Desert Island Singles: “Blue Period” by The Smithereens (1989)

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I had been thinking about the song “Blue Period,” a gorgeous and heartbreaking duet by lead Smithereen Pat DiNizio and Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, featured on this record. Back in 1989 when the MTV crowd was playing air guitar to the opening bombast of the hit single, “A Girl Like You,” I was savoring the beautiful string arrangement, the very Left Banke-sounding harpsichord, and the sweet harmonies of DiNizio and Carlisle that made “Blue Period” a stand-out tune on “11.” Plus, there is a key moment in the last verse when the duo sings, “I think of you, much more than I’d ever be willing to say,” where it seems like both singers are fighting back the tears as they harmonize. It’s a little masterpiece of emotion that, like most of this record, was overshadowed by the big chords and video of the hit single. – Sal Nunziato

The Smithereens released their third LP, “11,” in 1989 after two commercially successful and critically acclaimed releases, “Especially For You” and “Green Thoughts.” The comparisons flew with comments about how the band had sold out, softened their sound. I think that’s nonsense; “11” is every bit as good an album as the previous two. Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “There She Goes” by The La’s (1990)

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Liverpool band The La’s (slang for “lads”) released only one eponymous album in 1990. This song is the most stellar of an album full of stellar.

The lead guitar riff is magnetic. So is the rhythm guitar. Everything sticks to them. The song has no verses, just the chorus over and over with a middle eight that appears once. The La’s were like Teenage Fanclub in their ability to take a classic, 60s pop sound and make it meaningful to a new generation. I’ve described it as being like The Four Seasons jamming with The Byrds. Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “Let Nothing Come Between You” by Warren Zevon (1982)

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People are always asking me, what do I like about his music? And I’m not a musicologist or an expert about music or anything, but I’ve tried to think very hard about what it is about this man’s music that I loved so much. One, that the music itself was just exciting. It was just thundering and exciting and rhythmic and complicated, and unusual rock’n’roll. It was not the kind of rock’n’roll you would hear much of. And then the lyrics, oh my God, the lyrics were so vivid. Just very evocative. And each song that you listened to was like watching a motion picture. He was a poet, and a story teller, and a good friend of ours – David Letterman

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Desert Island Singles: “Me Neither” by Brad Paisley (2000)

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Darling, I’ve been standing here just watching you all night
And I think I’ve even caught you watching me a couple times
If I don’t ask I’ll never know
This may sound dumb but here we go:
Do you believe in love at first sight?

Me neither!

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Desert Island Singles: “My Heart Hurts” by Nick Lowe (1982)


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Nick Lowe’s career is a textbook example of the unfairness and inaccuracy of the term “one-hit wonder.” Most music fans remember “Cruel To Be Kind,” his only US Top Twenty single. Many know that he wrote and recorded “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” one of Elvis Costello’s signature tunes, and “I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock’n’Roll),” a hit for Dave Edmunds that is now a mainstay at wedding-reception dances. In 2011 The New York Times claimed, “The 40-year career of the English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe constitutes a paradox: the songs he has written are better known than he is.” Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “Fountain Of Sorrow” by Jackson Browne (1974)

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It was thirty-nine years ago this fall that I spun my first record on the radio airwaves. On KCMR-AM Augsburg College Radio, “The Station That’s Getting Through To You.” For the life of me I can’t remember the first song I ever played; I have it narrowed down to three, and “Fountain Of Sorrow” by Jackson Browne is one of the contenders. (Are you there? Say a prayer for the contenders…)

I was a fanatic about Jackson in late high school and early college. He had a talent for “making personal experience seem universal,” as reviewer Gil Asakawa wrote, although he acquired the rep of a tragic troubadour. Reviewers John Alroy and David Bertrand Wilson dismiss him as “a sensitive romantic, Alan Alda with a guitar.” Harsh. Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “More Than This” by Roxy Music (1982)

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Brian Ferry…sounded unlike anyone else on the radio at the time, his voice more reminiscent of old-time jazz-age singers and post-war tenors like Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots and Tony Williams of the Platters. Indeed, the romantic and flighty tune reminds one of old torch songs…Phil Manzanera punctuates his partner’s vocal lines with a singular staccato guitar style, favoring muted single-string lines over full chords. Andy MacKay’s sax floats in and out of the mix, swimming in the smooth reverb. Andy Newmark never wavers from his steady drum beat. – Bill Janovitz

In our on-air sessions my friend Alan Haber has observed that in many of the best pop singles, musicianship serves the song, not the other way around. “More Than This” is a textbook example of that. A song about being in the moment and seeing what’s in front of you is sparse, spare, and economical, an ethereal presence. Manzanera’s opening guitar riff kicks everything into action, then he steps back and adds only the briefest of licks. The instrumentation works with the lyricism as a cohesive whole: gauzy synths, reverb on the drums, clean and compressed guitar tones. In fact, Ferry retreats vocally for most of the song’s minute-plus “off ramp.” Click here for more.

Desert Island Discs: “Making Movies” by Dire Straits (1980)

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Dire Straits emerged during the post-punk era of the late ’70s, and while their sound was minimalistic and stripped down, they owed little to punk. If anything, the band was a direct outgrowth of the roots revivalism of pub rock, but where pub rock celebrated good times, Dire Straits were melancholy… The band, along with Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, and Steve Winwood, become one of the leaders of a group of self-consciously mature veteran rock’n’rollers in the late ’80s that designed their music to appeal to aging baby boomers. – Stephen Thomas Erlewine

“Making Movies” is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences, and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances, and the band’s cutting-edge rock’n’roll soundtrack is breathtaking — everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If “Making Movies”  really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards. – David Fricke

The first five tracks on the disc are arguably the most passionately executed love songs put to vinyl (or whatever) that I can ever remember… If you are in love, this disc will move you to tears. If you are not, it will make you wish you were. – W. Todd Thornton

Dire Straits hasn’t gotten a lot of love over the years, mostly because they were (*shudder*) popular. I know, right?! Haters gonna hate. Damn, they’re in the record-selling business… and they actually sell records. Bastards. Like Yogi Berra said: “Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore; it’s too crowded.”

But I’ve always liked Dire Straits. When their eponymous first album came out I played it till the grooves wore through. “Sultans Of Swing” is one of my top-ten favorite singles, but isn’t even on this disc. Nor are other favorites “Lady Writer,” “Twisting By The Pool,” “So Far Away,” “If I Had You,” “Why Worry,” or “Walk Of Life.” The only DS song I tire of is “Money For Nothing,” a perfectly good song overplayed to death in the early MTV days: mostly because of guest singer Sting’s pandering sig line “I WANT MY MTV.” (Overexposure does not lead to memorability or reflect quality. Some day I’ll write a screed about the music lover’s lament: “I used to like that song, but then they played it over and over.”)

So why aren’t any of my DS favorites on this Desert Island Disc? What “Making Movies” has, quite simply, is a suite of songs that sweeps you up and carries you away. Cinematic like Bruce Springsteen.

Dire Straits reduced from a quartet to a trio during the recording of “Making Movies.” David Knopfler quit the band, and brother Mark re-recorded his almost-completed guitar tracks with uncredited Sid McGinnis (later of Paul Shaffer’s bands on David Letterman’s shows). Legendary producer Jimmy Iovine joined Mark at the helm, and the two of them shine. Iovine brought Roy Bittan from The E Street Band on board, due to his long association with The Boss, and made them an unofficial quartet again. The album would not have been complete without the interplay between Bittan’s keyboard landscapes and Mark’s soaring guitar lines.  As David Fricke wrote, he’s an underscore and a foil.

It’s too bad CDs or mp3 downloads don’t have Side One and Side Two. Because the first three tracks, “Tunnel Of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Skateaway,” form a brilliant first act: the album break is a perfect intermission. The second act features “Espresso Love,” “Hand In Hand,” and “Solid Rock.” Tagged on as an encore is “Les Boys,” which is a weird little detour not unlike “Her Majesty” on “Abbey Road.” Writers like Robert Christgau have accused Mark Knopfler of gay-baiting and homophobia: I don’t get that at all. It’s a skit, and a respectful one.

The highlight of the album, though, is “Romeo and Juliet.” From Fricke again:

(Mark Knopfler) breaks through and makes us care, even cry, for the street kid who’s lost his girl because her dream of success came true and his didn’t (though they shared the same dream)… All he can do is realize that she’s suddenly in another league, that she thinks of him (if at all) as little more than a comic figure from her past… Pleading is useless — tragic, devastating, even funny, yet ultimately useless. We’re moved, but the subject of the song certainly isn’t.

Come up on different streets, they’re both the streets of shame.
Both dirty, both mean, yes, in the dream it was just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real.
How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?

I can’t do the talk, like the talk on TV
And I can’t do a love song, like the way it’s meant to be.
I can’t do everything, but I’ll do anything for you.
I can’t do anything, except be in love with you.

As Thornton points out: two lovers, vexed by time and circumstance. The dice were loaded from the start. Disposable love, heartbreaking stuff. They don’t make songs, or albums, like this anymore.

Desert Island Singles: “Taken In” by Mike and The Mechanics (1985)

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Mike and The Mechanics are an all-star band brought together in the mid-80s as a side project by Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford. In its heyday the band featured lead vocalists Paul Young and Paul Carrack in the same lineup, two of the best “journeyman” vocalists since Tony Burrows and Ron Dante.

“Taken In” was the third chart single from Mike and The Mechanics’ excellent, eponymous first album. Carrack took the lead vocal on “Silent Running,” and Young on this one and “All I Need Is A Miracle.”

Young nails this, one of the all-time greatest “relationships suck” songs. A more powerful voice like Carrack’s would have missed the point entirely. Young hits the right tone of quiet dignity in the wake of realizing he’d been betrayed:

Taken in, taken in again
Wrapped around the finger of some fair-weather friend
Caught up in the promises, left out in the end

No pride, taken for a ride
You say I’m the only one when I look in your eyes
I want to believe you, but you know how to lie

Taken in, taken in again
Someone saw me coming, a fool without a friend
There’s one born every minute, and you’re looking at him

The album notes credit saxophone players Ray Beavis and John Earle. I’m not sure which one takes the solo on this song, but his interplay with keyboardist Adrian Lee is masterful.

Look for former standup comic and, later, TV cop Richard Belzer in the video.

Desert Island Singles: “Message In The Box” by World Party (1990)

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This song was in hot rotation in the summer of 1990 on the legendary Minnesota alternative rock station KJ 104. It brightened up every morning on my commute to work: I’d sing along and rock out on the freeway. I had very tolerant car-poolers, by the way.

When most bands emulate The Beatles, they’re usually styling themselves after Lennon or Sir Paul. In the early 90s a few bands and artists started to emulate George Harrison in song style and mindset. Karl Wallinger of World Party did that with the best of them. (And as you’ll see below, he had a knack for channeling Ringo’s style as well.) This song would have been right at home on “Living In The Material World” or “Somewhere In England.” And the guitar hook is magnetic; everything sticks to it, a skill George used to perfection.

The world says:
Give a little bit
Give a little bit of your love to me
‘Cause I’m waiting right here with my open arms
Give a little bit
Give a little bit of your soul to me
‘Cause I’m waiting to behold your many charms
Is that love in the air?

She says:
Put the message in the box
Put the box into the car
Drive the car around the world
Until you get heard

And as a bonus, here’s the other hit from World Party’s album “Goodbye Jumbo.” As I mentioned to my friend Alan Haber, here Wallinger had written a perfect song for Ringo. I hope he’ll record it someday.