“Sonic Boom” – Andy Partridge
As buoyant, crisp, and driven as any number of great XTC songs Partridge wrote in his years as that seminal British band’s principal singer and songwriter. And why shouldn’t it be? This was one of more than 100 songs Partridge had accumulated over a couple of decades that never made it to an XTC album for a variety of reasons. They’ve come to the light of day, along with many alternate recordings of songs XTC did release, on the eight so-called Fuzzy Warbles CDs Partridge has released over the last three years or so. The series has been gathered this fall into one spiffily-designed boxed set (The Fuzzy Warbles Collector Album) that is a crazy overload of songwriting goodness for XTC devotees. From disc number seven, “Sonic Boom” is an ode to loud music—in particular to the role an electric guitar can play in the redemption of a listless teenager—that is not itself, cleverly, a particularly raucous song. (After all, extolling the virtues of loud music in a really loud song would not speak to the unconverted.) Instead we get cheerful, crunchy pop with a really great guitar sound. For me, the siren-like riffs that ring from the intro are the key to the song’s presence and depth. Listen in particular to the second verse, beginning around 0:55, and how the guitar at that point remains in that higher register to puncutate the lyrics with semi-dissonant squawks. And then, wow, the concise guitar solo, from 1:37 to 1:55, is a brilliant bit of controlled chaos that might pass you right by if you don’t pay close attention. As with the vast majority of the songs on all the Fuzzy Warbles CD, the irrepressible Partridge does all the singing and playing.
“Rehab” – Amy Winehouse
I find three things about this song irresistible. First, the glistening retro sound: from the snazzy horn charts and string flourishes to the big drum beats and Winehouse’s sharp, spacious, soulful vocal, everything blends to deliver a loving ’60s sheen that manages at the same time to sound current and new rather than merely nostalgic. Second, that cockeyed refrain in the chorus—the way she drags her recalcitrant “no, no, no” (alternately: “go, go, go”) just a bit off the beat is nutty and beguiling. I don’t know why. The third wonderful thing is how Winehouse–who is quite the notorious (and loose-lipped) carouser over there in the U.K.–manages to turn a song about going through an alcohol recovery program (or, rather, not) into an almost gospel-like stomper. There’s something poignant in the effort, despite the swagger in Winehouse’s voice. “Rehab” is the opening track off Back to Black, the young singer/songwriter’s second CD. Her first album, Frank, came out in 2003 when she was just 20. That one was a jazz-inflected effort that she has since been quoted as saying is an album she never liked. Her new one is shot through with Phil Spector-meets-Motown girl-group sounds from the early ’60s; if “Rehab” is any indication, Winehouse is a well-suited practitioner of that distinctive musical vocabulary. Released on Island Records in the U.K. in October, Back to Black is scheduled for a March release here in the States, on Universal.
“Reflecting Light” – Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips is a musical hero of mine; few if any singer/songwriters I’ve encountered can match her ability to capture poetic insights, sometimes bordering on the genuinely mystical, within the everyday, agreeable realm of the three-minute pop song. Her Beatlesque 1994 masterpiece, Martinis & Bikinis, was a triumph of songwriting and production; her two CDs (so far) of the 21st century have found her working in a starker, quieter setting, with acoustic instruments–the songs on both Fan Dance (2001) and A Boot and a Shoe (2004) often sound as if they were laid down in one room, in one take. A sweet, melancholy waltz from the latter CD, “Reflecting Light” shines with sad spirit and forlorn dignity; there’s a ’20s-like brio to the string arrangement, while hard-earned enlightenment runs through its lyrical veins: “Give up the ground under your feet/Hold onto nothing for good/Turn and run at the mean dogs chasing you/Stand alone and misunderstood.” Phillips’ association with the TV show Gilmore Girls—she wrote the show’s original score and her songs have been prominently featured–has given this song a second life and a slew of fans she would have otherwise never reached. Her next CD, apparently to be called Don’t Do Anything, will be released some time in 2007. And not a moment too soon.