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Try These Jamaican R & B Tracks to Warm Up Any Winter Event: Rico & the Matador All-Stars, “Continental Shuffle” and Owen Gray & the Jets, “Nobody Else”

January 11, 2010

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Trojan Jamaican R & B With the holidays over and the two coldest months of the year ahead, now is the time when winter in New York City and much of the country quickly loses its romantic appeal and instead becomes, to be polite, a real drag. Sorry to remind you, but remember, the weather doesn’t really get consistently nice around here again until around the time we have to get our taxes in.

So, to “tropicalize” the atmosphere of events that you may have planned in the next two or three months of our annual struggle through blizzards, slush, and 37-degree rain, here’s two songs that are sunny, cozy, and fun. Both are Jamaican rhythm and blues tunes. If that genre sounds unfamiliar, don’t be surprised. It’s a rather small and obscure style, but fortunately some of its best songs recently have been made much more accessible for those of you who don’t have the time or interest to spend digging in record crates for hours a day by the release of the excellent compilation Trojan Jamaican R & B Box Set. Both songs here are available on the box set, as well as a few other less comprehensive compilations.

Jamaican R & B, born in the late ‘50s, is both like everything and nothing you’ve heard before. It combines shuffling jazz beats, the upbeat horns of what would soon become ska, festive Trinidadian-accented vocals of calypso, and a bit of the sultriness and gritty attitude of rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. Most people are familiar with each of these styles, but put together in the right amounts, they create a sound that feels new and fresh and most of all, cozy and friendly.

Both these mid-tempo songs here have pleasantly catchy melodies that will get your snow-stained shoes tapping at any sort of event. “Continental Shuffle,” by Rico and the Matador All-Stars, a brief but swingin’ instrumental with masterfully mellow, pre-ska “skank” of a horn riff, immediately seems to brightens the mood of any room when we play it. The same reaction happens when we spin “Nobody Else,” by Owen Gray and the Jets. With its sturdy piano, its warm, fuzzy saxophones and its sweet calypso-inflected vocals, the song sounds like what Ray Charles might have recorded if he got his start in Kingston.

Have a listen to both; I think you’ll agree they’ll make things feel a little less “January-ish.”

Matador All-Stars – Continental Shuffle

Owen Gray & the Jets – Nobody Else

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An Excellent, Non-Cover Christmas Song for Your Holiday Party Playlist: Over the Rhine, “(Darlin’) Christmas is Coming”

December 23, 2009

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Snowangels When the usual stable of Christmas pop songs are dusted off and hauled back out to the world around early November, many people complain they’re sick of hearing these same tunes over and over on the radio, in stores and at holiday parties. But when it comes to making a playlist for a Christmas party, most of us will simply throw on the radio stations that play this (at times) mind-numbing mix of Christmas classics, or we’ll make a mix CD that may include a few lesser-played or quirky Christmas songs but overall mostly contains the familiar takes of singers from Sinatra to Diana Krall on “Silver Bells,” “Let it Snow,” “Silent Night” and the like.

It’s understandable – at a Christmas party it’s hard to be a music snob. As a host, it makes sense to give your guests a fun atmosphere that’s accessible and upbeat, and, unless it’s an announced “theme” Christmas party involving a more offbeat selection of music, too much sad acoustic indie-pop or experimental noise-rock covers of Christmas songs might not add to the festiveness much, or could take away from it. And new Christmas songs, of whatever genre or style, rarely tend to be memorable, at least in a good way.

An exception to this rule that can add a little freshness to your Christmas party music playlist is the album Snow Angels by the alt-countryish band Over the Rhine. (We’re a big fan of theirs, go here for a post I did about a great song from an older album of theirs that can be used for a first dance at a wedding, or just in general as a nice addition to a wedding dinner music playlist.)

On Snow Angels, first released in late 2006, Over the Rhine has created a sturdy, cozy collection of jazzy, acoustic, and slightly bluesy pop songs about Christmas and/or winter that feel impressively like covers of classic Christmas songs but are all (save for a few actual covers) their own. There’s striking melodies of all moods in their original songs, from the melancholy remembrances of “Snow Angel” to the playful sweetness of “Snowed in With You” to the sultry slow-burn of “North Pole Man.” All these tunes, too, have lyrics that take a cue from American Songbook pop standards in that they’re sentimental without being treacly. Also, the production is clean but always kept simple and not too polished – much like vintage mid-century holiday classics – and the versatility of singer Karin Bergquist’s warm voice is able to convincingly sell the feel of the songs, whether they’re concerned with longing, promise, sexiness, playfulness, or anything else.

Of all these great songs, though, the standout is “(Darlin’) Christmas is Coming.” With its old radio-like echo of the word “darlin’” throughout, its gently bouncing verses rising into a sweetly soaring chorus, and its inclusion of charming lyrical detail like the ringing of Salvation Army bells, or beautiful images like snow “falling like forgiveness from the sky,” this is a tune that does a most difficult thing – it connects with the spirit of those long-ago Christmas classics but doesn’t sound at all derivative of them. I think Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby would be impressed.

Unfortunately, because there only seems to be room for superstar artists’ covers these days when it comes to new Christmas music being heard by the general public, this song will probably never reach a wide audience and become the classic it should be. So if you like it, help it out a little and let the world know about it.

Over the Rhine – (Darlin’) Christmas is Coming

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Fresh Oldies: Nappy Brown, “Little By Little” & Ella Mae Morse, “Give a Little Time”

September 30, 2009

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Ella mae morse bw

At most kinds of events at which we perform, we’ll often mix in some bouncy “oldies” from the 50s or 60s, whether the genre is a major one like rock, soul and jazz, or is another, slightly lesser-played style, such as calypso, doo-wop or rockabilly.

We find that when we play these oldies, the songs tend to pleasantly surprise people and give the vibe of the event a touch of sentimentality and fun, as often it’s not just those in the crowd who remember when these the songs were released that will respond, but also those younger as well, as they may recall these classic songs from films or may simply enjoy the spirit of the time that the song evokes.

However, many oldies simply can feel stale due to decades of being overplayed, or from being overused in films and commercials. Sadly, one of the best examples of this is James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).” When you hear that song these days, it probably brings to mind images of mundane household products like a Dustbuster instead of a vision of an awesome hip-shakin’ concert in the mid ’60s at the Apollo Theater. And while we find at events like weddings or corporate parties, yes, crowds tend to respond more to songs they know, there’s always room – especially at cocktail hour and dinner – for spinning a few oldies that are more obscure, as long as they have a great rhythm and melody.

Two lost gems from the mid-50’s that were ahead of their time and that sweeten the atmosphere of any event where there’s a bit of sentimentality involved like weddings, birthday or anniversary parties, and even some types of fashion shows, are “Little By Little” by Nappy Brown, and “Give a Little Time” by Ella Mae Morse. Both songs are short, fun bursts of bouncy melodic pop that measure up to any of the better-known rock and R & B classics of the time, and will make you think you’re suddenly hearing an undiscovered classic from, in the case of the former tune, a Caribbean-sounding Ray Charles, and, in the case of the latter, a rockabilly Ella Fitzgerald.

Nappy Brown

“Little By Little,” with its upbeat lyrics about a guy slowly but steadily falling in love, effortlessly blends touches of blues, gospel and R & B to come quite close to the sound of what in several years would become soul music. And while this early version of a soul-ish sound is impressive, on top of it, Brown and his musicians add in a touch of Caribbean calypso to the song, giving it a sunniness that makes it not just a soul precursor, but something all its own.

“Give a Little Time” (later titled “Give a Little Time to Your Lover”), a sassily-delivered piece of advice for the guys out there, also seamlessly fuses genres that at the time were just beginning by other artists to be blended into rock and roll. In this song, there’s a dash of swing backing rhythms, barbershop-quartet style crooner pop, R & B vocals, and even a revving up of some rockabilly-ish guitars here and there. What really makes the song memorable, though, is Morse’s smooth, silky, but at the same time crisp and powerful voice. When you hear how she belts out the chorus to the tune, you’ll wonder why she wasn’t ever a household name.

Have a listen to both…

Nappy Brown – Little By Little

Ella Mae Morse – Give a Little Time

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Off the Beaten Track Songs for All Kinds of Road Trips

February 26, 2009

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Ramblin' Fever I’ve been away from the blog for almost a month – much longer than I had intended – but this was largely because for about two weeks I was on a road trip vacation with my girlfriend. I returned eager to make a collection of songs that people could use for all kinds of road trips – weekend getaways taken with a significant other, meditative solo excursions out of town, long family vacations, and so forth.

Now, this is a blog in which I usually write about how to use music and the DJ to make events such as corporate parties, weddings, and fashion shows succeed on a higher level. So DJ advice on songs for a road trip might seem a bit out of place – after all, road trips are not really considered an event, they of course don’t feature live DJs spinning from the passenger’s seat, and the music which people bring with them in their cars for a road trip is often very personal.

Weekends Away But then again, our company doesn’t only DJ events that are live. We also provide carefully pre-crafted mixes of songs to clients as well. For example, when we provide music mixes to a restaurant in the city, the most important element is not beat-matching and getting people to dance, but the more mellow mission of crafting a mood or moods that enhance the guests’ time eating dinner or drinking cocktails. Plus, I took a look on iTunes and found their road trip collection – though fun – felt a bit generic and one dimensional. Sure, the iTunes collection might give some people a smile on their trip to blast “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar or “Life is a Highway” by…by…uh, that one guy who sung it, but there are so many other moods that music can put you in touch with on a road trip than just rockin’ out. Road trips can offer moments for pleasant reflections, for melancholy musings, for innocent joy, for quiet sadness, and a lot more kinds of feelings.

And really, a road trip is a sort of event to those embarking on it. It almost always arouses some sort of passionate feeling, usually it involves some degree of planning, and ever since cassette decks and Certron C-60 tapes came out in the early '70s, mixes of music have been almost as important as the gas money.

Let's Get Out So I’ve assembled a mix of songs that hopefully you aren’t too familiar with, and that cover a range of emotions and that go with a variety of moments, from driving through the lights of a big city late at night to cruising along an empty rural highway under clear blue skies and bright sunshine. There’s mellow acoustic guitar instrumentals, folk, indie rock, electronica, classic rock, roots reggae, vintage country, vintage rock, synthpop, alt-country, blues, and more. From some of the songs' subject matter – cars, highways, welcome escapes, anticipated reunions – you'll be able to tell they're related to the theme, but other songs were chosen simply because they just have a certain feel – be it propulsive, sweet, lush, moody, dreamy, austere – that goes well with different kinds of road trip moments.

I'm sure there's a lot of great music out there that I don't know about that you really adore on your road trips. I encourage you to comment below with any suggestions you think would be good for people to know more about for a road trip mix, whatever the mood of the song, and if I get enough I'll make another mix incorporating those suggestions. Just please don’t include the obvious stuff that we've all seen in too many Hollywood movies or car commercials, like Foghat’s “Slow Ride” or Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car.” We all know about those songs too much, and unfortunately we can’t forget them.

Go here to check out the mix.

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