(Note from the future–November 6, to be precise: The original post accompanying this playlist in October has gotten lost in the transition to the new hosting service and the accompanying site redesign. It’s maybe just as well–that post was a pre-election rant that, while still relevant to the extent that our country remains deeply wounded by misinformation and disinformation, we at least managed to elect a decent human being. That the horrific man currently occupying the White House wasn’t rejected by everyone is worrisome to say the least. How awful would a person have to be, now, to be obviously unworthy of elected office? Not a rhetorical question. Anyway: here’s the playlist.)
“Worried Man Blues” – The Carter Family (1930 recording) “You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker, 2016) “Don’t Talk To Me About Love” – Altered images (Bite, 1983) “Bloodline’ – Orenda Fink (Invisible Ones, 2005) “13 Questions” – Seatrain (Seatrain, 1970) “Vow” – Garbage (Garbage, 1995) “Thousands are Sailing” – The Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987) “Ole Man Trouble” – Otis Redding (Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, 1965) “Shark Smile” – Big Thief (Capacity, 2017) “Bored By Dreams” – Marianne Faithfull (A Secret Life, 1994) “Sing the Changes” – The Fireman (Electric Arguments, 2008) “Can You Get To That” – Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, 1971) “Everything Works If You Let It” – Cheap Trick (All Shook Up, 1980) “Here Goes Nothing” – Jess Cornelius (Distance, 2020) “Dusty Trails Theme” – Dusty Trails (Dusty Trails, 2000) “Say Goodbye” – Sophie Barker (Seagull, 2011) “Someday, Someway” – The Marvelettes (b-side, 1962) “Put The Message in the Box” – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo, 1990) “The Walls Are Coming Down” – Fanfarlo (Reservoir, 2009) “I Know The End” – Phoebe Bridgers (Punisher, 2020)
Those who found Sufjan Stevens at his most engaging in his electronic-oriented, Age of Adz phase, as I somehow did, will be happy to see the idiosyncratic musical auteur back in a similar sonic setting on his new album, The Ascension. The two albums may have little in common attitudinally, but I don’t pretend to pay extra close attention to lyrics, especially when they are as generally inscrutable as Stevens’ output. It’s the sound I’m absorbing, a sound I consider more appealing somehow than the chamber pop pastiche of his acclaimed earlier albums. Apparently The Ascension‘s aural landscape was rooted in the reality of his having to put most of his musical equipment in storage after getting kicked out of his Brooklyn apartment. Lemons from lemonade in this case.
I do however heed lyrics broadly enough to understand that Stevens has over the course of the century managed to morph from something of a wide-eyed, naive mystic into someone who sees the world with the veils removed. Here in the insistent-sounding “Video Game” he seems to be employing the concept of a video game as a metaphor for our 21st-century focus on surface-level digital interaction and viral popularity. With palpable exasperation, he sings:
I don’t wanna play your video game I don’t care if it’s a popular refrain I don’t wanna be a puppet in a theater I don’t wanna play your video game
Musically the song achieves a lot with a relative little. The introduction opens with a plaintive synth riff that’s given space to establish the wistful mood even when the beat kicks in. The beat itself is modest, all but mid-tempo; what propels the song is the double-time melody, with its relentless return to that central conviction: “I don’t wanna play your video game.” Regardless of the song’s actual genesis, one can imagine this born from his having received one too many random inquiries from well-intentioned but intrusive strangers. He has in any case latched onto that corrosive consequence of having transformed ourselves into a culture forever trolling for “likes.” Where in this place is there room for the purely human versus the calculatedly capitalistic? The glee with which so many people have embraced the idea of being a personal brand is discomfiting; as Stevens said in an interview with The Atlantic: “We’ve indulged in the cult of personality so far that we have a TV celebrity for a president.” And we’ve seen where that leads.
Gracefully built and sumptuously presented, “Occasionally” is gorgeous from end to end. Singer/songwriter Lydia Luce entices you first with the verse’s easy-flowing melodies, then all but pierces your heart with the swelling grandeur of the chorus. There is first of all that ear-catching way she lands on the “wrong” note (but very much the right note) at 1:08, on the second syllable of “away.” This then sets up a couple of yearning upward melodic sweeps before a definitive resolution at 1:24. Luce, a classically-trained violinist and violist, uses strings with a lovely touch, adding to the rich vibe while steering clear of both cliché and sentimentality (a good example is the interlude that follows the first chorus at 1:25, with the strings first in conversation with what sounds like a chime-like synthesizer, then taking a short lead before wrapping up with enticing restraint).
And the bonus here is that Luce is a serious instrumentalist in possession of a seriously enchanting singing voice. I’m guessing that her instrumental training may be at least partially responsible for how skillfully she employs her voice’s dynamic range—not just higher and lower notes but softer and louder tones as well. Her voice has a warm depth reminiscent of k.d. lang, and while this may be most obviously on display in the chorus’s heroic moments, I’m equally impressed with how golden and welcoming she sounds when she’s barely singing at all, as for instance in the opening moments of the verse (starting at 0:12). She makes this conversational segment of the song sound both casual and deeply felt, which lends the song a rather stunning tenderness right from the outset. One last thing to notice is how aptly the title word is sung, with its second syllable drawn out just as one might for emphasis in conversation. It’s another subtle sign of just how robust a song and a performance this is.
“Occasionally” is a single released last week, and will be the opening track on Luce’s second full-length album, Dark River, which is coming in February. Her first album, Azalea, was released in 2018.
Arriving in 2020 straight from 1965 or so, “Sun Gun” pays nifty homage to a variety of classic British rockers from an era when sturdy melodies poured out of rock bands like sunshine in August, tinged by an awareness of the psychedelia on the near horizon. The Zombies, the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, they’re all in here, in the jangly guitars, the sweet spacey sing-along chorus, the swell of background harmonies, and the general sense that tea was involved along the way. If you’re not careful you’ll notice a soupçon of young-ish David Bowie in the air, or maybe Marc Bolan, and in any case the Arthurs make a nice case for grounding the entirety of glam rock, by all accounts arising in the early ’70s, in those earlier mid-’60s sounds.
The trick in all this is not to sound like a tribute band, and although it’s hard to point to any one thing they’re doing that shifts things into the 21st century, I am nevertheless getting a strong whiff of present-day creativity here. At which point I should note that the original version of this song on the album is more than nine minutes long, during which it definitely becomes its own sort of trip. (Here’s a link to the full version if you’re curious and have some extra time on your hands.) Personally I didn’t think the song quite justified its length; and yet, oddly, now that I’ve been living with the shorter version, I do have a sense that it could be longer. (Some people are never satisfied it seems.)
In any case, what really sells me on “Sun Gun,” in either length, is the brilliance of the classic-sounding chorus, which gathers an impressive amount of heft as the song progresses. This is partially due to restraint—we only hear the chorus three times in this edited version. The verse melody is different but with a similar rhythm and feel so it works to reinforce and familiarize the ear while at the same time allowing the chorus when it pops in to feel extra memorable.
The Arthur Brothers self-identify as an “artistic alliance” grounded in the work of brothers Matt and Danny Arthur and songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist J.C. Wright. They are based in London. “Sun Gun” is the final track on their debut album, Nine, which was released last month. You can listen to the album and buy it via Bandcamp.
“Looking Happy” matches an angular guitar riff that would do 1978 proud against lyrics bemoaning the reality of seeing an ex moving on with their life on social media. (We could only dream about the existence of social media back in ’78, although perhaps they would have been nightmares.) This is perhaps the subtlest of a few intriguing juxtapositions that characterize this tuneful, bittersweet song. There’s also the way the music’s upbeat energy counters, at every moment, the disconsolate lyrics. Relatedly, if you’ve ever heard a more sorrowful vocal tone matched against a song with the word “happy” in the title I’d like to hear about it. The fact that Reddy sings with such a palpable ache in such an energetic setting is itself a notable and engaging mismatch.
Best of all, though, is the music itself: sharply paced, tightly executed, and lit up by Reddy’s elastic voice, with its affecting upward leaps in the chorus (first heard at 0:38). An especially fetching vocal moment is wordless vocal break (1:00-:04); I love the descending swoop and then the finishing two-note punctuation—and then the fact that you hear this just once and it’s gone. This is the wonderful way concise rock songs work (this one clocks in just over three minutes)—nothing is belabored, nothing overstays its welcome. Check out for instance the synthesizer blurts that enter around 2:32, punctuating the song’s closing half-minute with a “ta-da!” kind of feeling. They show up, do their thing, and we’re done.
Ailbhe Reddy is a singer/songwriter based in Dublin. “Looking Happy” is a track from Reddy’s debut album Personal History, which was released earlier this month. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it, over at Bandcamp.