As noted in my recent review of a song by Sarah Lee Langford, the Ken Burns documentary on country music, recently airing on PBS here in the U.S., pretty much blew my mind. I may not have been actively anti-country but I was never a fan, just generally ignoring the whole genre. Sixteen hours of spellbinding television later, I have, to paraphrase Hank Williams, seen the light. Not because I now love everything I used to not like, but because I now know the genre’s origin story—the fascinating and circuitous paths both the music and the musicians took through the years, and the differing branches of music that too often gets glumped into one generic bin. It brings a neglected but huge area of music into my range of knowledge and interest and that can only be a good thing. I somehow especially loved learning that the stereotypical look and sound of what most generically has come to be seen and heard as “country music” (the cowboy hats and clothes, the twangy vocals, the banjos and fiddles) was, from the very start, a self-consciously inauthentic effort to sell “old-time” music to everyday people suddenly equipped with radios and record players. The fact that the mainstream version of country music has always been a bit of a marketing ploy was oddly reassuring in a way I can’t exactly explain.
Anyway, yes, here’s a Hank Williams song, in and among the more usual (but still unusual) array of genres and decades, as the Eclectic Playlist Series nears the end of its sixth year. As maybe a tie-in to what I’ve generally done here, I didn’t select a Hank tune from the documentary, but one that I had first heard via Elvis Costello: “Why Don’t You Love Me,” slightly re-named, was the super-short lead track on his out-of-left-field, widely misunderstood record of country music covers back in 1981. Elvis’s version rather defiantly upended the original in a way that in retrospect seems brilliant. If you’ve never heard it, here it is via YouTube. As different as they are I now love both versions.
* You’ll notice that this mix includes three tunes that offer up 21st-century re-boots of artists associated most closely with the 1970s: Jeff Lynne, Blondie, and Robert Plant. Mr. Plant I salute in particular, for managing in our current century to create a new and mature version of his musician self that feels strong and secure. The other two present trickier situations, first and foremost because it’s hard not to suspect economic motivations. But then again, William Shakespeare wrote for money. What counts is the output when all is said and done. Blondie’s 21st-century oeuvre strikes my ears as erratic at best but this little-heard song, from their 2003 album The Curse of Blondie, is mysteriously compelling. As for Jeff Lynne, as off-putting as it is that he has clearly been required to label his new stuff “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” versus Electric Light Orchestra (lawyers no doubt were involved), and as un-hip and written-off as his old band has variously been through the years, the man’s musicianship (he’s playing all the instruments these days), ear for melody (always superb), and vocal chops (I mean, that voice! come on!) seem undiminished by the years. This new one, laced with melancholy, is very ELO-y indeed, and I see nothing wrong with that.
* The new Bon Iver record is nearly as thick with texture and inscrutability as the band’s last one, but with more straightforward vocals and a bit more of an organic feel. It seems to be rewarding repeated listens, but the stately “Hey, Ma” was an immediate winner, to my ears.
* Many years after the somewhat confusing back story marring the True Stories album by Talking Heads has faded from memory, the songs remain in place, and some of them, including this long-time favorite of mine, “Dream Operator,” are terrific indeed. The 1986 album, the band’s seventh, consisted of songs David Byrne had written for a movie of the same name, which he directed and co-wrote. In the movie, the songs were sung by the actors (who included John Goodman and Swoosie Kurtz), in situations that you would have no clue about just listening to the band’s versions. At the time it was all seen as kind of a mess, the movie not well received, the band’s album seen as something betwixt and between, somehow not a “real” Talking Heads album. Adding to the muddle was the release that same year of the album Sounds From True Stories, which was a partial soundtrack recording. In retrospect, the film has gained a bit of cult status, and the album, taken on its own terms, while not the band’s best, is actually pretty good. Hey, Thom Yorke and friends liked it enough to name their band after one of its songs; that’s an impressive seal of approval right there.
* Generally speaking I aim for these playlists to be composed of songs that are each accessible and easy to absorb, because that’s generally my taste. And yet there are times when a song that’s a bit more ornery and/or less straightforward seems like just the thing—especially when couched inside a generally easy-going playlist. Towards that end, we this time encounter Kate Bush’s “Sat In Your Lap,” the lead track from her rather ornery and unstraightforward album, The Dreaming. The album is not an easy listen from start to finish but the more you give yourself over to it, the more engaging it becomes. Plus, if nothing else, this was the album that led, three years later, to the treasure that was and is Hounds of Love, which makes me inclined to keep digging into The Dreaming after all these years.
Full playlist below the widget.
“Tilted” – Christine and the Queens (Christine and the Queens, 2015)
“This Old Heart of Mine” – The Isley Brothers (single, 1966)
“Dream Operator” – Talking Heads (True Stories, 1986)
“Being Number One” – Black Box Recorder (Passionoia, 2003)
“From Out of Nowhere” – Jeff Lynne’s ELO (From Out of Nowhere, 2019)
“Alison” – Slowdive (Souvlaki, 1993)
“Four on Six” – Wes Montgomery (The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, 1960)
“Crayon Angels” – Judee Sill (Judee Sill, 1971)
“3 Bells in a Row” – Tenpole Tudor (Eddie, Old Bob, Dick and Gary, 1981)
“Why Don’t You Love Me” – Hank Williams (single, 1950)
“Freefall” – Laurie Anderson (Bright Red, 1994)
“Rules for Living” – Blondie (The Curse of Blondie, 2003)
“Songs Out of Clay” – Al Stewart (Orange, 1972)
“I Got My Baby Back” – Lorraine Ellison (b-side, 1966)
“Hey, Ma” – Bon Iver (i,i, 2019)
“Sat In Your Lap” – Kate Bush (The Dreaming, 1982)
“Shake Some Action” – The Flamin’ Groovies (Shake Some Action, 1976)
“The Highest Tree” – The Eighteenth Day of May (The Eighteenth Day of May, 2005)
“Power World” – Sam Phillips (Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop), 1996)
“The May Queen” – Robert Plant (Carry Fire, 2017)