You don’t need me to remind you what a poisonous year this has been so I’ll sidestep the rants and simply express gratitude for surviving, gratitude to everyone who has persevered, everyone who has displayed resilience in the face of 2020’s twin plagues (COVID-19, malignant ignorance) and still dares to look ahead to something better. As I mentioned in the most recent Fingertips email, the writer Deborah Eisenberg noted in an essay this fall that “if things could only get worse, we would all have been dead millennia ago.” And I added that I find that this offers a weird sort of consolation during the kind of year 2020 has been.
Music is an ongoing consolation as well. I don’t need songs to be outwardly cheery to be consoling; for me, beauty will do it, or finesse, or even just the way this chord turns into that chord, the way a particular voice sings a particular word. Kirsty MacColl’s “Autumngirlsoup” is truly one of the saddest songs I know but at the same time, its grace and brilliance provide a bittersweet sort of inspiration; that someone could write that and sing that means that the world isn’t a lost cause, even if the singer herself met a tragic end (more below). I like that this playlist leads ultimately to Jenifer Jackson–whose timbre has a Kirsty-like smoke to it–and her anthemic declaration of “We Will Be Together,” complete with the mighty Spector beat and an indefatigable spirit. Enjoy the music, look to the horizon with curiosity and hope and we will be together again next year.
“Back of My Hand” – The Jags (UK single, 1979)
“The Magic” – Joan as Police Woman (The Deep Field, 2011)
“Without a Doubt” – Major Lance (single, 1967)
“Radiation Vibe” – Hem (No Word From Tom, 2006)
“Careless” – Paul Kelly and the Messengers (So Much Water So Close to Home, 1989)
“Off My Mind” – Hazel English (Wake UP!, 2020)
“Take Me For a Little While” – Jackie Ross (single, 1965)
“Something in 4/4 Time” – Daryl Hall (Sacred Songs, recorded 1977; released 1980)
“Say Anything” – Aimee Mann (Whatever, 1993)
“Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” – Julia Jacklin (Crushing, 2019)
“Everything Under the Sun” – The Walker Brothers (Images, 1967)
“That Year” – Uncle Tupelo (No Depression, 1990)
“Autumngirlsoup” – Kirsty MacColl (Tropical Brainstorm, 2000)
“Turn Your Lights Down Low” – Bob Marley and the Wailers (Exodus, 1977)
“Never Stop” – Echo & The Bunnymen (Songs to Learn and Sing, 1985)
“Shouting at the Dark” – The Mynabirds (Be Here Now, 2017)
“Footsteps” – Alison Moyet (Hoodoo, 1991)
“Surrender” – Will Butler (Generations, 2020)
“The Things That I Used to Do” – Guitar Slim (single, 1953)
“We Will Be Together” – Jenifer Jackson (So High, 2003)
Bonus explanatory notes:
* If you’ve been around here a while you’ll know I have a hard time resisting power pop nuggets from the late ’70s and early ’80s and this month’s mix launches with one of the most nuggetty of all. The Jags were one of any number of bands who got lazily tagged as Elvis Costello wannabes; like most of those bands, their story was neither that simple nor mercenary. The sound was in the air back then, and it flowed through a lot of outlets. “Back Of My Hand” is top-notch power pop, but it has somehow faded further than some of the era’s other hits. I blame part of that on the record company, which took the original UK single and mucked it up for the US release with a revised version (additional production provided by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, otherwise known as The Buggles), which added a hermetic sheen that retained the hooks but, to my ears, took some ineffable part of the charm away. I think the Buggles-infested version sounds soulless and calculated and I gladly present you here with the earlier UK iteration.
* From roughly the same era but an entirely different space comes a song from Daryl Hall’s first solo album, Sacred Songs. This has an even worse record-label-messes-with-things story, as the album was recorded, in a collaboration with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, in 1977, but the record company, RCA, didn’t think it sounded commercial enough and simply shelved it, with no intention of release. For three years. Hall at some point went rogue and began sending bits of it to journalists and disc jockeys; eventually RCA relented and released the album in 1980. I think it’s excellent work, showing off both Hall’s ever-impressive vocal prowess and his willingness to venture musically beyond the realm of whatever you’d call what Hall & Oates were doing. Note that this was recorded after Hall & Oates first go-round with top-40 success and before the duo went platinum (and multi-platinum), which started later in 1980 when Voices came out, during a somewhat fallow commercial period for them. I really like the vibe on Sacred Songs, but then again my favorite Hall & Oates album by far is 1978’s Along the Red Ledge, a release from their supposed “lean years.”
* As one more 2020 nod in the direction of the late great Adam Schlesinger, here is one of my favorite covers of all time, because first of all it’s a such a friggin’ good song and second of all the subtle but sure means by which the band Hem has transformed it. Typically a cover version is either super loyal to the original or works hard to find a whole new approach. What Hem does here is rather magically splits the difference. As sung by the very appealing Sally Ellyson, and arranged by whoever arranges their stuff, “Radiation Vibe” is both instantly recognizable and rendered different and new. The amusing backstory to the song is that Chris Collingswood once told an interviewer that the song “was written in less time than it takes to play.” He also confirmed what you kind of have to suspect, even as your brain works hard to overcome the suspicion: that the song quite literally doesn’t mean anything. It’s a bunch of words that sound cool together.
* And, yes: Kirsty MacColl. This month marks the 20th anniversary of her death in the ocean in Mexico, at the hands of a reckless motorboat driver, a fate that stings doubly for both how unfair and how horrific. I’ve featured her a few times here over the years because my heart beats strongly for her still, and while I’ve so far presented her catchy and flashier material, at the end of the day I’m not sure she wrote and performed anything quite as deep and moving as “Autumngirlsoup,” from what turned out to be her final album. An unexpected bonus is that the thing is also pretty hilarious; her extended metaphor (woman as a dish devoured by man) is both over the top and razor sharp, at once skewering and despairing over the ingrained misogyny of human history. I mean who would think to write this?: “Carve up my heart on a very low flame/Separate my feelings then pour them down the drain.” Kirsty did. A singular presence, and talent.
* As for Jenifer Jackson, consider her another talented musician all too easily lost in the unending waves of digital music that have washed up on our cultural shores in the 21st century. (She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, something that I might go about fixing.) Her 2003 album So High, her third, released on the acclaimed Bar-None label, was well-regarded and remains a pleasure to listen to; succeeding albums drew successively less attention, with no notable drop-off in quality. She continues to make records to this day–her most recent is the album Paths, released last year. You can find all her stuff here. (Note that a bunch of her older albums were just this year put up on Bandcamp, so their release dates are off.)