight, just the feel that brings the track to life. He just lets it happen. I could ride this train cross country and back. —JS

NINA SIMONE: “Sinnerman” Play this track
This is one of the great pre-show soundcheck recordings. Its insistent train-on-the-tracks rhythm is addictive. My favorite part is when she yells the band is rehearsing to someone who’s telling her she has a phone call. Now that’s live. And it’s a gospel track to boot. —JS

DAVID BOWIE: “Station to Station” Play this track
The song that announced Bowie’s 1976-era incarnation, The Thin White Duke, to the world. And what a song it is. This epic transitions from looming dread to catchy release and ultimately rocks out with foreboding abandon. Inspired out-there songwriting and an indelible performance. He shoots, he scores. —RS