Finish what you start

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.5 – May 2023

While there is an ongoing policy here never to feature the same exact song by the same artist twice, however many years go by, there is no restriction about featuring the same song recorded by different artists. This month, in fact, there are two such entries, about which more below. There are a few other cover songs mixed in here as well, including Cassandra Wilson’s astonishing transformation of an operatic, potentially cheesy Neapolitan classic into a haunting, immaculately arranged marvel. The best cover versions perform the magic trick of revealing something fresh and unexpected while maintaining the familiar core. I’d say the Watson Twins’ Cure cover qualifies as well, as does The Flaming Lips’ overhaul of “Borderline.”

I should note that having a policy is one thing, maintaining it is another: I have twice, to date, featured the exact same song by the same artist in two different mixes, by mistake. The answer to this particular trivia question: “Are You With Me Now?” by Cate Le Bon, and “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” by Suzanne Vega. Oops.

As previously noted, this month marks the 20th anniversary of the first tentative posts on Fingertips. So I guess it’s only appropriate that They Might Be Giants is in the mix this month. (It’s their eighth time here, for those keeping score at home.) But they’re one of only five artists this month who have previously been featured on a playlist, ranging back nine-plus years. So, a particularly eclectic bunch to mark year 20, as follows:

1. “Alex Chilton” – The Replacements (Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
2. “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind” – Vashti Bunyan (single, 1965)
3. “Security Check” – Sophie Hunger (Halluzinationen, 2020)
4. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” – Ronnie Dyson ((If You Let Me Make Love To You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You, 1970)
5. “The Sad Sound of the Wind” – Jules Shear (The Great Puzzle, 1992)
6. “Just Like Heaven” – The Watson Twins (Fire Songs, 2008)
7. “I Bet High” – Pop and Obachan (Misc. Excellence, 2016)
8. “Second Choice” – Any Trouble (Where Are All The Nice Girls, 1980)
9. “She Cracked” – The Modern Lovers (The Modern Lovers, 1976 [recorded 1972])
10. “Helen Reddy” – Trembling Blue Stars (The Seven Autumn Flowers, 2004)
11. “The Fairest of the Seasons” – Nico (Chelsea Girl, 1967)
12. “O Sole Mio” – Cassandra Wilson (Another Country, 2012)
13. “Taillights Fade” – Buffalo Tom (Let Me Come Over, 1992)
14. “Don’t Let’s Start” – They Might Be Giants (They Might Be Giants, 1986)
15. “Just Look at What You’ve Done” – Brenda Holloway (single, 1967)
16. “Runaway” – Dwight Twilley (Twilley, 1979)
17. “Blood and Butter” – Caroline Polachek (Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, 2023)
18. “The Queen of Hearts” – The Unthanks (Last, 2011)
19. “Comedy” – Shack (H.M.S. Fable, 1999)
20. “Borderline” – The Flaming Lips (with Stardeath and White Dwarfs) (Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros. Records, 2009)

Stray comments:

* Dwight Twilley will be forever be linked to the power pop standard “I’m On Fire,” recorded by the Dwight Twilley Band on the 1976 album Sincerely. But the Tulsa-born singer/songwriter has an extended back catalog as a solo artist, following the breakup of his relatively short-lived band–including, seemingly, more “rarities” and offbeat cover projects than proper album releases at this point. (Among other things, he has recorded two full albums of Beatles songs.) For all the pile-up of music available for the committed aficionado, not everything can be found on the major streaming services; one flagrant missing release is his 1979 solo debut, simply entitled Twilley. So you won’t find the earworm-y “Runaway” on Spotify but it’s yours to enjoy here.

* Ronnie Dyson’s impassioned “I Don’t Wanna Cry” offers up a rhythmic (and grammatical) revision of the Chuck Jackson original, “I Don’t Want to Cry,” from 1961 (as heard in Eclectic Playlist Series 7.01, from January 2020). The Jackson version, interestingly, was the lead and title track of an album on which all songs were about crying. While Jackson’s recording had an attractive whiff of late-autumn doo-wop about it, Dyson’s take, from 1970, is something of a proto-disco number. Dyson, for his part, had an occasionally notable (if unfortunately short) career, hitting the big time at 18 as a featured performer in the Broadway musical Hair; it was his voice that iconically opened the show, singing “Aquarius.” (“When the moon is in the seventh house…”) Dyson soon after landed roles both in the movies and on stage and recorded a debut album, entitled (If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?; the title track was a top-10 hit in the U.S. “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” the follow-up single, hit number 50, and that was as high as any of his subsequent releases charted. He died at age 40 in 1990.

* The other song previously featured here but by a different artist is “Borderline,” which was Madonna’s first top-10 hit (see Eclectic Playlist Series 3.02, February 2016). The song arrived during that short moment when her music was considered “alternative” (mostly just because she had been signed to the new-wave-oriented label Sire Records). I’ve always been partial to “Borderline” for its multi-faceted musicality: there’s the instrumental hook, the melodic shifts, the two-part verse plus the pre-chorus (those “Just try to understand” chords get me every time), and then the nuanced chorus with its one-word first line. The song was written by Reggie Lucas, who produced most of the debut album. A guitarist who played with Billy Paul and Miles Davis, among others, Lucas started producing and writing with partner James Mtume in the late ’70s; the Madonna debut, in 1983, was his first solo production. According to the internet, Lucas and Madonna had a strained relationship as the recording unfolded. But he did give her what is arguably the album’s best song–a song so solid it delightfully survives unpacking and repacking by the Flaming Lips, a version the band recorded for an offbeat Warner Bros. compilation album released in 2017. The album commemorated the label’s 50th anniversary and featured currently-signed Warner artists covering songs by legacy Warner acts. It’s a motley collection both in terms of songs and artists but it culminates marvelously with this slow, increasingly furious Madonna cover. The Norman, OK-based band Stardeath and White Dwarfs, along for the ride here, has collaborated a few times with the Flaming Lips; among the band’s members is Dennis Coyne, nephew of Wayne.

* I love how effortlessly the Watson Twins transfigure the Cure’s boppy, late new-wave hit into a plaintive C&W-inflected ballad. You’ll find “Just Like Heaven” on their 2008 album Fire Songs; it also appeared on the HBO series True Blood. The twins–who are in fact actual twins–have a new album due out next month entitled Holler, which is their first release in five years.

* Brenda Holloway recorded for Motown in the ’60s, but never quite hit it big, despite the quality of her singles. At one point poised to step into Mary Wells’ shoes as Motown’s major female solo artist, Holloway also was one of only a handful of Motown artists who wrote their own songs. Issues arose between her and the label, leading to her departure from Motown in 1968; the next year, she sued Berry Gordy, who had made some minor changes to her song “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and gave himself a writing credit on the song, which became a huge hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears. She recorded a few times post-Motown, including a gospel album in 1980, but eventually left the music business. She is one of many lesser-known artists to have found her early work embraced by the Northern Soul scene in the UK; she re-emerged as a recording artist in the 1990s, releasing three albums between 1990 and 2003. “Just Look What You’ve Done” was co-written by Frank Wilson and R. Dean Taylor, each with colorful and convoluted histories of their own; I’ll let the internet fill you in if you are interested.

* I am still getting my musical arms around the phenomenon that is Caroline Polachek, who arrives from outside my comfort zone in terms of her wholehearted embrace of sounds associated with 21st-century pop. And yet she clearly is using that vocabulary for intriguing artistic purposes. Her new-ish album, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, is a grower–The New Yorker has called it “a spellbindingly deranged collage”–compelling re-listens even as I’m not sure, always, how to absorb what I’m listening to. “Blood and Butter” is one of the songs I clicked with first, thanks to the instantly engaging pre-chorus (the “And what I want is…” part). One of Polachek’s defining attributes is a powerful voice that she has trained to flip registers in such a way as to imitate what Auto-Tune can do artificially. While I remain intuitively skeptical of Auto-Tune I can’t help but approach with an open mind a gifted vocalist who finds something aesthetically satisfying in the effects it can produce. Clearly she is also processing her voice intermittently. Note that I’ve never ruled processed vocals out of my realm of interest, I just generally find Auto-Tune’s robotic tinge unpleasant and its mindless employment irritating. But Caroline Polachek I listen to, finding in her approach and vibe a worthy successor to Kate Bush as a singer/songwriter trafficking in unabashed, auteur-like pop drama.

* As usual, this month’s mix features a handful of songs that were previously featured as MP3s here on Fingertips. May’s “alumni” class: Pop and Obachan, The Unthanks, and, going way back to 2004, the London-based collective Trembling Blue Stars. Follow the links if you’re curious on the details.

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