Did I speak too soon last month about not wearing a mask? I did. But the pleasures of interacting with unmasked faces remain real, if somewhat mitigated one month later by the need to keep the spread tamped down with the new variant elbowing its way around the country (in some places more vigorously than others). It remains true that the vast majority of new cases are rising among the unvaccinated; the fact that there remain people putting energy into protesting events that require masks would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. What’s next?: protesting at the airport because they require you to have a ticket to get on a plane? People around the world are clamoring for the very vaccines that a determined group of raging American idiots refuse to take. Perhaps the ongoing moral of the story is this tiresome one: that internet-disseminated ignorance remains the bane of our century to date. (As Rachel Cusk’s narrator in her brilliant novel Second Place writes, “Whatever power it is that I have, it’s nothing compared to the power of stupidity.”) Personally I’ve been wondering lately about what evolutionary purpose stupidity serves, because it seems as persistent as the cockroach.
Moving (thankfully) on to the playlist, this one as usual has a little bit of a lot of different things, mixing the familiar with the less familiar, rock and pop with soul and jazz, the new wave with the old guard, and sprinkled throughout with a batch of 21st-century goodies; a vague sense of summer is in the air but mostly by accident. While on many days I wonder at the foolishness of my endeavor here—today’s music scene seems definitively to have hoisted my taste and perspective into a box gathering dust in our cultural attic—I try to rise above the doubts by reminding myself that fashion is a different filter than quality, and however many people are out there chasing shiny objects, there remains a persistent bloc of artists who care about longer-standing standards of craft and musicality. Thus the aforementioned “21st-century goodies,” as well as my inclination to circulate them in and among quality songs from decades gone by. It’s a quixotic task at best; if you’re out there listening I appreciate your time and attention more than you know.
“Complex” – Tristen (Aquatic Flowers, 2021)
“I Want More” – CAN (Flow Motion, 1976)
“Bernadette” – The Four Tops (Reach Out, 1967)
“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics (single, 2015)
“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” – Andrew Bird (The Mysterious Production of Eggs, 2004)
“Houses in Motion” – Talking Heads (Remain in Light, 1980)
“Wonder” – Natalie Merchant (Tigerlily, 1995)
“Don’t Let Me Down Again” – Buckingham Nicks (Buckingham Nicks, 1975)
“Song For My Father” – The Horace Silver Quintet (Song For My Father, 1964)
“Tom The Model” – Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man (Out Of Season, 2002)
“Sleep All Summer” – Neko Case, w/ Eric Bachmann (Hell-On, 2018)
“Linger” – The Cranberries (Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
“More Love” – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Make It Happen, 1968)
“Life In Tokyo” – Japan (Assemblage, 1981)
“Poison My Cup” – Shannon McArdle (Summer of the Whore, 2008)
“At Attention” – Northern Portrait (single, 2020)
“Scattered” – The Kinks (Phobia, 1993)
“Swimming” – Tracey Thorn (Love and Its Opposite, 2011)
“Boxcars” – Joe Ely (Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1978)
“Morning Come” – Marianne Faithfull (A Child’s Adventure, 1983)
* Tristen has been doing her adroitly-crafted indie singer/songwriter rock’n’roll for more than a decade (she made her Fingertips debut back in 2010, for what it’s worth). To my ears her music sounds far more expansive and curious about the world than the music her somewhat younger and more well-known one-named peers have been recently making. Tristen’s latest album is Aquatic Flowers, released in June.
* I am only peripherally familiar with the work of the avant-garde, improvisational German band CAN but they do present me with the irresistible challenge of figuring out how to work something of theirs into a playlist here. That said, the band did have a certain number of songs that managed to be hits in their native land, “I Want More” being one of them. And they were super-influential among a certain arty sort of rock’n’roller; note for instance a certain CAN-iness to the Talking Heads track a few slots down in the playlist. And while three of the original four members are no longer alive, the band does have a thorough presence on Bandcamp, where you can listen to and purchase all of their (intermittently impenetrable) albums.
* Why was Buckingham Nicks, the one-off duo album recorded by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, a commercial failure in 1973 when the two of them joining Fleetwood Mac shortly thereafter is what ended up generating Fleetwood Mac’s monstrous success? It seems mysterious in retrospect, given how similar the sound of this album is to music that became hugely popular on the Fleetwood Mac album released two years later. (One song, in fact, from Buckingham Nicks—“Crystal”—later appeared on the landmark 1975 album.) Chalk it up, apparently, to colossal promotional mismanagement. But given the messy/unpleasant interpersonal history involved, there does seem something star-crossed about Buckingham Nicks, which has yet to this day to have an official digital release, either on CD or via any streaming service. (High-priced unofficial copies can be had, however, because the internet.)
* “Scattered” is the closing track on Phobia, the 24th and final studio album by the Kinks. While Ray Davies’ material grew a little wobbly as the band sputtered out of the late ’80s, he could always be counted on for two or three unusually good songs even on lesser releases. If this, as is likely, remains the last official original Kinks song of the band’s storied career, it’s a strong farewell indeed. Then again, I personally could listen to that man sing just about anything. What a voice.
* A slow burner with a stellar chorus, Neko Case’s “Sleep All Summer” features Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf) on co-vocals. As the lyrics are more suggestive than conclusive, this is one of those songs whose inherent drama is linked more to the sound, vocal quality; you do however get the strong sense that something deep is going down here. Case’s 2018 album Hell-On was a lot to take in at the time, as the mighty singer/songwriter has taken to writing and singing increasingly complex “pop” songs, so it took me a while to find this one.
* Speaking of vocal quality, any excuse to place Tracey Thorn into a playlist I will gladly take.
* Earlier this year I featured a Keith Jarrett song that Steely Dan borrowed from to create their song “Gaucho.” This month I stumbled on and am here including another jazz piece the Dan utilized (pilfered?), in the Horace Silver Quintet’s “Song For My Father”: that introductory keyboard riff (minus, interestingly, its first note) is employed in the same position in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which turned out to be Steely Dan’s most successful single. I’m not sure how the riff manages to be so simple and so distinctive at the same time but it’s easy to see why Fagen and Becker felt the need to re-use it.
* The ever-mysterious, ongoingly elusive Beth Gibbons, front woman for the iconic trio Portishead, has released one solo album, 2002’s Out Of Season, which she made along with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (calling himself Rustin Man for reasons never explained). As scintillating as her performances have been with Portishead, this album—which I circle back to every few years, wanting at some point to love it, not quite getting there—has always felt somewhat off, in part because of the music’s bleary iciness, in part because of Gibbons’ puzzling inclination towards Billie Holiday mimicry. And yet the album still casts enough a spell to stay in long-term rotation. And this new flash: after years of inactivity, Paul Webb has abruplty released two Rustin Man albums in recent years, one in 2019 and one in 2020.