The unexpected centerpiece of this month’s mix is the meditative “Mohabbat,” a steady, subtle, seven-plus-minute composition from Arooj Aftab’s new album, Vulture Prince. Bathed in grief–“This sadness equals all the sadness in the world,” is the translation of one key line–the song fuses traditional Pakistani musical forms with gentle, deft instrumentation anchored in the middle ground between folk, new age, and classical; I invite you to sink into it and see where it takes you. This is the Brooklyn-based composer’s second album. Two other 2021 releases provide additional highlights this month: “Cellophane (Brain)” from the stellar Australian trio Middle Kids, and “Cool Dry Place,” the impressive title track to singer/songwriter Katy Kirby’s debut album. The Texas-born Kirby works now from Nashville. She is slated to open for Waxahatchee on a much-delayed tour, beginning (get vaccinated, people!) this fall. Beyond the new stuff we as usual go skipping through the decades and genres, with everything from classic rock and Philly soul to alt-country, Swampers-animated R&B, and the underappreciated New Romantic end of the new wave. And hey, if you’re out there listening, it’s true: I’ll take suggestions.
“Once Around The Block” – Badly Drawn Boy (The Hour of Bewilderbeast, 2000)
“The Love I Lost” – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (Black and Blue, 1973)
“Cellophane (Brain)” – Middle Kids (Today We’re the Greatest, 2021)
“Oh Well Maybe” – The Grays (Ro Sham Bo, 1994)
“I Caught You In a Lie” – Robert Parker (b-side, 1967)
“Cry Wolf” – Adia Victoria (Silences, 2019)
“All Of My Heart” – ABC (The Lexicon of Love, 1982)
“Ghosts In My Machine” – Annie Lennox (Songs of Mass Destruction, 2007)
“You Know It’s For You” – The Bee Gees (To Whom It May Concern, 1972)
“Mohabbat” – Arooj Aftab (Vulture Prince, 2021)
“Arlington” – the Wailin’ Jennys (40 Days, 2004)
“Any Other Woman” – Greg Kihn (Greg Kihn, 1976)
“Tell Mama” – Etta James (Tell Mama, 1968)
“Calypso” – Suzanne Vega (Solitude Standing, 1987)
“She Will Have Her Way” – Neil Finn (Try Whistling This, 1998)
“Cool Dry Place” – Katy Kirby (Cool Dry Place, 2021)
“Staring at the Sun” – U2 (Pop, 1997)
“Reason to Believe” – Tim Hardin (Tim Hardin 1, 1966)
“In Undertow” – Alvvays (Antisocialites, 2017)
“One Day I’ll Fly Away” – Randy Crawford (Now We May Begin, 1980)
Strays notes for the extra curious:
* I still have a vivid memory of the first time I heard “Once Around the Block,” which happened to be in my local Starbucks in the fall of 2000. (Remember: all we had for decent coffee was Starbucks back then; it seems so innocent in so many ways.) So this swinging bit of music came over the sound system, music that sounded neither old nor new, neither a copy of something else nor particularly original, but instantly memorable. It took me quite a while to find out what this song was and who was singing it, the internet not yet being in 2000 what it was to become. And then, lo and behold, for a short period of early-aughts time Damon Gough stood in as the prototypical lo-fi slacker-rocker, complete with woolen hat. In retrospect he fell off the cultural radar as quickly as he had arrived. But I see now that he released an album just last year called Banana Skin Shoes, and (lo and behold) it was widely acclaimed. Shows you yet again how fragmented the music scene has become. I for one am going to go check it out.
* I recently watched the Muscle Shoals documentary that was released in 2013; it’s just called Muscle Shoals and it’s available on Netflix. In addition to being an enjoyable and educational experience, the movie reminded me what a vigorous talent Etta James was, and how good that Muscle Shoals album of hers still is. Digging into it, I discovered that James herself didn’t like singing “Tell Mama”; in her 1995 autobiography, she wrote, “Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like being cast in the role of the Great Earth Mother, the gal you come to for comfort and sex.” There’s no denying the magnetic power of the song, but in recognition of James’ qualms, I’ve paired it here with Suzanne Vega’s role-reversing take on the Calypso myth, telling that portion of Homer’s Odyssey from her historically and culturally neglected point of view.
* Apparently Adia Victoria told producer Aaron Dessner at some point that she wanted her album Silences to sound like “Billie Holiday got lost in a Radiohead song.” That certainly gets my attention.
* Released in 1972, To Whom It May Concern was already the Bee Gees’ tenth studio album. Musically the group was still in their early stylistic mode, advancing from Beatles-influenced pop into perhaps a bit of prog-rock-inflected pop, with Robin and/or Barry on most of the lead vocals. While there was a hit single here (“Run To Me”), the album itself didn’t exactly burn up the charts, and it kind of precipitated the band’s slow slide out of stardom–until, that is, disco rocketed them back to superstardom a few years later. Lead vocals on “You Know It’s For You” were handled by Maurice, as a change of pace. I like the song’s airy yet contemplative vibe, and–my idiosyncrasy only, perhaps–far prefer this to Barry’s falsetto-driven hits of the later ’70s.
* Greg Kihn had his moment or two in the pop cultural spotlight (“The Breakup Song,” “Jeopardy”) in the early ’80s, but his previous work, in the second half of the ’70s, was sharp and often irresistible. “Any Other Woman” is from his self-titled debut album in 1976, and shows him at his power poppy best. His breakout hits steered him slowly but surely onto a rather too self-consciously commercial path (with decreasing success), in particular with a series of ’80s albums that over-employed a once-cute idea–the album title Rockihnroll led to Kihntinued, Kihnspiracy, Kihntageous, and (are we there yet?) Citizen Kihn. Kihn faded from the music scene through the ’90s, devoting his energy to writing novels (he wrote six of them between the mid ’90s and the mid ’10s). He at long last found his way back to the recording studio a few years ago, releasing (what else?) Rekihndled in 2017.