My passing reference, last month, to Billy Bragg’s “dedicated swallower of fascism” lyric put the song it comes from in my head firmly enough that I had to give it an outlet this month. The Kinks will have to wait, but not, probably, for long.
As for the rest of what’s in store, I sense an unconscious blending of the happy and the wary, the rousing and the wistful: life, in other words, filtered through a 20-song playlist.
There are eight decades on tap this time, ranging from a jaunty 1956 cover of the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street” to a couple of heartfelt singles from 2022. In between there’s a little of a lot of things, from Motown and classic rock to new wave, indie rock, folk, funk, and other things that don’t cleave neatly to a genre label. Is there a usefully identifiable genre for an overlooked McCartney song from 2001? For Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini’s 2022 work with an ensemble dedicated to “the unorthodox use of classical instruments”? For former supermodel Rosie Vela’s one-time collaboration with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker? If one might file both the Casket Girls and Jolie Holland under “indie rock,” how helpful a label can that actually be?
And hey I’m not trying to open up a relatively pointless can of worms–I’m certainly not going to argue away the concept of genres, which no doubt have their place. In our content-saturated world I end up feeling the need to entice, and talking up the variety via well-worn labels seems, perhaps, a serviceable selling point. But in the interest of full transparency, these playlists, while offering variety, do not range every which way. I don’t connect to music that’s harsh or strident, so I pretty much act like genres that lean in that direction don’t exist. (Kind of a “sorry not sorry” circumstance.) Because melody, chord progressions, and traditional songcraft are my things, I have trouble making qualitative judgments in the hip-hop arena, so you won’t hear much here, though there have been occasional exceptions. For similar reasons, I don’t have a useful feel for EDM. And hyperpop?: I fear I am way behind the curve in understanding what’s going on there, but will note that any music that strikes my ears as “over-processed” defeats my ability to enjoy it. I’m not averse to technology and/or studio trickery per se, but at the end of the day I prefer music that presents as being generated by human voices and, ideally, physical instruments. It’s my born-in-the-20th-century shortcoming but there you go.
Back to the matter at hand: the musical vibe and value of these playlists can’t be fully summarized or represented by the parade of generic labels I might necessarily use to give a preview, via written words, of what your ears are going to encounter. I know there’s a small but dedicated group of listeners who find these mixes enjoyable, which continues to motivate me to put them together.
Enough jabbering. As usual, the widget for listening is below the playlist. After that, for the fully committed, you’ll find some random information about a few of the key songs this month.
1. “Pharmacist” – Alvvays (Blue Rev, 2022)
2. “Accident Waiting to Happen” – Billy Bragg (Don’t Try This At Home, 1991)
3. “Back In My Arms Again” – The Supremes (single, 1965)
4. “Getting Ready to Get Down” – Josh Ritter (Sermon on the Rocks, 2015)
5. “Laugh and Walk Away” – The Shirts (Street Light Shine, 1979)
6. “The Belle of St. Mark” – Sheila E. (The Glamorous Life, 1984)
7. “I Was Neon” – Julia Jacklin (Pre Pleasure, 2022)
8. “On Green Dolphin Street” – Ahmad Jamal Trio (Count ‘Em 88, 1956)
9. “Lonely Road” – Paul McCartney (Driving Rain, 2001)
10.”Magic Smile” – Rosie Vela (Zasu, 1986)
11. “Old Friend” – Caveman (Coco Beware, 2011)
12. “My Man On Love” – Judee Sill (Judee Sill, 1971)
13. “Only Talking Sense” – The Finn Brothers (Finn, 1995)
14. “Let Him Run Wild” – The Beach Boys (Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965)
15. “Palmyra” – Jolie Holland (The Living and the Dead, 2008)
16. “So In Love” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Crush, 1985)
17. “Western World” – Casket Girls (What Keeps You Up At Night EP, 2015)
18. “People Say” – The Meters (Rejuvenation, 1974)
19. “Right Here” – Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra (single, 2022)
20. “Save It For Someone Who Cares” – The Leisure Society (The Sleeper, 2009)
Odds and ends:
* All these years I didn’t realize that Neil and Tim Finn’s one and only album as a duo is called, simply, Finn as opposed to The Finn Brothers. For what it’s worth, iTunes never realized it either. As a longtime Neil Finn fan I always wanted to love this album more than I did at the time. But returning to it after a few decades I find it quite accomplished and charming in a low-key kind of way. And I realize that I never gave the years-later follow-up, 2004’s Everyone is Here much of a listen beyond the agreeable single, “Won’t Give In.” Going to do that right now. (By the way, you guys are all pretty clear on how great Neil Finn is, right? I’ll leave it to you to look up the history if you’re not familiar. He is an underrated rock’n’roll great, of the substantive/sensitive songwriter variety.)
* “I Was Neon” is the earwormy (in a good way) second single from Julia Jacklin’s impressive third album, Pre Pleasure. Jacklin has broken through more thoroughly so far in her native Australia but her time here in the U.S. may yet be coming.
* Paul McCartney released the album Driving Rain in 2001 to an unusual amount of commercial indifference (it was for instance his lowest-selling album to date in the UK)–a particular shame given the positive reviews and the general quality of the music. In retrospect the album represents a break in his sizable discography; recorded and released at age 59, it can be viewed as the last album he made before his age and experience themselves became subtle and often not-so-subtle themes. By the time of his next studio release, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, in 2004, he was presenting himself more openly as an aging adult. A subtle but definitive shift, and I should note a healthy one. We all get older; rock’n’rollers can too easily get stuck in youthful posturing that just gets foolish after a while. That all said, “Lonely Road” is a terrific, underplayed song. (Those interested in such things might want to give a listen to my “Overlooked McCartney” playlist, where you’ll find this and 20 other terrific Macca tunes that are less well-known than they deserve to be.)
* Speaking of aging rockers, every generation of rock’n’roll musicians to date has had to deal with how to square this particular career choice with the idea of growing older, but indie rock musicians are the first generation to be growing older in a post-rock’n’roll environment. This gives the question of staying power a vexing new wrinkle. (Are rock’n’rollers merely “experts in a dying field,” to quote the Beths?) I am in any case delighted that the Canadian band Alvvays is back for another go. I’ve long since forgiven them for the gimmicky-looking band name (you’re just supposed to pronounce it “Always,” but the spelling makes the band easier to find online), and am eager to spend more time with their fuzzed-up new album, Blue Rev, which was named for a sweet alcoholic drink that was popular in Canada around the turn of the century. The band have been through some bumps in the road since their sophomore effort, Antisocialites (2017), including stolen demos, flood-damaged equipment, two new band members to break in, and oh by the way the pandemic. They seem to have landed in one piece.
* The endearing Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini hasn’t been too obviously active over the last decade or so; her most recent solo album was 2013’s Tookah. But in 2016 she made a collaborative live album with the Belgium collective known as the Colorist Orchestra, which specializes in rearranging songs of specific singer/songwriters, and making an album featuring the new arrangements. More recently Torrini and the ensemble reconnected for a studio recording; the album, Racing the Storm, featuring all original material, will be released next year. “Right Here” is the first song to emerge from this intriguing project. Very long-time Fingertips followers may recall Torrini from her memorable single, “Me and Armini,” featured here back in 2008.
* I always wanted the Brooklyn-based band The Shirts to be better than they actually were. Staples on the same early new wave scene in NYC that produced Blondie, Television, and the rest, the Shirts weren’t punk in the slightest but that was okay–the music on stage at CBGBs in those days was more eclectic than you might think. The problem with the Shirts was simply a lack of consistent material. Over the course of their three initial albums, there were a small handful of excellent songs and a lot more that was forgettable. “Laugh and Walk Away” is from the second of those albums, Street Light Shine (1979), which was also the last album for which they received any helpful record company support. Lead singer Annie Golden ended up abandoning rock’n’roll for an acting career, where you might still find her–she had a notable role on Orange is the New Black and was also recently on Broadway in the acclaimed Into the Woods revival. Sans Golden, the Shirts reunited in the 21st century to release albums in 2006 and 2010. I’m not sure I’m that interested but I’ll always have a soft spot for a few of their ’70s tunes.
* Rosie Vela is an interesting footnote in rock history. After years as a successful fashion model, Vela went all in on music, building a home studio and landing a major record-label deal. The album she ended up making was produced by Gary Katz, well-known for his work with Steely Dan, and actually featured both Donald Fagen and Walter Becker for what might have been their first recorded work on the same project since they had broken up their band in 1981. Vela’s Dan-adjacent album was called Zasu–one assumes after the silent movie star ZaSu Pitts–and was well-received by critics, but went nowhere in terms of sales. While she later appeared intermittently as a singer on other people’s albums, and dated Jeff Lynne for a while, Vela has yet to make another record.