Free and legal MP3: Savannah Gardner

Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure

“Heartbreak River” – Savannah Gardner

There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.

And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.

As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.

Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Magnum Dopus

Post-punk intimations

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” – Magnum Dopus

With a tight, scratchy post-punk rhythm and the rich baritone lead of vocalist Andrew McCarty, the Memphis quintet Magnum Dopus delivers an ear-catching homage to the so-called darkwave edge of ’80s new wave music. Adroit shifts between minor and major keys add to the song’s affecting, Depeche-Mode-y vibe. And while it’s definitely not just McCarty’s voice that makes the song, I do give his voice a lot of credit here. That’s quite a voice.

And yet the real hook, to my ears, is the wordless vocal accents that adorn the chorus (first heard at 1:00). The chorus opens with a sense of clearing, with the insistent scratch of the rhythm guitar abruptly dissipated and the melody easing off the double-time urgency of the verse. McCarty sings the titular phrase (it doesn’t sound much like the titular phrase but I’m assured that it is) and then we get the “oo-oo-oo-oo”s and I don’t know, there’s something in that aural maneuver that underpins the song’s potency. Whether it’s because the “oo-oo”s break the portentous trance a voice like his can induce or simply because the sound of those wordless syllables offers some sort of ineffable finishing touch that you didn’t know the song needed until you heard it, I’m convinced they are what transform the song from passingly good to something I’m now writing about here.

Oh and don’t miss the turbulent, neck-climbing guitar solo (2:31-2:48), which represents another kind of homage in a musical world that has largely devalued not just the guitar but the communal value of a soloist within an ensemble in favor of the relentless car-accident appeal of narcissistic TikTok virtuosity.

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” is the fourth of 10 tracks on Suburbanova, the band’s second full-length album, which was released last month. You can listen to and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Alan Dweck

Stately authority, passionate restraint

“Before” – Alan Dweck

Simple, elegant, and powerful, “Before” is a walking-paced blues-based rocker that converts familiarity to strength through its stately authority. The song reveals itself at its own pace and is concise in its melodic offerings—which is polite way of saying the verse and the chorus are sung to pretty much the same tune–and yet not once does it seem to drag or bore.

Everything in “Before” arrives unruffled and inevitable—instrumental tracks laid down with offhand precision, the underlying beat betraying a subtle swing, and, at the center of attention, Dweck himself with his resonant voice, at once world-weary and hopeful, an underlying fire close to the surface but never fully burning through. Encapsulating the song’s atmosphere of passionate restraint is the lead guitar, content largely with simmering background flourishes. We get a brief solo at 1:42, and an extended one at 3:02, elegiac and resolute, shining with intention but still that sense of something being held back. I mean this in a good way; I am consistently a fan of restraint when it comes to both songwriting and performing, as it almost always speaks to a level of artistry out of range of the “more is more” and/or “look at me!” approach.

Dweck is a veteran musician based in London whose career has taken him around the world, playing for the art of it rather than the commerce—an assumption I’m making based on the fact that there is little in the way of a solid informational trail to follow online beyond the press release describing him as “a globe-trotting artist” who “has continued to move people throughout the years.” “Before” is a single released in August, without a lot of tangential explanation; whether an album is forthcoming is as yet unknown. Wherever he’s been and wherever he’s yet going, the man is well worth listening to in the here and now; don’t miss this one.

I just turned around

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.08 – August 2021

We move on; that’s what survivors do, and we are all survivors now because that’s all any of us lucky enough to be breathing in and out in some safe space or another ever are. To have to be focused on actual surviving is a state too close to not-surviving to register at the time as survival; the rest of us, however, not often concentrating on what it takes to draw each breath, neglect our survivor status with a teenager’s carelessness. But you and me and the person next to you and the one behind them, that’s what we are in the age of COVID-19 and the general idiotic mayhem surrounding us—we are (right now, in this present moment) survivors. If we tend to recognize this mostly in response to someone else’s passing, I suppose that’s only natural; one might, in fact, view grief in part as an expression of the displaced guilt of the survivor.

I’ve been thinking these thoughts in recent days because of the unexpected passing of Nanci Griffith, and I type them up in the aftermath of hearing about Charlie Watts. He was 80; she was 68. The rest of us, right now, survive. Music remains its own sort of immortal presence, recorded music in particular. This strikes me as another reason to be listening to music from our culture’s multifarious decades, which lends to your individual instance of humanity a breadth and depth that ongoing exposure to a limited range of musical expression can’t yield. And what do we have going for us, as survivors, if not our own individual depth? Which we ignore not at our own peril, exactly, but at a price that may yet be extracted from us in some excruciating moment in the future, however near or distant, when our own human fate, as it must be, is sealed. When your days as a survivor are over, how shallow a life do you want to have led? This has nothing to your career accomplishments or your impressive hobbies or how much money you’ve accumulated and everything to do with the connections you’ve made with other people, whether they are in your personal network or via their artistic expression, which links one consciousness to another over time and distance, and which, come to think of it, advantages music over other art forms for its logistical accessibility and focus on only our sense of hearing.

And if that’s not a long-winded and barely relevant introduction to this month’s mix, I don’t know what is. But you may find a few semi-relevant, interweaving themes running through these songs, and maybe even also an ear-catching segue or two. Chapter 8.08 now in the books:

“Canção de Novela” – Adriana Calcanhotto (Seleção Essencial Grandes Sucessos, 2010)
“Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” – Arcade Fire (Funeral, 2004)
“What Do You Hear In These Sounds” – Dar Williams (End of the Summer, 1997)
“Fallen” – Philip Rambow (Shooting Gallery, 1979)
“Another Day, Another Heartache” – The 5th Dimension (Up, Up and Away, 1967)
“Hard Way Home” – Brandi Carlile (Bear Creek, 2012)
“Going Down To Liverpool” – The Bangles (All Over the Place, 1984)
“Emergency Exit” – Beck (Guero, 2005)
“Wade in the Water” – Ramsey Lewis (Wade in the Water, 1966)
“Two By Two” – Nils Lofgren (Nils Lofgren, 1975)
“You’ll Never Be So Wrong” – Kim Wilde (Kim Wilde, 1981)
“The War in the Gulf Between Us” – Adrian Belew (Inner Revolution, 1992)
“Smile” – Lily Allen (Alright, Still, 2006)
“Complainte pour Ste-Catherine” – Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 1976)
“Survival” – Adult Mom (Momentary Lapse of Happily, 2015)
“I Was Made To Love Her” – Stevie Wonder (I Was Made To Love Her, 1967)
“Caution” – The Killers (Imploding the Mirage, 2020)
“Genius” – Warren Zevon (My Ride’s Here, 2002)
“When I Dream” – The Teardrop Explodes (Kilimanjaro, 1980)
“Across the Great Divide” – Nanci Griffith (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1993)

Random notes:

* The loss of any favored musician comes as a blow but when death arrives at too-young an age it induces a particular jolt. Nanci Griffith was but 68 when she died, of causes yet to be announced. As talented a songwriter as she was, it was her album of cover songs, Other Voices, Other Rooms, that turned me from casual fan to much more attentive follower when it came out in 1993. She indeed had a magical way with covers; I’ll always remember seeing her take on the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” in concert and being moved by the peculiar power a newly interpreted version of a familiar song can possess, given the right voice, arrangement, and artistic vision. (She never put that one on an album that I’m aware of, but here’s a roughly recorded live version.) Now then, you can read all sorts of tributes to her that have been posted in the last couple of weeks, and I’d encourage you to, but for my money the best thing to do right away is watch this meticulous compilation on YouTube of all of Nanci’s appearances on David Letterman’s shows (both Late Night and The Late Show). Dave’s ongoing, heartfelt appreciation of this masterly, somewhat offbeat singer/songwriter is touching beyond words, especially now.

* Kim Wilde is one of those artists whose worldwide success (10 million albums sold) never translated into much recognition in the U.S. (Wikipedia tells me that her 17 top-40 UK hits in the ’80s made her the most charted British female solo act of that decade.) And it’s not like she didn’t get a strong introduction here: “Kids in America” was a reasonable hit with quite a long shelf life. But despite the strength of the rest of her debut album she ended up pretty much of a one-hit wonder with those very same kids in America, getting little to no attention here for any of the 13 albums which followed, including the relatively recent Here Come the Aliens, released in 2018. “You’ll Never Be So Wrong” is a track dating back to the 1981 debut, and happens to have been written by her brother Ricky and her father, the early British rock’n’roller Marty Wilde, whose later version of the same song appeared on a ’90s retrospective album of his.

* I don’t know of many songs that are about therapy, but the Dar Williams song “What Do You Hear In These Sounds” definitely is, and contains this deep and delightful lyric: “And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think/ That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink/ But oh how I loved everybody else/ When I finally got to talk so much about myself.”

* Like most people. probably, I’ve long associated the 5th Dimension with their good-natured but somewhat cornball hits—“Up, Up and Away” being perhaps the epitome of both their success and their easy-listening inclination. But Questlove’s recent documentary, Summer Of Soul, about the long-forgotten but monumental Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 gave me new eyes and ears through which to see and hear this pioneering singing group, and sent me off listening to tracks of theirs that didn’t turn into big hits; in the process I came across “Another Day, Another Heartache.” This was actually the second single released from their debut album, after their Mamas and the Papas cover “Go Where You Wanna Go.” The cover made it to #16, but “Another Day, Another Heartache” didn’t crack the top 40. Luckily for everyone, the record company persisted, trying another single from the album, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous title track. “Up, Up and Away” went to #7 in the US, and established the group as hitmakers for the next four or five years. Me, I kind of prefer their somewhat harder-rocking sound, and also really appreciated hearing thoughts and reminiscences from the group’s two main voices in the Questlove film, which is well worth seeing.

* Warren Zevon as a teenager was briefly mentored by Igor Stravinsky. You can occasionally hear the classical composer he never became showing through the seams of his rock’n’roll.

* Remember Lily Allen? In some ways, in retrospect, the first half or so of the ’00s seems like its own little world—definitely not the ’90s anymore, but before the iPhone, disguised as your best friend, intruded on our culture, our psyches, our general well-being. “Smile” comes to us from the edge of that transition, and somehow sounds like as much of a breath of fresh air now as it did then, if not more so. Allen herself has been through the invidious gauntlet we manage to reserve for young women who make a pop cultural impact; her musical life has been intermittently interrupted if not derailed by a variety of circumstances, some beyond her control, some not. She seems now to be focusing on her acting, and this month, coincidentally enough (I just noticed it while typing this), made her West End debut in the play 2:22 A Ghost Story.

* That guitar solo in “Caution”? It’s Lindsey Buckingham.

* Born in Montreal, and borrowing his stage name, phonetically, from the French poet, Philip Rambow had a historically interesting run in his early years as a musician in the ’70s, personally traversing the territory from pub rock to glam rock to new wave, working and/or cavorting with the likes of Brian Eno, Mick Ronson, Ellen Foley, and Kirsty MacColl, among others, along the way. (Side note for fellow Kirsty devotees: Rambow co-wrote her first UK hit, “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” and played on her debut album, Desperate Character.) “Fallen” was the lead single from the first of two solo albums he released during the new wave era, but it kind of has its own rollicking sound about it that doesn’t have that much to do with what was going on otherwise in 1979. Rambow ended up leaving the music business for a couple of decades, re-emerging to play at a Kirsty MacColl tribute concert following her tragic death in Mexico in 2000. His 2014 album Whatever Happened to Philip Rambow? is perhaps self-explanatory, and he appears since then to have re-started his musical career; 2020 saw the release of his latest album, Canadiana.

Free and legal MP3: The Color Forty Nine

Plaintive bilingual waltz, w/ horns

“What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” – The Color Forty Nine

A song with a recurring instrumental motif separate from the central melody is, to my ears, almost always a worthy enterprise. When that recurring instrumental motif is performed by a plaintive trumpet, as with “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?,” all the better. What I’m talking about specifically is the trumpet melody first heard in between the lyrics at 0:27, and which continues to ground the song in alluring melancholy the rest of the way. The horns—there is more than the one trumpet as we get going—have a beautiful Mexican vibe, reinforcing the song’s bilingual setting. The music, with its 3/4-time sway, lulls the ear while the English lyrics offer impressions and hints; this is one of those songs where you feel what’s going on at a level below concrete awareness. Which is to say I have no idea what the song is actually saying but that doesn’t seem to matter; I still get it.

The lyrics alternate between Spanish and English while the music alternates between major- and minor-key melodies. Every touch along the way seems ideal: the violin that weaves itself into the mix, the group vocals that bolster the chorus (which consists only of the song title, in both languages), the ongoing shifts in the horn charts, the false ending at 3:27, the subsequent coda. With its gentle folk-music sensibility and expressive craft, the song washes over the spirit, seeming to carry with it a sort of wisdom of the ages.

The Color Forty Nine is a San Diego-based quartet. The Spanish lyrics here are sung by guest vocalist Rubén Albarrán of the band Café Tacvba, from the suburbs of Mexico City. “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” is a song from The Color Forty Nine’s second album, String Ladders, which was released last month.

Free and legal MP3: The Joy Formidable

Dream pop w/ a triplet-based swing

“Into The Blue” – The Joy Formidable

Thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da, thum-pi-da, THUM-pi-da: The swinging, triplet-based backbeat that launches “Into the Blue,” offset by scratchy and thoughtful guitar arpeggios, evokes something deep and disregarded in the history of rock’n’roll. What I think we’re hearing here is the ghost of doo-wop, and while doo-wop has never been my thing (I’m old but I’m not quite that old!), it feels invigorating to hear in the context of a song so otherwise rooted in the 21st century.

Layered on top of the backbeat comes a marvelous mixture of light and shadow, melody and noise, liberation and complication. The song takes a terrific turn early on, at 1:08, when front woman Ritzy Bryan is displaced for a verse on vocals by bassist Rhydian Dafydd, who sings an alternate but related melody that strikes the ears as newly urgent. Even if—this again—it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in the lyrics, the introduction of the other person’s point of view in what sounds like a relationship-centric song intensifies the circumstances, adroitly signaling the communication issue the song seems to be about.

Through it all keep your ears on Bryan’s guitar work—the discrete notes she slips in here and there, the occasionally heard squeak of fingers on strings, and in particular how she sometimes just starts playing her own thing (example at 1:56) as a sort of combination counter-melody/counter-rhythm to the song’s determined drive forward.

The Joy Formidable is a trio founded in Wales, although Dafydd and Bryan have been living in Utah, of all places, in recent years. (The band’s third member is drummer Matthew James.) “Into The Blue” as a single has been out since March, but is soon to emerge as the title track to the fifth Joy Formidable album, arriving later this month. MP3 via KEXP. You can buy the album in a variety of formats on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Shadwick Wilde

Gentle pandemic ballad

“When All of This Is Over” – Shadwick Wilde

Strangely enough we have another song this month based on a triplet rhythm, in this case a deliberate acoustic ballad expressing an all too common yearning during the Great Lockdown, as we have long been daydreaming about the return of something resembling normalcy. The song came out back in April but seems, alas, ongoingly relevant.

And while earnest singer/songwriters with simple acoustic guitar licks often stray, in my opinion, into the maudlin and/or mundane (or both), there’s something affecting to me about the ambiance here; the sincerity is not over-delivered, and the music, enhanced with tasteful string arrangements, pushes forward with an air of enigmatic buoyancy despite the mournful tone. The tune is straightforward but well-built, while the lyrics hit that alluring middle ground between the literal and the figurative: while the listener clearly knows what he’s singing about, the pandemic is brought to the table only via mention of those things we might do again on the other side. This accomplishes two interrelated things: it makes the song about something larger than our current difficulties, and it nudges us towards a sense of hope through the struggle. And while the song lacks any obvious connection to the activism championed in her writings, there’s something here that reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s view of hope: “Hope,” she says, “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” I feel guided towards this spaciousness in Wilde’s reminder of the larger context of human existence; as he sings offhandedly near the end: “How lucky we are/To be orbiting this particular star/At this particular distance.”

Shadwick Wilde is a Kentucky-based singer/songwriter who is also founder in 2010 of the fluid musical collective Quiet Hollers, which has released three albums to date.

A crack in the door

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.07 – July 2021

Did I speak too soon last month about not wearing a mask? I did. But the pleasures of interacting with unmasked faces remain real, if somewhat mitigated one month later by the need to keep the spread tamped down with the new variant elbowing its way around the country (in some places more vigorously than others). It remains true that the vast majority of new cases are rising among the unvaccinated; the fact that there remain people putting energy into protesting events that require masks would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. What’s next?: protesting at the airport because they require you to have a ticket to get on a plane? People around the world are clamoring for the very vaccines that a determined group of raging American idiots refuse to take. Perhaps the ongoing moral of the story is this tiresome one: that internet-disseminated ignorance remains the bane of our century to date. (As Rachel Cusk’s narrator in her brilliant novel Second Place writes, “Whatever power it is that I have, it’s nothing compared to the power of stupidity.”) Personally I’ve been wondering lately about what evolutionary purpose stupidity serves, because it seems as persistent as the cockroach.

Moving (thankfully) on to the playlist, this one as usual has a little bit of a lot of different things, mixing the familiar with the less familiar, rock and pop with soul and jazz, the new wave with the old guard, and sprinkled throughout with a batch of 21st-century goodies; a vague sense of summer is in the air but mostly by accident. While on many days I wonder at the foolishness of my endeavor here—today’s music scene seems definitively to have hoisted my taste and perspective into a box gathering dust in our cultural attic—I try to rise above the doubts by reminding myself that fashion is a different filter than quality, and however many people are out there chasing shiny objects, there remains a persistent bloc of artists who care about longer-standing standards of craft and musicality. Thus the aforementioned “21st-century goodies,” as well as my inclination to circulate them in and among quality songs from decades gone by. It’s a quixotic task at best; if you’re out there listening I appreciate your time and attention more than you know.

“Complex” – Tristen (Aquatic Flowers, 2021)
“I Want More” – CAN (Flow Motion, 1976)
“Bernadette” – The Four Tops (Reach Out, 1967)
“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics (single, 2015)
“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” – Andrew Bird (The Mysterious Production of Eggs, 2004)
“Houses in Motion” – Talking Heads (Remain in Light, 1980)
“Wonder” – Natalie Merchant (Tigerlily, 1995)
“Don’t Let Me Down Again” – Buckingham Nicks (Buckingham Nicks, 1975)
“Song For My Father” – The Horace Silver Quintet (Song For My Father, 1964)
“Tom The Model” – Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man (Out Of Season, 2002)
“Sleep All Summer” – Neko Case, w/ Eric Bachmann (Hell-On, 2018)
“Linger” – The Cranberries (Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
“More Love” – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Make It Happen, 1968)
“Life In Tokyo” – Japan (Assemblage, 1981)
“Poison My Cup” – Shannon McArdle (Summer of the Whore, 2008)
“At Attention” – Northern Portrait (single, 2020)
“Scattered” – The Kinks (Phobia, 1993)
“Swimming” – Tracey Thorn (Love and Its Opposite, 2011)
“Boxcars” – Joe Ely (Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1978)
“Morning Come” – Marianne Faithfull (A Child’s Adventure, 1983)

Random notes:

* Tristen has been doing her adroitly-crafted indie singer/songwriter rock’n’roll for more than a decade (she made her Fingertips debut back in 2010, for what it’s worth). To my ears her music sounds far more expansive and curious about the world than the music her somewhat younger and more well-known one-named peers have been recently making. Tristen’s latest album is Aquatic Flowers, released in June.

* I am only peripherally familiar with the work of the avant-garde, improvisational German band CAN but they do present me with the irresistible challenge of figuring out how to work something of theirs into a playlist here. That said, the band did have a certain number of songs that managed to be hits in their native land, “I Want More” being one of them. And they were super-influential among a certain arty sort of rock’n’roller; note for instance a certain CAN-iness to the Talking Heads track a few slots down in the playlist. And while three of the original four members are no longer alive, the band does have a thorough presence on Bandcamp, where you can listen to and purchase all of their (intermittently impenetrable) albums.

* Why was Buckingham Nicks, the one-off duo album recorded by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, a commercial failure in 1973 when the two of them joining Fleetwood Mac shortly thereafter is what ended up generating Fleetwood Mac’s monstrous success? It seems mysterious in retrospect, given how similar the sound of this album is to music that became hugely popular on the Fleetwood Mac album released two years later. (One song, in fact, from Buckingham Nicks—“Crystal”—later appeared on the landmark 1975 album.) Chalk it up, apparently, to colossal promotional mismanagement. But given the messy/unpleasant interpersonal history involved, there does seem something star-crossed about Buckingham Nicks, which has yet to this day to have an official digital release, either on CD or via any streaming service. (High-priced unofficial copies can be had, however, because the internet.)

* “Scattered” is the closing track on Phobia, the 24th and final studio album by the Kinks. While Ray Davies’ material grew a little wobbly as the band sputtered out of the late ’80s, he could always be counted on for two or three unusually good songs even on lesser releases. If this, as is likely, remains the last official original Kinks song of the band’s storied career, it’s a strong farewell indeed. Then again, I personally could listen to that man sing just about anything. What a voice.

* A slow burner with a stellar chorus, Neko Case’s “Sleep All Summer” features Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf) on co-vocals. As the lyrics are more suggestive than conclusive, this is one of those songs whose inherent drama is linked more to the sound, vocal quality; you do however get the strong sense that something deep is going down here. Case’s 2018 album Hell-On was a lot to take in at the time, as the mighty singer/songwriter has taken to writing and singing increasingly complex “pop” songs, so it took me a while to find this one.

* Speaking of vocal quality, any excuse to place Tracey Thorn into a playlist I will gladly take.

* Earlier this year I featured a Keith Jarrett song that Steely Dan borrowed from to create their song “Gaucho.” This month I stumbled on and am here including another jazz piece the Dan utilized (pilfered?), in the Horace Silver Quintet’s “Song For My Father”: that introductory keyboard riff (minus, interestingly, its first note) is employed in the same position in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which turned out to be Steely Dan’s most successful single. I’m not sure how the riff manages to be so simple and so distinctive at the same time but it’s easy to see why Fagen and Becker felt the need to re-use it.

* The ever-mysterious, ongoingly elusive Beth Gibbons, front woman for the iconic trio Portishead, has released one solo album, 2002’s Out Of Season, which she made along with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (calling himself Rustin Man for reasons never explained). As scintillating as her performances have been with Portishead, this album—which I circle back to every few years, wanting at some point to love it, not quite getting there—has always felt somewhat off, in part because of the music’s bleary iciness, in part because of Gibbons’ puzzling inclination towards Billie Holiday mimicry. And yet the album still casts enough a spell to stay in long-term rotation. And this new flash: after years of inactivity, Paul Webb has abruplty released two Rustin Man albums in recent years, one in 2019 and one in 2020.

If I could make sense of it all

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.06

Suddenly it’s summer time and, for some of us fortunate ones, it’s also rather suddenly semi-normal again. Disconcerting but encouraging. Turns out it’s super easy to get used to walking around without a mask and without steering clear of fellow pedestrians. And smiling at people!: if only the anti-mask lunatics had centered their arguments around the idea that being unable to smile at people is really harmful to one’s psyche they might at least have been making a reasonable point. As for this month’s mix, I’m just going to get out of the way and let it unfold for you. Part of me feels it’s a bit of a strange ride, and yet I kind of needed all these songs in this particular order, which is as follows:

“Act of the Apostle” – Belle and Sebastian (The Life Pursuit, 2006)
“You Better Move On” – Arthur Alexander (single, 1961)
“I Want To Run” – Mates of States (You’re Going to Make It, 2015)
“School Days” – Stanley Clarke (School Days, 1976)
“When I Get It Right” – Joan Armatrading (Walk Under Ladders, 1981)
“Here Today” – The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds, 1966)
“All I Want” – Sarah Blasko (As Day Follows Night, 2009)
“Barbed Wire Heart” – The Sinners (Piece By Piece, 1990)
“Satta Massagana” – The Abyssinians (Satta Massagana, 1976)
“Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten (Tramp, 2012)
“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” – Robbie Robertson (Robbie Robertson, 1987)
“Unleashed” – Christine Fellows (Roses on the Vine, 2018)
“Live As You Dream” – Beth Orton (Trailer Park, 1996)
“Children of Coincidence” – Dory Previn (We’re Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx, 1975)
“Hey Now Now” – The Cloud Room (The Cloud Room, 2005)
“Me and My Machine” – The Easybeats (demo, 1968; released on The Shame Just Drained, 1977)
“Forget Me Nots” – Patrice Rushen (Straight From The Heart,1982)
“Monday” – Wilco (Being There, 1996)
“On Melancholy Hill” – Gorillaz (Plastic Beach, 2010)
“Glenfern” – Kathleen Edwards (Total Freedom, 2020)

Stray observations:

* The internet tells me that Arthur Alexander is the only songwriter whose songs have been covered on studio albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. If true it’s a fine bit of trivia. In any case, Alexander was a much admired songwriter in the early ’60s who never really got his due as a performer; he died in 1993 at the age of 53. “You Better Move On” was, in fact, covered by the Stones, whose version is styled rather precisely after Alexander’s original.

* While Sharon Van Etten’s profile has grown mightily in the past few years, it was the 2012’s Tramp that put her onto my personal radar–in particular the single “Serpents,” which I featured in December 2011. You can read what I made of it at the time (“sizzling, guitar-driven drama” were among the words employed); she’s had a mysterious pull on me ever since. (Note that the free download is still available.)

* As much as Pet Sounds has been revered and discussed, almost more here in the 21st century than in the preceding decades, one song that seems ever to slip through the cracks is “Here Today.” Me, I love it to pieces. That wordless vocal section, with its galumphing orchestral accompaniment and its ascending melody line, and the way it separates the word “Here” from the word “today” (as well as “gone” from “tomorrow”)? So so good; despite the ostensibly negative message, the song feels uplifting and smile-inducing to me.

* Kathleen Edwards re-emerged in 2020 after eight years away from music, most of which she spent running a coffee shop in suburban Ottawa. I wanted to love Total Freedom more than I (so far) do, but “Glenfern,” the opening track, is vintage KE. The rest may yet grow on me.

* The Easybeats were a Kinks-adjacent mid-’60s-ish band from Australia whom no one here would have heard of in the slightest were it not for their having written and recorded one of rock’n’roll’s signature “can’t-wait-for-the-weekend” songs, “Friday On My Mind.” Here in the US that was pretty much all we got from them until someone decided to put out a B-sides and stray tracks compilation in 1977 called The Shame Just Drained. The two creative forces behind the Easybeats, Harry Vanda and George Young, went on to form the strange but compelling band Flash and the Pan, where their knack for writing catchy melodies found an interesting new setting. “Me and My Machine” is on the one hand a throwaway, and on the other hand a marvelous bit of semi-dramatic, vintage pop-rock with the rarely encountered “killer verse” (as opposed to the more pedestrian killer chorus).

Free and legal MP3: Ruby Gilbert

Authoritative (Australian) Americana, with trumpet

“No Vacancy” – Ruby Gilbert

With an authoritative Americana brio reminiscent of early Neko Case, Ruby Gilbert is the real deal, her depth of voice matched by a knack for composition and presentation. From its opening acoustic strum–minor-key and assertive–“No Vacancy” feels at once sturdy and adventurous, with its casually resourceful chord changes and, yes, that trumpet. About which more in a moment.

Gilbert begins a story of frustrated romance with an incisive opening couplet: “My baby’s only got eyes for me/But he’s got his sights set on leaving.” The underlying premise here seems to be that all romances, however brilliant at first, will come to an end; the song’s narrator seems oppressed by this hard-won knowledge (“I don’t get no rest,” she sings, “I hear it in my head, tick and tock”).

The ache of being left alone is mirrored in the song’s musical landscape, which aligns with that particularly appealing strain of Americana music that I hear as “lonesome.” I’m not sure precisely what may generally create this impression–something in the spaciousness of the mix, I’m guessing, and/or some well-placed slide guitar lines; reverbed vocals help–but “No Vacancy” ups the ante with artful flourishes from an echoey trumpet, courtesy of Eamon Dilworth. I wouldn’t have realized this in advance but damn if that trumpet doesn’t (somehow) sound like the epitome of “lonesome Western sound.”

Ruby Gilbert is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane with a handful of recordings to date and, I hope, a bright future ahead. “No Vacancy” was released in March. She has an earlier single, “Slave,” from this past October, and a four-song EP, entitled Dearly Beloved, that came out in June 2018. You can hear everything, and buy everything at a price of your choosing, via Bandcamp.