Instant special new

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.10 – October 2021

Even as there are 14 artists on this month’s playlist who had not yet appeared in any EPS mix to date, you’ll also find in this mix a handful of all-time favorites who are now among the most often featured musicians in the eight-plus years these lists have been operational. So I guess it’s an intriguing blend of the old and new both chronologically and aesthetically. In any case, the all-time favorites in question—Sam Phillips, They Might Be Giants, Jane Siberry, and Cassandra Wilson—are all truly among my personal musical heroes through the decades; I’m kind of startled and delighted to find them all together here. And although we live, it would seem, under graver and graver collective shadows, I ended up with a number of songs this month that are not just peppy but in a few cases rather playful—in search of the kinder light, you might say. Besides which, we lose our playfulness and there’s not much hope for us. Man o nam indeed.

“Bad Reputation” – Freedy Johnston (This Perfect World, 1994)
“That Man” – Caro Emerald (Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor, 2010)
“Head On” – The Jesus and Mary Chain (Automatic, 1989)
“On The Run” – Scorched Earth (single, 1974)
“The Light Is Kinder In This Corner of the Corona” – Bill Nelson (Rosewood: Ornaments and Graces for Acoustic Guitar, Volume 2, 2005)
“Too Late To Say You’re Sorry” – Darlene Love (single, 1966)
“Love Is Everything” – Jane Siberry (When I Was a Boy, 1993)
“Queen of the World” – The Jayhawks (Smile, 2002)
“Hold Back the Night” – The Trammps (The Legendary Zing Album, 1975)
“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl (Swift Arrows, 2013)
“There She Goes Again” – The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967)
“Baby Can I Hold You” – Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman, 1988)
“Hurt a Fly” – Squirrel Flower (Planet (i),2021)
“Don’t Tell Me” – Blancmange (Mange Tout, 1984)
“You See The Trouble With Me” – Barry White (Let The Music Play, 1976)
“Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” – Sam Phillips (Push Any Button, 2013)
“Show Me A Love” – Cassandra Wilson (Belly of the Sun, 2002)
“Every Home Should Have One” – Millicent Martin (single, 1970))
“I Palindrome I” – They Might Be Giants (Apollo 18, 1992)
“Country” – Good Morning (Barnyard, 2021)

Random notes:

* Like a number of unexpected-in-retrospect musicians, Freedy Johnston flirted with commercial success in 1990s, most particularly with the album This Perfect World, which featured this simple and glorious lead track “Bad Reputation.” The world may not be perfect, the album itself may not have been perfect (although it was pretty good!), but this song is as nearly perfect as a four-minute piece of semi-popular music has any right to be, with one of those choruses that seem to transcend the idea of someone writing it, it seems just to have always existed.

* Guitarist extraordinaire Bill Nelson’s short period of semi-mainstream success came when he fronted the band Be Bop Deluxe in the 1970s. He’s always been prolific—Be Bop released five studio albums and one live album in a four-year stretch—but a look at Wikipedia will make you dizzy: listed there are some 140 or more (I lost count) solo albums released since 1981, including 12 since 2018 alone. I can’t begin to understand what this could all be about, outside of assuming he’s recording a lot of experimental/improvisational stuff. And I will admit that featuring one gentle instrumental tune from among the thousands he has recorded seems pathetically random. But I believe in synchronicity, and only after putting this list together noticed that the title has taken on quite a new meaning from when he first recorded it back in the good old days of 2005 (little did we know). I’ve always been fond of Be Bop Deluxe, feel that they are sorely underappreciated in the panorama of rock’n’roll history, and have featured them here a couple of times. Bill Nelson I have no idea what to do with but I’ve slipped one song in here if only to pay a bit of respect for the idiosyncratic path he has followed over the decades.

* Scorched Earth was the first band that Billy Ocean recorded with; this was 10 years before his international breakout hit “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run),” which if you don’t recognize from the title you’d know if you heard it. “On The Run” has no apparent connection outside of the phrase itself but it’s quite a rousing number, the kind of song that completely could have been a hit but for the vagaries of ’70s-era record promotion. Note that Ocean recorded four solo albums from 1976 to 1982 that didn’t really go anywhere before hitting the big time, bigly, in 1984. Say what you will about the corruption of the old record company system, one admirable thing it at least sometimes did was stick with an artist while he or she was working to find their voice. That kind of corporate patience stopped pretty much in the ’90s, never (so far) to be seen again.

* Shelby Earl has a Neko Case-level voice, as sure and strong as you could want to hear. “Swift Arrows” is the title track to an album released in 2013, and was featured on Fingertips here. She was also by the way featured further back, in 2011. Her most recent release is 2017’s The Man Who Made Himself a Name.

* Cato Emerald is a Dutch singer (birth name Caroline Esmeralda van der Leeuw) whose album Deleted Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor spent 30 weeks at number one on the Dutch charts in 2010, beating out Thriller as the best-selling album of all time in the Netherlands. She hasn’t made much of a dent with audiences in the US but you can check here out on Spotify and see what you think. While “That Man” risks veering towards sounding like a retro-y gimmick, the song hits my ears as infectious fun and who can’t use some of that right about now?

* I hear “Every Home Should Have One” as an early entry in the “satirize consumer culture” category that grew as the ’70s wore on. Later in the decade we’d get things like “What Do You Want From Life?” from the Tubes in 1975 and, perhaps the quintessential song of this type, “Step Right Up,” from Tom Waits in 1976. “Every Home Should Have One” was the title song from a British movie released in 1970 and starring Marty Feldman, a farce poking fun at an effort to crack down on sexual images in advertising and culture by the conservative activist Mary Whitehouse (who also drew the direct attention of Pink Floyd a few years later; that’s the “Whitehouse” they address in “Pigs [Three Different Ones],” not the US presidency). The movie ended up being released here with the title Think Dirty but was much more popular in the UK than it was here. Millicent Martin, by the way, has had a long career as a singer and an actress both in the UK and the US. In the early
60s, she was a featured singer of topical songs on the legendary British satirical news show That Was The Week That Was, but she has remained active for decades, including countless appearances on American TV in the 21st century—she had a recurring role on Frasier at the turn of the millennium, and most recently has been a regular on Grace and Frankie.

* As noted, I love Sam Phillips to pieces; all her releases are top notch, even when they seem to fall in the musical forest with comparatively no one there to hear them. While she, like Freedy Johnston, had a bit of a moment back in the ’90s, her albums over the succeeding years have been uniformly excellent, in particular 2013’s Push Any Button, from which comes the inimitable “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You.” On the one hand I can understand why she’s an acquired taste but on the other hand I must briefly and pointlessly rail against a culture that would shunt an artist like Phillips off into the “acquired taste” classification in the first place. We are so often just too dumb, collectively, for our own good.

Free and legal MP3: EERA

Shoegazey goodness

“Ladder” – EERA

Fuzzy, bass-heavy, and replete with unresolved chords, “Ladder” offers us a sharp, 2020s update on one of indie rock’s foundational sub-genres. In addition to its somewhat awkward name, shoegaze is a kind of betwixt and between category in that while it was never entirely in fashion it subsequently has never entirely gone out of fashion, either.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Lena Bruland is who we’re hearing from here, in the guise of her musical project EERA. With “Ladder,” Bruland seems inherently to understand what’s largely overlooked about the appeal of shoegaze, which is that for all the fuzz and reverb and distortion, most shoegaze songs have a backbeat holding them up. (Remember what the backbeat is: rock’n’roll’s defining rhythm, which stresses the second and fourth beats of a four-beat measure.) Here, the backbeat provides the structural solidity behind the song’s idiosyncratic chord patterns, as well as the propulsion underneath the droning guitar that plays here with a muted fury that never fully unleashes, sounding like someone playing extra-loud but in a room down the hall.

For all the sound happening around her, Bruland sings in a semi-blasé tone as the verse melody alternates between extended same-note repetitions and unexpected intervals; the short, insistent chorus, one phrase repeating, finds her in her lower register, sounding nearly like a different singer. The guitar arrives soon enough to sweep us back up into a backbeated wall of sound that seems to include some wordless male vocals but this could also be an interesting aural illusion. Crank it up and see what you think.

Born in Norway, Bruland is based in Berlin. “Ladder” is a track from her forthcoming album, Speak, due out in December on Just Dust Recordings. Her first album, Reflection of Youth, was released in 2017. You can check her out on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Pseudonym

Melancholy power pop

“Maybe” – Pseudonym

Following the introduction’s ringing, ricocheting guitar line, “Maybe” gets right to it: “Sanity/When will you come to me/Truly does nobody/See what’s all around.” I can relate. The troubled lyrics are delivered by a voice with a comfortable, power-pop purity to it, which reinforces the song’s dual nature, its vibe both itchy and leisurely, an effect embodied by the way the half-time melody is set against a deft, double-time bass line. What hits the ear is a song at once upbeat and melancholy.

Fed up with the state of the world and/or his relationship, the song’s narrator seeks solace in the tried and true; “Side two of Abbey Road/I’ve come to put you on,” he sings. The song’s denouement pays additional tribute: “And in the end,” we hear, “the love you generate/Hopefully will negate/The hate.” One can always hope.

Everything you hear here arrives courtesy of Paul Desjarlais, who is not merely the singer and songwriter but in fact the only member of the “band” Pseudonym—which is, come to think of it, quite the clever and effective stage name. “Maybe” is a track from Before The Monsters Came, the sixth album Desjarlais has recorded as Pseudonym, which was released in August. You can listen to it and buy it, digitally, via Bandcamp. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Chloe Mae

Dreamy, with a swing

“Falling” – Chloe Mae

Its dreaminess tweaked with a bit of a swing, “Falling” is an engaging song that highlights Chloe Mae’s supple and subtly potent voice. I’m hooked at the start by the Sundays-eseque character of the verse, its bi-level, 6/8 melody quickly revealing Mae’s voice as one to be reckoned with (check out the high E she hits around 0:31, a wonderful bit of passing dissonance).

But it’s the chorus that slays me for good here, the way its simple two-note melody, describing a descending major third interval, is answered a half step up and an octave higher with wordless vocals now offering an ascending minor third interval straddling the original two notes. That’s what’s going on technically but what counts is how satisfying this sounds, turning the chorus’s unusual reticence, melodically (how many choruses repeat just two notes?), into its superpower.

Things get pleasantly psychedelic in the second half, synthesizers moving from background to foreground, lyrics repeating the phrase “Falling back to you” as a sort of mantra with a synthesizer countermelody below and higher-pitched synth noodles above. Everything wraps up in a tidy 3:10. I suggest repeated listens, to allow its charms to sink further in.

Chloe Mae is a singer/songwriter from Brisbane. “Falling” is her second single, released in August.

I stay here just the same

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.09 – Sept. 2021

With apologies to the ever under-valued piano, this month’s mix offers an inadvertent salute to rock’n’roll’s two quintessential instruments, the electric guitar and the synthesizer. I’m pretty sure the guitar wins this round (see Weezer, Bowie, Davies, Trynin, and, fiercest of all, that second to last track from the Motels), but it’s close. The enticing Canadian experimental popster Bernice gives us all sorts of electronic bips and twiddles (note, though, the analog piano winding its way in and out); the defunct Bay Area band Dealership offers warm, bell-like digital tones; and, wrapping things up, the mighty Toronto foursome Metric goes all fidgety-synth-poppy on us with the portentous but danceable “Cascades.” Guitars win but synths have the last word.

For the record, note that 13 of the 20 artists this month are making their first appearance on an EPS mix, and two songs this time around are songs formerly featured as MP3s here on Fingertips: the Dealership song “Forest,” and “The Sun Ain’t Shining No More,” from the Danish band Asteroid Galaxy Tour, whose most recent record dates to 2014; they are currently on hiatus.

“Monday Morning Rock” – Marshall Crenshaw (Field Day, 1983)
“Benny” – Allen LeRoy Hug (single, 2021)
“Dirty Work” – Steely Dan (Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
“The Good Life” – Weezer (Pinkerton, 1996)
“Forest” – Dealership (Action/Adventure, 2004)
“Maybe” – The Chantels (single, 1957)
“The Next Day” – David Bowie (The Next Day, 2013)
“What Do Pretty Girls Do?” – Kirsty MacColl (Kite, 1989)
“One Track Mind” – The Knickerbockers (single, 1966)
“It’s Me, Robin” – Bernice (Eau de Bonjourno, 2021)
“The Sun Ain’t Shining No More” – The Asteroids Galaxy Tour (Around the Bend EP, 2009)
“About Her Eyes” – Jerry Jeff Walker (Five Years Gone, 1969)
“From the Lonely Afternoon” – Flora Purim (Carry On, 1979)
“I’m Not the Guy” – Dan Bern (Dan Bern, 1997)
“Cry Cry Cry” – Nicole Atkins (Mondo Amore, 2011)
“Imaginations Real” – Dave Davies (AFL1-3063, 1980)
“Better Than Nothing” – Jennifer Trynin (Cockamamie, 1994)
“Spark” – Over the Rhine (Drunkard’s Prayer, 2005)
“Dressing Up” – The Motels (The Motels, 1979)
“Cascades” – Metric (Pagans in Vegas, 2015)

Random notes:

* The singer/songwriter duo of Tennessee Kamanski and Sarah De La Isla, known together as Allen LeRoy Hug, are one of my favorite new acts of recent years. Featured in May for the mysteriously charming song “Saturnine Boy”, their more recent song “Benny” is another winner, highlighting the twosome’s elusive allure—the offbeat chords, the delayed but brilliant hooks, the fetching vocals, it’s all here, and wrapped up in less than three minutes. Captivating stuff for the discerning listener, and it’s the second song in so no excuse for not checking it out!

* Among the varied chronological destinations this month is year-end 1957, which is when the stone-cold early-rock’n’roll classic “Maybe,” by the Chantels, was released. The Chantels were one of the earliest female, all-Black vocal groups to have crossover national success. They were fronted by the classically-trained Arlene Smith, who not only sang but also wrote both words and music. (Not surprisingly, her co-songwriting credit for “Maybe” was never officially recognized.) A transitional song between straight-ahead doo wop and what would soon be known as the “girl group” sound, “Maybe” comes to us in 2021 as a visitor from another planet, and yet there’s something so foundational here that it cannot be denied, and well deserves being heard within a 21st-century sandwich, as happens here.

* My well-established love for the Kinks necessarily extends to the overlooked brother, Mr. Dave Davies, who can never get enough credit both for his archetypal guitar playing and his very occasional but incisive songwriting for the band. Whatever rough patches he and Ray have gone through relationally, it’s notable that neither brother has felt the need to do a whole lot of solo work over the years. Dave’s 1980 album AFL1-3063 remains an enjoyable glimpse of a bygone era, but sounds as sturdy as ever, what with all the guitars, and that inimitable Davies vocal style, related to Ray’s but not at all the same. (Note: the title was the album’s actual bar code; the cover showed the bar code displayed where his face should be. This was when bar codes were just starting to be slapped on everything. Don’t mess with Dave.)

* “Monday Morning Rock” presents us with a verse melody as muscular as it is humble, embedding itself in the ear with a casual, “you-mean-this-old-thing?” manner, but please let us bow down before its casual brilliance. It doesn’t sound like something someone had to write, so inviting and inevitable is its arc. I do apologize in advance if you have trouble getting it out of your head but there are many worse things that might be filling that space so I’m not really sorry at all.

* Jennifer Trynin had a brief alt-rock moment in the ’90s, appearing in the wake of Liz Phair’s world-shaking debut, with major labels competing with one another to sign her. But there was, as usual, no happy ending, just the usual narrative: the musician ends up with little of the money, the label loses interest when she doesn’t hit it big, moving on in search of the next big thing that almost never pans out. Trynin pretty much left the business after her critically well-regarded first LP and less well-regarded second LP (the one where the musician tries to make amends with the record company) go nowhere commercially. She was able to have something of the last word with a memoir she published in 2006 called Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be, which sounds like a good read. And she has apparently tip-toed back into performance in the 2010s, but no solo work at this point.

* For the uninitiated, this wonderful Steely Dan song is one of a two that Donald Fagen did not sing lead on on the band’s debut album; the alternate lead singer at that point was a guy named David Palmer, who may have been suggested by the record label, perhaps due to Fagen’s lack of confidence at that point as a singer. (I am doing my best to sort through internet “facts.”) Palmer was last heard with the Dan on backing vocals on the second album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Fun (internet) fact: the album’s title was derived from the Bob Dylan song “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

* There is one unartful segue here this time, sorry to say. It happens sometimes: the songs go pretty well together but not how they specifically fit where the first ends and the second begins. I won’t mention it to draw any extra attention to it, but if you hear one that you think is pretty ugly, know that I know it too.

Free and legal MP3: Savannah Gardner

Hymn-like solemnity, down-home allure

“Heartbreak River” – Savannah Gardner

There’s a hymn-like solemnity to “Heartbreak River,” with its dignified pace, swelling vocals, and down-home vibe. There’s also something that cumulatively touches the soul here, although I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is. Gardner is a young singer/songwriter with an ache in her voice and a depth to her presence, so part of the song’s persuasiveness lies in her performance.

And me being a melody guy through and through, I’m also moved by the solidity of the tune itself, which has a steady majesty, and culminates in a resolution in the chorus as mighty and unshakable as they come: the first half (0:45-0:59) a thoroughgoing set-up for the second half, the second half (1:00-1:14) the unhurried and inevitable conclusion. You see the resting point coming from a mile away and it’s all the sweeter as a result.

As suits the song’s humble power, the arrangement feels easy and tasteful, grounded in simple piano playing, with intermittent violin countermelodies, the occasionally audible guitar lick, and the recurrent punctuation of layered backing vocals. These voices rise and fall with restrained drama (and perhaps a bit of vocal processing?; if so, I like the effect a lot), becoming increasingly central to the song’s complexion. The violin, for its part, hangs back a bit, curbing what might be a natural tendency in this sort of song to pour on the syrup; when it moves front and center for the short coda (3:24), it carries with it the heft and poignancy of a bygone time.

Savannah Gardner, born to British parents, was raised in California, but lives now in the Cotswolds. “Heartbreak River” is a single released back in May; her new single, “Take Me Home,” came out late last month; you can check it out via YouTube. Thanks to Savannah for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Magnum Dopus

Post-punk intimations

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” – Magnum Dopus

With a tight, scratchy post-punk rhythm and the rich baritone lead of vocalist Andrew McCarty, the Memphis quintet Magnum Dopus delivers an ear-catching homage to the so-called darkwave edge of ’80s new wave music. Adroit shifts between minor and major keys add to the song’s affecting, Depeche-Mode-y vibe. And while it’s definitely not just McCarty’s voice that makes the song, I do give his voice a lot of credit here. That’s quite a voice.

And yet the real hook, to my ears, is the wordless vocal accents that adorn the chorus (first heard at 1:00). The chorus opens with a sense of clearing, with the insistent scratch of the rhythm guitar abruptly dissipated and the melody easing off the double-time urgency of the verse. McCarty sings the titular phrase (it doesn’t sound much like the titular phrase but I’m assured that it is) and then we get the “oo-oo-oo-oo”s and I don’t know, there’s something in that aural maneuver that underpins the song’s potency. Whether it’s because the “oo-oo”s break the portentous trance a voice like his can induce or simply because the sound of those wordless syllables offers some sort of ineffable finishing touch that you didn’t know the song needed until you heard it, I’m convinced they are what transform the song from passingly good to something I’m now writing about here.

Oh and don’t miss the turbulent, neck-climbing guitar solo (2:31-2:48), which represents another kind of homage in a musical world that has largely devalued not just the guitar but the communal value of a soloist within an ensemble in favor of the relentless car-accident appeal of narcissistic TikTok virtuosity.

“Scratch & Dent Blonde” is the fourth of 10 tracks on Suburbanova, the band’s second full-length album, which was released last month. You can listen to and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Alan Dweck

Stately authority, passionate restraint

“Before” – Alan Dweck

Simple, elegant, and powerful, “Before” is a walking-paced blues-based rocker that converts familiarity to strength through its stately authority. The song reveals itself at its own pace and is concise in its melodic offerings—which is polite way of saying the verse and the chorus are sung to pretty much the same tune–and yet not once does it seem to drag or bore.

Everything in “Before” arrives unruffled and inevitable—instrumental tracks laid down with offhand precision, the underlying beat betraying a subtle swing, and, at the center of attention, Dweck himself with his resonant voice, at once world-weary and hopeful, an underlying fire close to the surface but never fully burning through. Encapsulating the song’s atmosphere of passionate restraint is the lead guitar, content largely with simmering background flourishes. We get a brief solo at 1:42, and an extended one at 3:02, elegiac and resolute, shining with intention but still that sense of something being held back. I mean this in a good way; I am consistently a fan of restraint when it comes to both songwriting and performing, as it almost always speaks to a level of artistry out of range of the “more is more” and/or “look at me!” approach.

Dweck is a veteran musician based in London whose career has taken him around the world, playing for the art of it rather than the commerce—an assumption I’m making based on the fact that there is little in the way of a solid informational trail to follow online beyond the press release describing him as “a globe-trotting artist” who “has continued to move people throughout the years.” “Before” is a single released in August, without a lot of tangential explanation; whether an album is forthcoming is as yet unknown. Wherever he’s been and wherever he’s yet going, the man is well worth listening to in the here and now; don’t miss this one.

I just turned around

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.08 – August 2021

We move on; that’s what survivors do, and we are all survivors now because that’s all any of us lucky enough to be breathing in and out in some safe space or another ever are. To have to be focused on actual surviving is a state too close to not-surviving to register at the time as survival; the rest of us, however, not often concentrating on what it takes to draw each breath, neglect our survivor status with a teenager’s carelessness. But you and me and the person next to you and the one behind them, that’s what we are in the age of COVID-19 and the general idiotic mayhem surrounding us—we are (right now, in this present moment) survivors. If we tend to recognize this mostly in response to someone else’s passing, I suppose that’s only natural; one might, in fact, view grief in part as an expression of the displaced guilt of the survivor.

I’ve been thinking these thoughts in recent days because of the unexpected passing of Nanci Griffith, and I type them up in the aftermath of hearing about Charlie Watts. He was 80; she was 68. The rest of us, right now, survive. Music remains its own sort of immortal presence, recorded music in particular. This strikes me as another reason to be listening to music from our culture’s multifarious decades, which lends to your individual instance of humanity a breadth and depth that ongoing exposure to a limited range of musical expression can’t yield. And what do we have going for us, as survivors, if not our own individual depth? Which we ignore not at our own peril, exactly, but at a price that may yet be extracted from us in some excruciating moment in the future, however near or distant, when our own human fate, as it must be, is sealed. When your days as a survivor are over, how shallow a life do you want to have led? This has nothing to your career accomplishments or your impressive hobbies or how much money you’ve accumulated and everything to do with the connections you’ve made with other people, whether they are in your personal network or via their artistic expression, which links one consciousness to another over time and distance, and which, come to think of it, advantages music over other art forms for its logistical accessibility and focus on only our sense of hearing.

And if that’s not a long-winded and barely relevant introduction to this month’s mix, I don’t know what is. But you may find a few semi-relevant, interweaving themes running through these songs, and maybe even also an ear-catching segue or two. Chapter 8.08 now in the books:

“Canção de Novela” – Adriana Calcanhotto (Seleção Essencial Grandes Sucessos, 2010)
“Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” – Arcade Fire (Funeral, 2004)
“What Do You Hear In These Sounds” – Dar Williams (End of the Summer, 1997)
“Fallen” – Philip Rambow (Shooting Gallery, 1979)
“Another Day, Another Heartache” – The 5th Dimension (Up, Up and Away, 1967)
“Hard Way Home” – Brandi Carlile (Bear Creek, 2012)
“Going Down To Liverpool” – The Bangles (All Over the Place, 1984)
“Emergency Exit” – Beck (Guero, 2005)
“Wade in the Water” – Ramsey Lewis (Wade in the Water, 1966)
“Two By Two” – Nils Lofgren (Nils Lofgren, 1975)
“You’ll Never Be So Wrong” – Kim Wilde (Kim Wilde, 1981)
“The War in the Gulf Between Us” – Adrian Belew (Inner Revolution, 1992)
“Smile” – Lily Allen (Alright, Still, 2006)
“Complainte pour Ste-Catherine” – Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 1976)
“Survival” – Adult Mom (Momentary Lapse of Happily, 2015)
“I Was Made To Love Her” – Stevie Wonder (I Was Made To Love Her, 1967)
“Caution” – The Killers (Imploding the Mirage, 2020)
“Genius” – Warren Zevon (My Ride’s Here, 2002)
“When I Dream” – The Teardrop Explodes (Kilimanjaro, 1980)
“Across the Great Divide” – Nanci Griffith (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1993)

Random notes:

* The loss of any favored musician comes as a blow but when death arrives at too-young an age it induces a particular jolt. Nanci Griffith was but 68 when she died, of causes yet to be announced. As talented a songwriter as she was, it was her album of cover songs, Other Voices, Other Rooms, that turned me from casual fan to much more attentive follower when it came out in 1993. She indeed had a magical way with covers; I’ll always remember seeing her take on the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” in concert and being moved by the peculiar power a newly interpreted version of a familiar song can possess, given the right voice, arrangement, and artistic vision. (She never put that one on an album that I’m aware of, but here’s a roughly recorded live version.) Now then, you can read all sorts of tributes to her that have been posted in the last couple of weeks, and I’d encourage you to, but for my money the best thing to do right away is watch this meticulous compilation on YouTube of all of Nanci’s appearances on David Letterman’s shows (both Late Night and The Late Show). Dave’s ongoing, heartfelt appreciation of this masterly, somewhat offbeat singer/songwriter is touching beyond words, especially now.

* Kim Wilde is one of those artists whose worldwide success (10 million albums sold) never translated into much recognition in the U.S. (Wikipedia tells me that her 17 top-40 UK hits in the ’80s made her the most charted British female solo act of that decade.) And it’s not like she didn’t get a strong introduction here: “Kids in America” was a reasonable hit with quite a long shelf life. But despite the strength of the rest of her debut album she ended up pretty much of a one-hit wonder with those very same kids in America, getting little to no attention here for any of the 13 albums which followed, including the relatively recent Here Come the Aliens, released in 2018. “You’ll Never Be So Wrong” is a track dating back to the 1981 debut, and happens to have been written by her brother Ricky and her father, the early British rock’n’roller Marty Wilde, whose later version of the same song appeared on a ’90s retrospective album of his.

* I don’t know of many songs that are about therapy, but the Dar Williams song “What Do You Hear In These Sounds” definitely is, and contains this deep and delightful lyric: “And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think/ That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink/ But oh how I loved everybody else/ When I finally got to talk so much about myself.”

* Like most people. probably, I’ve long associated the 5th Dimension with their good-natured but somewhat cornball hits—“Up, Up and Away” being perhaps the epitome of both their success and their easy-listening inclination. But Questlove’s recent documentary, Summer Of Soul, about the long-forgotten but monumental Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 gave me new eyes and ears through which to see and hear this pioneering singing group, and sent me off listening to tracks of theirs that didn’t turn into big hits; in the process I came across “Another Day, Another Heartache.” This was actually the second single released from their debut album, after their Mamas and the Papas cover “Go Where You Wanna Go.” The cover made it to #16, but “Another Day, Another Heartache” didn’t crack the top 40. Luckily for everyone, the record company persisted, trying another single from the album, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous title track. “Up, Up and Away” went to #7 in the US, and established the group as hitmakers for the next four or five years. Me, I kind of prefer their somewhat harder-rocking sound, and also really appreciated hearing thoughts and reminiscences from the group’s two main voices in the Questlove film, which is well worth seeing.

* Warren Zevon as a teenager was briefly mentored by Igor Stravinsky. You can occasionally hear the classical composer he never became showing through the seams of his rock’n’roll.

* Remember Lily Allen? In some ways, in retrospect, the first half or so of the ’00s seems like its own little world—definitely not the ’90s anymore, but before the iPhone, disguised as your best friend, intruded on our culture, our psyches, our general well-being. “Smile” comes to us from the edge of that transition, and somehow sounds like as much of a breath of fresh air now as it did then, if not more so. Allen herself has been through the invidious gauntlet we manage to reserve for young women who make a pop cultural impact; her musical life has been intermittently interrupted if not derailed by a variety of circumstances, some beyond her control, some not. She seems now to be focusing on her acting, and this month, coincidentally enough (I just noticed it while typing this), made her West End debut in the play 2:22 A Ghost Story.

* That guitar solo in “Caution”? It’s Lindsey Buckingham.

* Born in Montreal, and borrowing his stage name, phonetically, from the French poet, Philip Rambow had a historically interesting run in his early years as a musician in the ’70s, personally traversing the territory from pub rock to glam rock to new wave, working and/or cavorting with the likes of Brian Eno, Mick Ronson, Ellen Foley, and Kirsty MacColl, among others, along the way. (Side note for fellow Kirsty devotees: Rambow co-wrote her first UK hit, “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” and played on her debut album, Desperate Character.) “Fallen” was the lead single from the first of two solo albums he released during the new wave era, but it kind of has its own rollicking sound about it that doesn’t have that much to do with what was going on otherwise in 1979. Rambow ended up leaving the music business for a couple of decades, re-emerging to play at a Kirsty MacColl tribute concert following her tragic death in Mexico in 2000. His 2014 album Whatever Happened to Philip Rambow? is perhaps self-explanatory, and he appears since then to have re-started his musical career; 2020 saw the release of his latest album, Canadiana.

Free and legal MP3: The Color Forty Nine

Plaintive bilingual waltz, w/ horns

“What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” – The Color Forty Nine

A song with a recurring instrumental motif separate from the central melody is, to my ears, almost always a worthy enterprise. When that recurring instrumental motif is performed by a plaintive trumpet, as with “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?,” all the better. What I’m talking about specifically is the trumpet melody first heard in between the lyrics at 0:27, and which continues to ground the song in alluring melancholy the rest of the way. The horns—there is more than the one trumpet as we get going—have a beautiful Mexican vibe, reinforcing the song’s bilingual setting. The music, with its 3/4-time sway, lulls the ear while the English lyrics offer impressions and hints; this is one of those songs where you feel what’s going on at a level below concrete awareness. Which is to say I have no idea what the song is actually saying but that doesn’t seem to matter; I still get it.

The lyrics alternate between Spanish and English while the music alternates between major- and minor-key melodies. Every touch along the way seems ideal: the violin that weaves itself into the mix, the group vocals that bolster the chorus (which consists only of the song title, in both languages), the ongoing shifts in the horn charts, the false ending at 3:27, the subsequent coda. With its gentle folk-music sensibility and expressive craft, the song washes over the spirit, seeming to carry with it a sort of wisdom of the ages.

The Color Forty Nine is a San Diego-based quartet. The Spanish lyrics here are sung by guest vocalist Rubén Albarrán of the band Café Tacvba, from the suburbs of Mexico City. “What Would I Know? / ¿Yo Que Sé?” is a song from The Color Forty Nine’s second album, String Ladders, which was released last month.