We tried but there was nothing we could do (Eclectic Playlist Series 6.09 – Sept. 2019)

I started this playlist more towards the beginning of this month, and had landed on opening with “Since You’re Gone,” only to bump within days into the sad news of Ric Ocasek’s passing. This was always one of my favorite, less-heralded Cars songs; in it, Ocasek sounded, to my ears, a bit more emotionally tender than the icier and/or more ironic tone he employed more generally, and to great effect I might add. Tenderer doesn’t necessarily makes the song better, but in this case the hint of poignancy strikes me as a sort of magic ingredient. And, randomly, I’ve always loved “I took the big vacation” as a wayward description of heartache and its aftermaths. The fact that Ocasek was indeed 75 was a bit disconcerting; he was the same generation as the first wave of classic rock stars, even as he did not fully emerge on the rock’n’roll scene for ten additional years or so. In retrospect his extra experience may well have been one of the secrets of the Cars’ success; they weren’t just another bunch of 20-something wannabes hopping on the new wave bandwagon—they were savvy musicians, helping to create the bandwagon in the first place. I’ve always felt the Cars to be underrated in the annals of rock music. The outpouring occasioned by Ocasek’s death was a sign that this music had more substance and style than his band was often given credit for.

A few random notes:

* I don’t know as much about reggae as I’d ultimately like to; my ears too often hear reggae songs generically, for lack of better awareness. But every now and then a reggae tune slays me melodically, and “Book of Rules” is one of those. I really have to go dive into the sub-genre known as rocksteady, because it’s starting to seem to me that the reggae songs I most enjoy are related to this sound. In any case, this one is so good; thanks to the mighty curators at Radio Paradise for introducing it to me.

* For all the critical fuss that was made about new wave style power pop in and around 1978 to 1981, this became one of those moments in music history where a few well-worn (but, don’t get me wrong, absolutely fantastic) songs stand in for the entire period. There’s “Starry Eyes,” there’s “Another Girl, Another Planet,” a few other chestnuts, and there’s your power pop. Of course there were more bands and more songs now partially lost to the ages, most, probably for good reason–just glomming onto a coveted sound doesn’t guarantee quality. One band perhaps not entirely deserving of its obscure fate was the London band The Keys. Although a major-label release, on A&M, produced by none other than Joe Jackson, this was never widely heard; coming near the end of the original vinyl age and never ending up released as a CD didn’t help. Neither did the colossally generic album cover. But “I Don’t Wanna Cry” does have the sound of a missed power pop classic. Now you don’t have to miss it.

* Tom Waits, man. Check out that chord progression on “And if you don’t want my love/Don’t make me stay.” Gorgeousness wrapped in sandpaper, which somehow makes it extra gorgeous.

* Most people know the late Robert Palmer, if at all, for his ’80s and ’90s output, both solo and with the briefly popular “supergroup,” The Power Station. But he had made a lot of music of quite a different ilk back in the ’70s, aiming at a sound that sprang eclectically from New Orleans-style funk and soul, with a dash of Caribbean influence as well. “Best of Both Worlds” epitomizes the breezy, sophisticated pop of his pre-MTV days. Simpler times, people, simpler times.

* I can’t decide if 2004, back when Fingertips was a year old, seems like only yesterday or forever ago. These days I’m leaning towards forever ago. In any case, Nellie McKay’s playful, variegated double-disc debut album, Get Away From Me, came out that year, on Columbia Records, to a good amount of critical acclaim and a certain amount of radio play back in that more innocent age. (Note the album’s sly rejoinder to Norah Jones’ blockbuster Come Away With Me.) “David” sounded charming back then and maybe even a bit more so now, if only for how unlikely it would be for someone to release something like this today. McKay proved to be too idiosyncratic and un-tameable for a major record label. She has released six albums since then, including three albums of cover songs. She’s been on Broadway, she is an outspoken advocate for human and animal rights, and is in general one of those folks not easily pigeonholed into one category. As none of us should be, if you think about it.

Full playlist below the widget.

“Since You’re Gone” – The Cars (Shake It Up, 1982)
“Wisteria” – Death and the Maiden (Wisteria, 2018)
“Book of Rules” – The Heptones (Book of Rules, 1973)
“Backdrifts” – Radiohead (Hail to the Thief, 2003)
“Little Bird” – Annie Lennox (Diva, 1992)
“Just Say You’re Wanted (and Needed) – Gwen Owens (single, 1966)
“Me and the Farmer” – The Housemartins (The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, 1987)
“Best of Both Worlds” – Robert Palmer (Double Fun, 1978)
“Night in Tunisia” – Dizzy Gillespie (1946 recording)
“Patience of Angels” – Eddi Reader (Eddi Reader, 1994)
“Sing to Me” – Cumulus (Comfort World, 2018)
“Ordinary Joe” – Terry Callier (Occasional Rain, 1972)
“David” – Nellie McKay (Get Away From Me, 2004)
“I Don’t Wanna Cry” – The Keys (The Keys Album, 1981)
“Don’t You Care” – The Buckinghams (Time & Charges, 1967)
“Celebrity Skin” – Hole (Celebrity Skin, 1998)
“Back in the Crowd” – Tom Waits (Bad As Me, 2011)
“Without You” – Sasha Dobson (Modern Romance, 2006)
“Lovefool” – The Cardigans (First Band on the Moon, 1996)
“Ships in the Night” – Be Bop Deluxe (Sunburst Finish, 1976)

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