musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for September, 2019

Unlikely Tribute to Nada Surf

The advent of the tribute album — that is, a bunch of contemporary musicians performing new versions of classic songs by a legendary band or singer — is hardly a new trend in the music industry. Actually, with the increase in downloading and streaming in recent years, you don’t see that many tribute albums released any longer. From the record company’s perspective, I guess it’s no longer a marketable idea.

Thus, seeing the recent release of Standing at the Gates: The Songs of Nada Surf’s Let Go was an unexpected but joyous one. Not only is Nada Surf a relatively obscure band, but to pick a single album by them was a daring but brilliant idea. Except for Aimee Mann and Ed Harcourt, chances are you have never heard anything by most of the other artists on here, but rest assured they all do these songs proud; this a thoroughly wonderful album. Then again, the original Let Go was packed with solid songs, so to hear the great new versions of those songs is not so far-fetched a proposition.

I’m almost reluctant to choose highlights from this album, seeing as how I love every track, but special mention has to go to the opening track, Manchester Orchestra’s version of “Blizzard of ‘77”, The Texas Gentlemen’s take on “Inside of Love”, Rogue Wave doing a faithful cover of “Blonde on Blonde”, The Long Winter tearing it up on “Hi-Speed Soul,” an equally torrid version of “The Way You Wear Your Head” by Charly Bliss”, and Aimee Mann’s tender take on “Paper Boats”. But my favorite track on this album is the instrumental version of “Neither Heaven Nor Space” by William Tyler. Imagine the guitar sound of Chris Isaak morphing into something magically atmospheric like what Vini Reilly could do with the Durutti Column and you have an idea of how special this sounds. I’m transported every time.

 

Another incentive to buy this album (and I would urge all music lovers to support the artists and BUY as much music from musicians and retail stores as you can) is that proceeds from the sales of this album go to the ACLU and the Pablove Foundation, a very worthy non-profit organization that helps children that are suffering from cancer.

And while I’m at it, I can’t neglect mentioning Nada Surf’s own tribute album, the batch of cool covers that constituted their wonderful If I Had a Hi-Fi album from 2010. For this album they choose songs by the likes of the Dwight Twilley Band, Arthur Russell, Kate Bush, the Go-Betweens, Depeche Mode, the Moody Blues, and a handful of more obscure artists. The result, as expected, was sheer musical bliss. If you haven’t heard anything by Nada Surf before, get this one, or any of their other studio albums. They are all worthwhile listens.

http://www.nadasurf.com/standing-at-the-gates-the-songs-of-nada-surfs-let-go/

 

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Death of a Burmese Monk

Late last month I was saddened to hear about the death of U Kuthala Nanda, a monk at the Tat Ein monastery in Myanmar’s Shan State, on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe. He was only 40 years old. I have visited the monastery dozens of times in the past decade and I considered U Kuthala Nanda a good friend.

I first met U Kuthala Nanda when he was an adult novice monk, having only recently entered the monkhood in his thirties after living his entire life in Nyaung Shwe. He was also the brother of my longtime friend Ma Pu Su, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe.

U Kuthala Nanda, or Aung Nanda as he was known before becoming a monk, had his share of difficult times, particularly in his late teens and twenties, when he was more inclined to live a wild life and seek solace from alcohol. But he eventually turned his life around and became a well-respected monk, what they call an U-Zin, at the monastery. I know that he devoted himself to teaching and taking care of the dozens of young notice monks who stay at the monastery, and I’m sure they are devasted by his passing.

Aung Thaung, one of the novice monks who spent the past several years with U Kuthala Nanda at the monastery, called me about two months ago to tell me that U Kuthala Nanda needed more money for his cancer treatment. From talking with Ma Pu Sue, I had known that U Kuthala Nanda was ill, but didn’t realize that the situation had become so dire. “I like to help people” young Aung Thaung told me after I had thanked him for letting me know the status of U Kuthala Nanda’s treatment. But despite the efforts of all of us, nothing could stop the ravage of the disease. I want to repeat the old refrain  that life is unfair, but the Buddhists also tell us the “life is suffering” so I’m confident that U Kuthala Nanda passed away knowing he did what he could during his brief time on this planet, and he left behind many, many young men who have benefited from his experiences and counsel. He will be missed.

 

Soul Singer Supreme: Teddy Pendergrass

There were many great vocalists to come along during the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up. I was a middle-class white kid but I always felt a special affinity for the black singers of that period, great soulful male voices such as Otis Redding, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of the Temptations (not to mention their solo stuff), Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Aaron Neville, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, and yes even the young Michael Jackson. I could venture further into deep soul territory and mention guys like Major Lance, Walter Jackson, General Johnson of the Chairman of the Board, George Jackson, James Carr, Sam Dees, Joe Simon, Syl Johnson, Lenny Williams from Tower of Power, Donny Hathaway, and Otis Clay. No doubt I’m leaving off many other deserving male soul singers from those years, but you get the idea: there were truly a bunch of great voices that emerged from those magical decades. And I barely touched on the many classic male vocal groups from that era such as the Spinners, O’Jays, Dramatics, Stylistics, and so many more. I’ll say it again; what a great era for music.

I recently read an online list of the “Greatest Singers” of that period and one noticeable omission was the late Teddy Pendergrass. What a great, great voice! Strong and passionate, full of fire and soul, and also capable of singing sweet love songs. Versatile and memorable. Teddy first gained fame as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Philadelphia International vocal group that were one of the more successful of the Gamble & Huff production projects of the 1970s. Songs such as “The Love I Lost”, “Bad Luck”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and “Wake Up Everybody” were stone soul classics that still sound vibrant today.

But after that string of big hits Teddy bolted from the comfort of the Blue Notes and went solo, releasing his self-titled debut album, Teddy Pendergrass, in 1977. That album, and 1978’s Life is a Song Worth Singing were full of more great songs, but they didn’t enjoy the same crossover pop success that he had enjoyed with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Nevertheless, Teddy continued his solo career, always charting high and racking up hits on the R&B charts, even if major Top 40 success proved elusive.

And then came the tragic accident. In early 1982, while driving home late one night in Philadelphia, Teddy lost control of his car, hitting a guard rail and two trees. He was trapped inside the car for nearly an hour. He suffered spinal cord injuries in the crash and was paralyzed from the waist down. That could have signaled the end of his singing career, but Teddy persevered, undergoing physical therapy (although he would never walk again), signing to a new label, and releasing several more studio albums in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Sadly, he died of respiratory failure at the still young age of 59 in 2010.

When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month, I picked up a very good collection of his music, titled The Real … Teddy Pendergrass, a 3-CD set (issued by Sony Music) that includes material from his time with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes plus wonderful tracks from his early solo albums for Philadelphia International. But that’s only one of many fine collections that feature his music. Any of them are worth owning if you are a fan of soul or R&B music. Soul deep indeed!

And I have a personal Teddy Pendergrass story to add, although I never met the great singer. I was working at a record store in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s and his third solo album, simply called Teddy, had been released. The record company sent us a life-sized cardboard standup display of Teddy to promote the album (note: this was indeed a vinyl record, well before the advent of CDs, downloads, and streaming). The manager of my shop at that time was a young black guy named Jimmy (a really cool guy who turned me onto some great music) who bore a very slight resemblance to Teddy. Well, Jimmy did something to piss off the owner and was fired one day. The owner, a grumpy old character named Nate, called me up the next morning and asked me to meet him at the shop so he could give me a set of keys. Upon arrival we walked up to the shop and Nate peered into the dark interior. “Jimmy! What the hell are you doing in there?  Open up!” Well, it wasn’t Jimmy inside the shop; it was that darned Teddy Pendergrass cardboard stand-up. I refrained from laughing right then and there, but that story became a classic among us record store workers for many years afterwards!

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