I’m not the world’s most passionate guy

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the long, strange career of one of the most British of Britain’s great rock bands:  The Kinks.

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A solid case can be made that the sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll known as hard rock got its start in early 1964 from one impulsive act by a rebellious British teenager named Dave Davies.

Davies and his band, The Kinks, had twice failed to record a hit single and were in danger of losing their record contract if they didn’t come up with one on their third try.  He was frustrated that the sound he was getting from his electric guitar plugged into a standard amplifier-speaker wasn’t sufficiently coarse and scratchy.  So he took out a 41okw4osvilrazor blade and slashed a deep cut through the speaker cone, which caused a dirty, distorted howl when he played.

“That’s it!” he thought triumphantly, as the group launched into a fresh take of “You Really Got Me,” and the result was two minutes and 14 seconds of raw energy that paved the way for an entire genre of power chords and frenetic guitar solos in the five-plus decades since.

The Kinks released 24 albums between 1964 and 1994, have sold more than 50 million records worldwide, and were inducted early into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And yet, they never achieved the kind of stratospheric success of their British Invasion peers nor their many imitators in the years since.

Ray Davies — Dave’s older brother and The Kinks’ frontman, singer and primary songwriter — thinks he knows why.

“We were fighters,” he said in a 1998 interview.  “We fought amongst each other, we fought with our managers, we fought with anybody who looked at us the wrong way.  We wrote and recorded some pretty great music, and we had a lot of fun, but all the fighting really cost us dearly, and we only have ourselves to blame.”

Specifically, Dave Davies and drummer Mick Avory had an infamous battle in front of a stunned audience at a concert in early 1965 in Wales that put Davies in the hospital and

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The Kinks (clockwise from top):  Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife

sent Avory into hiding.  Davies soon healed and no charges were filed, but The Kinks had established a reputation for being difficult and a little dangerous.

During their first American tour a couple months later, a verbal flareup between the band and members of the union crew working the set of Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” caused The Kinks to be slapped with a four-year ban against further U.S. appearances when the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists recommended, and the feds agreed, to deny the necessary working permits.

“It’s all so silly, in retrospect,” said Ray Davies.  “Some guy who said he worked for the TV company walked up and accused us of being late.  Then he started making anti-British comments — things like, ‘Just because the Beatles did it, every mop-topped, spotty-faced limey juvenile thinks he can come over here and make a career for himself.’  A punch was thrown, and by the next day, we were on our way back home.”

As The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other acts of the time knew, the American market was critical to their success, and The Kinks, by not being able to perform there during their initial creative period, were denied the exposure they needed to reach the heights they deserved.

In my view, another contributing reason for The Kinks’ second-class status was the decidedly inferior production values on their early recordings.  The group was signed kinks-proud-2709awith Pye Records, who lacked the financial and professional resources to turn the band’s rough demos into the kind of polished work The Beatles and others were releasing.

Thirdly, as much as I enjoy and respect the group’s entertaining repertoire, they needed a better lead singer.  Ray Davies had a distinctive voice, but not a great one (like, say, The Who’s Roger Daltrey), and I think adding a better lead vocalist would’ve helped them immeasurably.

Still, none of this stopped the band from enjoying some solid success in England, and a few of their ensuing singles made their way onto the US charts anyway.  Ray Davies began to experiment much more broadly in his songwriting, and for the remainder of the Sixties, he came up with an impressive palette of songs that tapped into his early influence from British music hall traditions.  The arrangements used more piano and harpsichord, and they utilized the efforts of the great British session keyboard man Nicky Hopkins to expand their sound.  There was still rock music in the mix, but The Kinks’ repertoire offered more alternatives, from blues to jazz, from baroque to folk.

Readers may be familiar with minor hits like “Tired of Waiting for You,” “Set Me Free,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Till the End of the Day,” “Who’ll Be the Next in Line,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Sunny Afternoon,” and their albums offered plenty of other hidden pop gems like “See My Friends,” “Session Man” and “This is Where I Belong.” mi0001901955Davies, still only 23 in 1967, came up with one of his most evocative songs, the highly praised “Waterloo Sunset,” which reached #2 in the UK and was described by AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas as “possibly the most beautiful song of the Sixties rock and roll era.”  In the States, it was inexplicably ignored, fizzling at #111.

Davies’ lyrics had begun to explore the simple aspirations and frustrations of common working-class people, with particular emphasis on the psychological effects of the British class system.   Sounds like heavy stuff, but Davies used the distinctive elements of glib narrative, astute observation and wry social commentary as he took aim at his subjects, which sometimes included the music business itself.

He helped pioneer the idea of the concept album, assembling such grand song cycles as “The Village Green Preservation Society” (1968) and “Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” (1969).  These preceded The Who’s celebrated rock opera “Tommy,” and it must have been a big frustration to Davies when Pete Townshend’s work got all the attention.  British critics praised these Kinks LPs, and diehard fans enjoyed them, but they sold poorly, despite including great songs like “Animal Farm,” “Days,” “Big Sky” and “Victoria.”

Davies was probably at his most endearing when he wrote about giving up worldly ambition for the simple rewards of love and domesticity.  Most Kinks albums include one or two of his tender, bittersweet odes to what he wistfully considered “a vanishing, romanticized world of village greens, pubs and schoolyards.”  Despite all the stories of Davies being an irascible grump who was unpleasant to be with, there is plenty of evidence (in his songs, anyway) to indicate he was at heart a nostalgic softie with an abiding passion for traditional English culture, pastoral countrysides and storybook relationships.

51tlcy6ympl._sx355_Then came “Lola,” which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

Davies recalled how the song, like many of his creations, sprang from a real-life experience.  “We were in some strange London clubs at the time, and our manager was very attracted to one rather forceful woman, and danced with her all night.  He got pretty drunk, and didn’t realize until much later that the object of his attentions was actually a transvestite.  I thought it was hilarious, and decided to write a song about it.”  He kept the lyrics just cryptic enough for it to slide past the censors and become an international hit in the fall of 1970.

(Ironically, it was deemed controversial in England not for its sexual content but for the use of the brand name “Coca-Cola” in the first verse.  The BBC had a strict ban on any commercial product mentions, so Davies had to return to the studio to re-record the vocals to change the wording to “cherry cola.”)

While “Lola” gave the group a boost commercially, it did what many radio hits have done to many rock bands over the years:  It saddled them with a song they quickly tired of but nevertheless had to perform night after night.  As Dave Davies put it, “‘Lola’ was a lark, a fun little song, but good God, it wasn’t all that bloody good, was it?”

Perhaps in response to all that, Ray Davies dove deeper and deeper into more conceptual projects as the 1970s progressed.  First came a quirky turn toward bluegrass and country music, of all things, entitled “Muswell Hillbillies,” a reference to Davies’ childhood preservation-combined-revisedsuburban home in Muswell Hill, outside London.  It never even made the charts in England.

Five more concept albums — “Everybody’s in Show Biz,” “Preservation Act 1,” “Preservation Act 2,” “Soap Opera” and “Schoolboys in Disgrace” — followed in rapid succession in the 1972-1976 period, and a handful of stellar tracks can be found if you dig deep enough:  “Celluloid Heroes,” “Motorway,” “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” “Sitting in the Midday Sun” and “Education,” among others.

Something very curious was happening by then.  The Kinks’ British audience had effectively abandoned them, pushing them aside, and their albums from the mid-Seventies on have never michael-putland-getty-imagesmade a single ripple in the charts there.  But in the US, suddenly record buyers were paying attention.  Beginning with “Schoolboys in Disgrace,”  Kinks albums started reaching the Top 40 on Billboard’s album charts, and then the Top 20.  The more theatrical period that had included horn sections and multiple backup vocalists had given way to what pundits refer to as “stripped-down arena rock,” and the US rock audiences of the late ’70s and early ’80s ate it up.

The band had switched to Arista Records, and opted for slickly produced but defiantly performed hard rock:  “Sleepwalker” (1977), “Misfits” (1978) and particularly “Low Budget” (1979) reached as high as #11 on US charts, and just like that, The Kinks were a major concert draw.  The excitement of these shows was captured on the great 1980 live r-6334315-1416730436-8325.jpegLP “One for the Road,” and that momentum continued with the excellent “Give the People What They Want” (1981) and “State of Confusion” (1983).

In the height of the MTV music video era, the effervescent hit “Come Dancing” put The Kinks back into the Top Ten in the US, Canada and even England, followed by the lovely ballad “Don’t Forget to Dance,” which reached the Top 20 here.  A few more studio albums were to follow — 1984’s “Word of Mouth” (with Dave Davies’ best song, “Livin’ on a Thin Line”), 1986’s “Think Visual” and 1989’s “UK Jive,” but by the 1990s, they fell out of favor once again.  Their 1993 swan song, “Phobia,” charted at #166.

Funny thing is, Ray Davies, and occasionally brother Dave, wrote a lot of exceptional songs, more than 400 in total, and it’s a shame only a few dozen achieved anything close to proper recognition.  Their British roots have served them well, though, writing with humor and a satirical wit on many dozens of topics in many dozens of musical styles. As one critic put it, “If you’re a fan of The Kinks, it’s as if you’re a fan of a hundred different bands.”

Dave Davies offered this view:  “That’s the great thing about the Kinks, I think.  You got a chance to do heavy rock, and you got a chance to do lighter things, and period pieces kinkswith droll lyrics.  That’s what I always found stimulating about being a member of the Kinks, all those different styles.  When Ray and I grew up, we were in quite a big household with six older sisters, and they all sang and played piano, and my dad played banjo and stuff.  There were so many different kinds of music around, and I think we were very fortunate to have so many influences.”

And what about that moniker they chose for themselves?  Why Kinks?  Various explanations of the name’s genesis have been offered, such as this one from author Jon Savage: “They needed a gimmick, some edge to get them attention, and here it was: ‘Kinkiness.’  Something newsy, a bit naughty, but still on the borderline of acceptability.  In adopting the ‘Kinks’ as their name at that time, they were participating in a time-honoured pop ritual — fame through outrage.”

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Dave Davies, 2015

Robert Wace, their first manager, recalls it differently.  He said the group had “a rather kinky fashion sense, as did many Brit pop groups at the time, but Ray and Dave and the others were especially conscious of their look.  I told them they should call themselves The Kinks.”

 

Ray said recently, “We were horrified at that prospect.  We said, ‘We’re not going to be called kinky, for bloody sake!’  But even though we never really liked the name, it somehow stuck.  And now you can listen to 25 albums by The Kinks.”

Ray had hoped to rekindle The Kinks about ten years ago, but Dave wasn’t keen on the idea, so Ray put out a few solo albums instead.  “Other People’s Lives” (2006) and “Working Man’s Cafe” (2007) went by unnoticed, but 2017’s “Americana,” an impressive set of songs about US culture and history, turned a few heads as it reached #15 in the UK and #79 here.

raydavies-1600x720Now, in 2019, there’s news that both Ray and Dave Davies have at long last agreed to a long-hoped-for reunion for a new album and a tour.  Is this for real this time?  Is it just because they’re hurting for money?  At age 74 and 71 respectively, can these two produce anything worth rivaling their best days?  The odds are probably against them…but I’m among those who are very eager to find out.

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I hope you enjoy my subjective playlist of great songs from The Kinks’ catalog!

 

 

 

 

 

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Nice ‘n’ easy does it every time

Most fans of rock music, even those now in their ’50s and ’60s, have probably forgotten (or maybe never knew) what the pop music scene looked like before rock and roll arrived in the mid-’50s.

This blog purports to look at “Musical Milestones, 1955-1990,” and I have explored virtually every sub-group from those three-plus decades:  early rock and roll (Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley);  the blues (Howlin’ Wolf, The Allman Brothers);  surf music (The Beach Boys, The Rivieras);  Motown (Smokey Robinson, The Supremes);  the British Invasion (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones);  folk rock (The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel);  garage rock (The Standells, The Troggs):  psychedelic rock (Jimi Hendrix, Cream);  singer-songwriter (James Taylor, Joni Mitchell);  country rock (The Eagles, Poco);  progressive rock (Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull);  disco (The Bee Bees, Donna Summer);  heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Kiss); reggae (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh); new wave (Blondie, Elvis Costello).

But up until now, I’ve neglected to explore the one genre that has endured, in one form maxresdefault-11or another, alongside all of these:  “Easy listening.”

The very name sends shudders up the spine of most rock music fans.  It conjures up images of straight-laced crooners singing saccharine-sweet love songs you might hear in medical building elevators or Vegas cabarets.

That generalization, like most generalizations, has truth in it, but it’s also quite unfair.  Let’s look at the record (or records).

FRANK_SINATRA_NICE+N+EASY-434057Before rock music arrived, almost everything on pop radio — or “the hit parade,” as it was called then — was what we eventually called Easy Listening.  It certainly wasn’t labeled as such, however; it was simply “popular music” — records that featured vocalists singing over orchestral arrangements, doing songs from the “Great American Songbook,” Broadway show tunes, jazzy ballads, romantic torch songs and post-Swing era standards.

The vocal stylings of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone, Doris Day, Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Mel Tormé, Frankie Laine and Rosemary Clooney ruled the roost in the early 1950s.  Even after Elvis Presley and other rock and rollers elbowed their way onto the charts in the latter half of the decade, Sinatra and company were still large and in charge, their ranks bolstered by a newer crop of crooners — Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Vic Damone, Vikki Carr, Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand — who came along in the late ’50s or early ’60s.

And, as we shall see, this music had serious staying power.  Here’s a tidbit that will rock the world of you stoners out there:  The Mathis collection “Johnny’s Greatest Hits,”

Singer Johnny Mahtis On Ed Sullivan 1967

Johnny Mathis

released in 1958, spent an unprecedented 490 consecutive weeks on the Billboard top 100 album charts (that’s more than nine years).  It held the record for the most number of weeks on the Top 200 album chart in the US until Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” LP reached 491 weeks in October 1983.

The term “Easy Listening” was coined by radio formatters who needed a way to distinguish vocalists singing in the style established in the 1930s and 1940s from singers who adopted a style closer to rock and roll.  If you look at the best-selling artists of the 1955-1959 period, Presley was the only rock star in the bunch.  The majority were singers of the Sinatra/Mathis variety, along with instrumental/choral maestros like Mantovani, Lawrence Welk, Jackie Gleason (!) and The Ray Conniff Singers.

 

Unknown-15Indeed, Gleason — a comedian who enjoyed a remarkably potent side career as a songwriter/arranger — struck upon a quintessential “easy listening” formula he felt was inherently marketable.  His goal was to make “musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive to romance.”  He saw how love scenes in the movies were “magnified a thousand percent” by the background music, and concluded, “If Clark Gable needs music to get the job done, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate for that kind of help!”

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Doris Day

By 1960, white-bread teen idols like Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee, Connie Francis and Paul Anka made a significant dent in the charts for a spell, sometimes blurring the line between genres by favoring schmaltz (Anka’s “Tonight My Love, Tonight”) over young heartache (Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby”).  But even as R&B artists from The Miracles and Ben E. King to Chubby Checker and Jackie Wilson began adding their earthy approach to the mix, and Broadway show tunes and themes from film soundtracks periodically topped the charts, the Easy Listening artists hung on strong.

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Andy Williams

It’s not hard to see why.  Most of the pop music audience at that time was from a generation that liked their music traditional, melodious, nostalgic, even sentimental.  Rock and roll, and all that followed in its wake, was, to them, unpleasant, harsh, even non-musical.  Give them “Moon River” and “Mona Lisa” any day.

In my family household in the early 1960s, I remember hearing a lot of pretty music coming from my dad’s “hi fi” — a lot of Sinatra and Nat King Cole, plus Como, Mathis, Williams, Jo Stafford and Jack Jones.  Now and then, Dad would also play big band and swing music by the orchestras

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Perry Como

of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, but mostly I recall the gentle strains of romantic ballads with lush string arrangements.

But the burgeoning teen audience was on the rise, and when the arrival of the Beatles and the “British Invasion” in 1964 triggered a seismic shift toward rock in the makeup of the US Top 40, the Easy Listening crew began their inexorable downslide from chart success.

Although Easy Listening music waned as a dominant force, it was clear there remained a sizable audience for it.  The TV variety shows of that period — “The Dinah Shore Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Hollywood Palace” — offered occasional

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Barbra Streisand

appearances by rock groups, but for the most part, they still featured plenty of Vic Damone and Robert Goulet, and Streisand, and Vegas duos like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé.

By the late ’60s, all these artists had pretty much vanished from the mainstream charts, with a few exceptions.  Sinatra still managed two big hits in 1966 — “Strangers in the

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Engelbert Humperdinck

Night” and “That’s Life” — and new crooners like Englebert Humperdinck and Bobby Goldsboro topped the charts in 1967 and 1968 with the cringeworthy “Release Me” and “Honey,” respectively.  Some vocalists like Mathis and Williams evolved, and started capitalizing on the popularity of the singer-songwriter movement, releasing albums of covers of contemporary hits by the likes of James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King and even The Beatles (together and solo).

As the variety of radio formats mushroomed in the 1970s to meet ever-broadening tastes, Easy Listening music took on other names, ranging from “Music of Your Life” and “adult standards” to “Unforgettable Favorites” or, eventually, “Adult Contemporary.”  Regardless of the moniker, it was considered by most rock music fans as hopelessly square and outdated.

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The Carpenters

By the late 1970s, Easy Listening as a radio format had split into two camps.  The diehards could tune into Adult Standard, or “Beautiful Music,” which kept the decades-old classics alive.  A newer version of the genre known as Adult Contemporary featured the music of softer-sounding current artists like The Carpenters, Bread, Barry Manilow, John Denver, Seals and Crofts, Air Supply, Christopher Cross, Lionel Richie and Olivia Newton John.  And stalwarts like Mathis found new life by collaborating with new singers like Deniece Williams on the Top Ten hit “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” in 1978.

No self-respecting rocker would ever admit at that point to liking this stuff, but in secret, the fortitude of these artists to forge ahead in the face of critical lambasting was admired.  Indeed, in 1988, Bob Dylan stopped Manilow at a party, hugged him and said,

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Barry Manilow

“Don’t stop what you’re doing, man. We’re all inspired by you.”

Adult Contemporary still exists today, although it has further fragmented into smaller niches like “hot AC” (includes electric guitar and drums) and “soft/smooth AC” (stresses vocals and acoustic instrumentation) and even “urban AC” (black artists doing mellow music).

A personal aside:  I’m a rock music guy, with a fondness for blues and classic R&B, but I have a soft spot for some of these AC artists.  I consider some songs by The Carpenters, Bread and Christopher Cross (“Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Make It With You,” “Sailing”) to be guilty pleasures.  They’re melodic, well produced, and full of warm memories, and there have been times I have proudly cranked up the volume, and not just when I’m alone in my car.  Hey, even the most straight-laced artist has a great song or two in his/her repertoire.

In the mid-1980s, in the midst of New Wave and Madonna-type dance music, a curious thing happened.  As with fashion styles that make a comeback decades after they were 81wCLUf0TRL._SL1079_first popular, we witnessed a revival of the marvelous tunes of the ’40s and ’50s.  Country rock superstar Linda Ronstadt, who had been exposed to Sinatra’s music as a little girl and had always wanted to try singing the standards, rolled the dice.  She paired up with legendary orchestral arranger Nelson Riddle to release “What’s New,” the first of three albums featuring her luxurious covers of some of the best traditional songs of that bygone era — Gershwin classics like “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Rodgers & Hart classics such as “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “It Never Entered My Mind.”

Ronstadt recalled in her 2013 memoir, “Rock ‘n roll diehards in the music press wondered why I had abandoned Buddy Holly for George Gershwin.  The answer is that there was so much more room for me to stretch and sing, to mix my head voice and my chest voice.  And besides, I couldn’t bear the idea that such beautifully crafted songs would be condemned to riding up and down in elevators.”

Her gamble paid off handsomely.  These revivals were not only an unqualified success — “What’s New” reached #3 and went triple-platinum — but also inspired quite a few other rock-era artists to release copycat collections of once-shunned material over the ensuing years.

41BT27CF6SL._SX300_QL70_The first to follow Ronstadt’s efforts was the spectacularly popular (7X platinum) “Unforgettable…With Love,” Natalie Cole’s 1991 Grammy-winning album of standards, capped by a spooky duet with her long-gone father Nat singing the title song “together” in a bit of remarkable studio trickery.

Cole’s success seemed to open the floodgates as at least a dozen singers tackled the standards, with varying results.  Some were quite good — Carly Simon’s “My Romance” (1990), Boz Scaggs’s “But Beautiful” (2003) and Art Garfunkel’s “Some Enchanted Evening” (2007) come to mind.  Others have fallen flat — Bryan Ferry’s “As Time Goes By” (1999), Michael Bolton’s “Vintage” (2002) and Cyndi Lauper’s “At Last” (2003).

a5-stewartRod Stewart has made an entire second career of it, pumping out five such albums since 2000 with erratic quality but plenty of sales.  Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, two of the best songwriters of the past half-century, recently chose to offer their treatments of songs from their parents’ generation.  (McCartney had the voice to pull it off, but Dylan?  Not on your life.)

In the past 20 years, artists like Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé have become the the new millennium’s version of Sinatra and company, offering credible covers and even a few original tunes that have kept Easy Listening music alive.  Before 320px-Duets_An_American_Classic_album_coverhe died in 1998, Sinatra produced two albums of standards called “Duets” and “Duets II,” which paired “The Chairman of the Board” with major contemporary artists like Bono,Gloria Estefan, Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder and Chrissie Hynde.  More recently, the ageless Tony Bennett has done the same thing, singing his generation’s classics with 21st Century stars like John Legend, Carrie Underwood and John Mayer, and Lady Gaga, with whom he collaborated on an entire album.

So the way we view “our parents’ (or grandparents’) music” has come full circle, from derision and disrespect to admiration and appreciation.  Not all of it, mind you; some of it will always be dismissed as mushy and trite.

I guess there are two conclusions I want to make:

1) There are musical styles to suit every taste.   I don’t care for opera, or hard-core country-western, or gangsta rap, but there plenty of folks who do, and I say, to each his own.  I do enjoy a range of genres, and I try to keep my mind open.  But often, sometimes The_Very_Thought_of_You_(Nat_King_Cole_album)too often, I find myself leaning on “the songs of my youth” because, well, they’re familiar, and they remind me of childhood, or young adulthood, and they make me smile.

Which leads me to:  2) There is always a place for The Oldies.  What constitutes an “oldie,” anyway?  That depends, I suppose, on when it was released, and how old you were when you first heard it.

Easy Listening?  It might be rather safe, tame, non-threatening and old-fashioned…but damn, it can be comforting.  And, by the way, easy to listen to.