What I have hidden there

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.05 – May 2021

One of the things I like to do with these (self-proclaimed) eclectic playlists is sprinkle them with songs that have been previously featured here as free and legal MP3s, ranging back from these last 18 or so years. It’s first of all a nice way to reinforce the quality of the songs by saying yes, this is not only a free download, not just a “flavor of the month,” but it’s a legitimately wonderful song, here for the long run (I mean, “Hotel Lights”!: such a brilliant piece of music! so sadly overlooked!). Which leads me to the other great thing about revisiting songs I’ve reviewed in the past, which is the opportunity the playlists provide to hear these songs in a wider musical context than their being simply shunted into one or another 21st-century-focused mix. Among the many unfortunate side effects of our cultural tendency to put music in silos of genres and/or decades is that we rarely if ever get to hear music from our current generation of musicians standing in and around music written and performed by other kinds of musicians from other moments in time. Why is this important? I’ll tell you: I don’t really know. (But here are some more detailed thoughts on the matter.) I do suspect that consistently narrowing one’s horizons does not contribute to one’s health and well-being, never mind the health and well-being of a society composed of individuals with similarly narrowed outlooks.

If you’re with me this far, you already know all this. What you may not already know are some of the songs in this month’s mix (artful segue, huh?). We start with new wave power pop from an obscure, defunct British outfit that never had a US release, visit the Psychedelic Furs’ unexpected and unexpectedly good reunion album from last year, give a listen to an overlooked Rickie Lee Jones gem from a challenging album, dive into a “freak folk” antecedent from the dawn of the ’70s, spend a bit of time with Joe Jackson’s unusual live album, and, oh, a lot more. Please see (and listen) for yourself, via the handy Mixcloud widget right below the song list:

“The Way I See It” – The Brakes (For Why You Kicka My Donkey, 1979)
“Wreck” – The Bittersweets (Goodnight San Francisco, 2008)
“Chan Chan” – Buena Vista Social Club (Buena Vista Social Club, 1997)
“No-One” – The Psychedelic Furs (Made of Rain, 2020)
“Badge” – Cream (Goodbye, 1969)
“You’ve Been Gone Too Long” – Ann Sexton (Loving You, Loving Me, 1973)
“Living a Lie” – The dB’s (Repercussion, 1982)
“Sorry Is Gone” – Jessica Lea Mayfield (Sorry is Gone, 2017)
“The Duke” – Menahan Street Band (The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band, 2021)
“Hard Line” – Jill Barber (For All Time, 2007)
“Life and How to Live it” -R.E.M. (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985)
“Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” – The Delfonics (single, 1968)
“Hotel Lights” – Amy Cook (Let The Light In, 2010)
“Firewalker” – Rickie Lee Jones (Ghostyhead, 1997)
“Knives Out” – Radiohead (Amnesiac, 2001)
“Dolphin” – Linda Perhacs (Parallelograms, 1970)
“Cheese Cake” – Dexter Gordon (Go, 1962)
“Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang (Goes Missing, 2015)
“Soul Kiss” – Joe Jackson (Big World, 1986)
“Sit On My Hands” – Frente! (Shape, 1996)

Stray observations:

* You may not have heard of The Brakes–I did not until this month, via Willfully Obscure–but there seems little doubting that this overlooked British band is from the late ’70s; “The Way I See It” in fact all but screams 1979, from the “Starry Eyes” echo of its introduction through its proto-new-wave vocal stylings and overall power-pop goodness. (This was a year that gave us not only The Records but “Girl of My Dreams,” “Oliver’s Army,” “Girls Talk,” “Back of My Hand,” “Too Late,” etc. etc.)

* Maybe it’s because of the long pandemic, maybe it’s because of the even longer-standing cultural trend that has splintered music into a dizzying variety of sub-genres (any number of which strike me better identified as “sound” rather than “music”; not a judgment just an observation), but I hear “The Duke,” from the venerable Brooklyn collective Menahan Street Band, and something in me warms and settles. Here are people playing solid three-dimensional instruments together; here is a groove and a melody; here is something that sounds like a party and a discussion at the same time. I missed hearing about these guys–and their music’s popularity among samplers–when they first appeared on the scene in the later ’00s. “The Duke” comes from their first album in nine years, and it’s laden with groove and melody from top to bottom.

* Linda Perhacs has an unusual history I can’t effectively summarize in this short space; check out her bio on Allmusic if you’d like the details. The executive summary is that she made one album, in 1970, considered something of a lost psych-folk classic, then disappeared so thoroughly that an indie label that re-released it in 1998 had to write in the liner notes that they had tried to find her and couldn’t. She had been working all those years as a dental hygienist in California. She was finally located and Parallelograms was not only given a more official re-release, she has eventually recorded, after all this time, two new albums, one in 2014 and one in 2017.

* Joe Jackson’s Big World, released in 1986, is an underrated landmark, an album recorded across a series of live performances in New York City during which the audience was instructed to refrain from applauding. The end result fit onto the relatively new CD format without a problem, but was too long for a standard vinyl record. It ended up being released as a three-sided album (the second side of the second record was simply left blank), which was kind of strange and kind of cool. For whatever reason, the album was a commercial disappointment after his previous two very successful releases (Night and Day, Body and Soul); in retrospect, this was something of a turning point in his career: Jackson, while musically active to this day, has yet to regain a mainstream audience.

* Is it my imagination or does the Delfonics “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” sound a little stalk-y here in 2021? Let’s assume songwriters Thom Bell and William Hart meant no harm in crafting this early Philly soul treasure. The single came out in 1968; it appeared on the group’s second album, Sound of Sexy Soul, the following year. Bell would soon hook up with Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble and produce any number of big hits; William Hart was the lead vocalist of the Delfonics, who numbered among group members Hart’s brother Wilbert.

* Bonus info for the extra curious: besides the Amy Cook song, the other songs this month that were previously reviewed on Fingertips as MP3s are “Wreck” by the Bittersweets (2008), “Sorry is Gone” from Jessica Lea Mayfield (2017), “Hard Line” from Jill Barber (2007), and The Cairo Gang’s “Ice Fishing” (2015).

Free and legal MP3: Trapper Schoepp

Casually anthemic

“May Day” – Trapper Schoepp

“May Day” is a terrific example of how the familiar can take a turn towards the powerful. Notice at the outset how Schoepp doesn’t belabor the introduction–a canny move when you’re operating in familiar territory: as listeners, we hear the two-measure riff repeated once, and we’re good, let’s move right into it. The same thing happens with the one-note verse melody, which fades as we get into the fourth measure–the ear grasps the effect and at that point Schoepp’s decision to expand the melody beyond the one note registers as an effective surprise.

Then, the chorus: why does something this simple work so well? There are three subtle elements I can point to. First, there’s the way that the melody here slows down, with key words drawn out over multiple beats. This presents an engaging contrast to the march-like regularity of the verse. Second, there’s no denying the power of unadulterated melodic resolution: this chorus ends precisely as your ear wants and needs it to end. Lastly, Schoepp begins the chorus on a high E and ends one octave below–a broad melodic range to cover in a simple rock song. This is nothing that you actually have to know, and it’s not at all showy, but I’m convinced the breadth of the melody contributes to its potency; anthemic rock songs tend to have more concise melody lines (think Tom Petty as a classic example). All this is delivered with Schoepp’s scuffed-up tenor, which lends a down-home appeal that brings to mind Steve Forbert, for another old-school reference point.

Raised in Wisconsin and based in Milwaukee, Schoepp has been releasing music since he was a teenager in the late ’00s. “May Day” is the title track to his new album, which will be released later this month. The single is up on Bandcamp as well; you’ll find the album there too upon release.

Free and legal MP3: Allen LeRoy Hug

Charming, distinctive acoustic duo

“Saturnine Boy” – Allen LeRoy Hug

Sturdy and delicate at the same time, “Saturnine Boy” is a brief, distinctive song from the one-year-old LA-based duo of Tennessee Kamanski and Sarah De La Isla, doing musical business as Allen LeRoy Hug. They self-identify as a mixture of “Big Star, The Everly Brothers, Cocteau Twins, Fionn Regan and Kate Bush,” and I don’t know about you but that grabs my attention forthwith.

And I am in fact delighted by this song while being mysteriously unable to delineate any concrete reason. The duo’s voices vibrate charmingly together; acoustic guitars gambol lightly along an idiosyncratic path; the chorus is a particular enigma, comprised of one laconic lyric (“Saturnine boy things haven’t gone right”) set to an upwardly unfolding melody marked by idiosyncratic intervals. The song is sung by a narrator who appears to have fallen for someone who may not be all that outwardly lovable (“saturnine” = “gloomy and sluggish”) but has still captured her heart. I say “appears” because the lyrics are elusive and/or allusive, in quite a pleasurable way; I mean, what else can you do with a line like “Your eyes heavy luggage I carry” but love it to pieces, especially for Kamanski’s appealing phrasing (listen to how she manages nearly to rhyme “carry” with “heavy” in a most winsome way).

Allen LeRoy Hug have released just two singles to date. You can listen to both of them, and purchase them, over there at good old Bandcamp. This is apparently just the beginning: Kamanski tells me that she and De La Isla wrote and recorded “a ton of songs” throughout the lockdown, which they will be releasing as singles over the coming months. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Free and legal MP3: Perry Serpa

Incisive cover of a ’70s nugget

“Alone Again (Naturally)” – Perry Serpa

A song about losing both parents and contemplating suicide is not standard top-40 material but Gilbert O’Sullivan fashioned a catchy ditty of it back in 1972; the song was later declared the fifth most popular song of the ’70s, according to none other than Casey Kasem. Those were the days(?).

Fifty years after the song was originally recorded, NYC-based singer/songwriter Perry Serpa has pulled it out of the oldies stack, to terrific effect. While not making any flagrant changes, Serpa manages to excavate the mature heart of a song initially a bit too jaunty for its own good. He’s slowed it down slightly for one, ditched the vampy piano and sunny acoustic guitar fills for another, and, crucially, reduced the sappy swelling of strings to the sound of individually articulated violin lines. But maybe the most impactful change is the shift in vocals: O’Sullivan sang with a bright, poppy tone that fought with the content; plain-dealing and world-weary, Serpa dives into the song’s poignancy by staying ever-so-slightly above it. Where O’Sullivan gave pep the aura of hopeless defeat, Serpa delivers melancholy with an undercurrent of tenacity. At the risk of offending originalists, I like this version quite a bit better than the well-known one.

Serpa’s incisive cover is one of ten tracks on his new album, Laying Low in the Highlands, scheduled for release next week. Serpa was last featured on Fingertips in 2018, with a track from that album of his that created the fictional classic album Nick Hornby wrote about in his novel Juilet, Naked. (If you never heard it, and/or never heard about this project, go back and check it out. It’s well-done and worthwhile.) With his band, The Sharp Things, Serpa has also been here in 2013 and 2014. Thanks to Serpa for the MP3.

I’ll take suggestions

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.04 – April 2021

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.

Free and legal MP3: The Deathray Davies

Reanimated indie rock

“Oh Stars” – The Deathray Davies

“Oh Stars” launches with an understated old-school backbeat, revolving around one insistent chord that recurs with “ta-da!”-like charm; the music sounds like the feeling of something marvelous about to happen. And in a subtle way it does; “Oh Stars” may not at first knock your socks off but it succeeds with a mature “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” poise. And, it clocks in at a tidy 2:53, which is less unusual than it used to be in a Spotify/TikTok world, but in the verse-chorus-verse universe this still indicates admirable restraint.

Front man and songwriter John Dufilho, meanwhile, himself employs an understated vocal style to match the established vibe; he could surely cut loose were he not in this contemplative mood, looking at the stars and pondering life. It ends up feeling a bit like a magic trick, how Dufilho creates substance out of almost nothing I can specifically point to. Maybe it’s his melancholy but determined tone, maybe it’s the way the sing-song-y melody complements the resolute flow, or maybe it’s something as basic but unexpected as the piano which grounds the song in a series of unfussy chords that seem to be hiding in plain sight–you won’t necessarily hear them until you listen for them.

If “Oh Stars” feels like a bit of a throwback, there’s good reason for it: the Dallas-based Deathray Davies were a project born in the late ’90s, with a heyday coinciding with the heyday of indie rock in the early to mid-’00s. “Oh Stars” comes from a new album, Time Well Wasted, released last month after what Dufilho has called “a 15-year nap.” The Deathray Davies leader hasn’t himself been napping in the meantime, having been busy through the years with a series of other Dallas area musical projects, including the bands Clifffs, Cantina, and Motorcade. He was also, as of the late ’00s, absorbed into the Athens, Georgia-based musical collective Apples in Stereo, a band that itself has mostly been on hiatus for 10 years or so as well.

You can listen to Time Well Wasted, and purchase it, via Bandcamp. The band was featured once before on Fingertips, way back in 2005.

Free and legal MP3: The Antlers

Lovely bittersweet chamber pop

“Solstice” – The Antlers

Here’s another indie-rock darling reemerging after a hiatus. In this case, the Antlers were a group that had truly hit the big-time–glowing reviews, two appearances on The Tonight Show, etc.–and yet decided to put the enterprise on ice for quite a while.

While operating generally within their familiar soundscape–a reverby, unhurried package of tender vocals, acoustic orchestrations, and electric atmospherics–the Antlers are here in 2021 with perhaps a less angst-driven sound. “I think this is the first album I’ve made that has no eeriness in it,” front man Peter Silberman has said, of the new record, Green to Gold. No eeriness, and maybe a gentler tone overall, but there remains an underlying aura of bittersweet tension that seems all but inherent to Silberman’s wavering tenor. Even a song as pure and lovely as “Solstice” doesn’t deliver an unalloyed feeling of contentment as much as the sense of a slightly apprehensive respite and/or a determination to keep the spirits up in the face of life’s inevitable travails.

But pure and lovely this surely is: Silberman delivers a deeply gratifying verse melody, that fragile voice of his navigating strong upward and downward intervals, the melody in the process exploring the breadth of the octave–an often effective songwriting maneuver. The accompaniment here is provided by deftly arranged stringed instruments and bolstered by a digital wash blurring backing vocals into white noise. The song is little more than the bewitching verse melody and a chorus comprised of wordless vocals and the two-word lyric “Keeping bright bright bright.” And yet even this super simple chorus feels rich with craft and intention, with strings providing both rhythm and texture. A beautiful effort from beginning to end.

“Solstice” is the third track of 10 on Green to Gold, which was released in March on Anti- Records. This is the first Antlers album since 2014’s Familiars. The Antlers were previously featured on Fingertips in 2009, when the Silberman solo project first became a genuine band. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: The Great Emu War Casualties

Crafty songwriting, dynamic arrangements

“I’m a Yes Man” – The Great Emu War Casualties

For all its loose, swinging atmosphere, “I’m a Yes Man” is a highly disciplined exercise in catchy late-period rock’n’roll. The swing comes from melodies consistently centered off the first beat of the measure, while the sense of looseness is propelled by a dynamic bass line down below and wailing electric guitars up top. The discipline, meanwhile, can be felt in the tightness of the performances (random example: that tiny dead-air pause in the proceedings at 0:19), including the disaffected, precise vocal stylings of front man Joe Jackson (yup that’s his name). His rhythmically astute phrasing is impressive, maybe nowhere clearer than on the standout line “I’ve got half a mind to half-remember half the time” (1:14). The song is written to encourage his careful, clever singing, which doubles back to highlight the crafty songwriting. I like, as an example, how the line “And could you offer in a helping hand?” at 1:24 extends beyond the confines of its musical phrase, which strikes me as a confident bit of composition.

The arrangements, with their intertwining guitars and savvy dynamics, reinforce the air of a band in complete control. This might have a fair amount to do with producer Alex Newport, who has worked with a number of heavy-hitting outfits, among them Death Cab for Cutie and Bloc Party; in any case, the song is continually enlivened by not only the particular instrumental mix in use at any given time but the push and pull of volume and accompaniment. One small example: not only does the swell of sound drop away at the start of the verse (0:40), but we also get a guitar playing notes that imply chords that do not match the melody in the vocal–an enticing bit of passing dissonance. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at pretty much any moment and find something interesting going on. I suggest you try it.

The Great Emu War Casualties is a trio from Melbourne. “I’m a Yes Man” is a track from their five-song EP, Vanity Project, which was released at the end of February. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Oh and in case you’re interested: the Great Emu War was actually a thing, involving the Australian government employing the military to control a runaway emu population in 1932. You can read more here. Executive summary: the emus won.

Refusing to exit

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.03 – March 2021

We have this time a month of challenging segues, as a disconcerting number of the songs selected for the March playlist have what music folks call a “cold” ending–which means a song that has an actual end point, often an abrupt one, versus a song that fades out. The more abrupt an ending, the harder it can be to create an effective segue; and an extra problem this month is that a noticeable number of songs likewise feature cold openings, starting either suddenly or loudly or both. This is the first time I can remember having to change a number of songs around, or even kick songs out of the mix, based on an inability to construct a workable segue. And there remain a few here that are a bit bumpy for my taste. But it’s worth it, I hope, for the songs to follow.

And this: there have now been a year’s worth of pandemic-shuttered playlists. On the bright side, this is an activity that in theory is unaffected by physical lockdowns. But, that’s merely theory; in practice, everything is affected, while so many things still refuse to exit: degenerative idiocy in the public sphere, systemic racism, proto-fascist tendencies in state legislatures, and oh yes this persistent virus. All things must pass; we just, in advance, never know quite when.

“Heaps of Sheep” – Robert Wyatt (Shleep, 1997)
“Stay” – The Blue Nile (A Walk Across the Rooftops, 1984)
“Mirrorball” – Taylor Swift (folklore, 2020)
“Tattler” – Ry Cooder (Paradise and Lunch, 1974)
“New Resolution” – Heartless Bastards (Stairs and Elevators, 2005)
“Argos Farfish” – Sharhabi Ahmed (1960s)
“Day After Day” – The Pretenders (Pretenders II, 1981)
“The Night” – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (single, 1972)
“Hysteric” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (It’s Blitz!, 2008)
“The Hunger” – Bat For Lashes (Lost Girls, 2019)
“The Universal” – Blur (The Great Escape, 1995)
“2.A.T.” – Fingerprintz (The Very Dab, 1979)
“Every Little Bit” – The Royalty (The Royalty, 2012)
“Sword” – Ian Sweet (Show Me How You Disappear, 2021)
“Angels” – David Byrne (David Byrne, 1994)
“Call On Me” – The Dynells (single, 1968)
“Postcards From Italy” – Beirut (Gulag Orkestar, 2006)
“Downtown” – Christine Lavin (Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind, 1988)
“Wake Up Everybody” – John Legend & The Roots (Wake Up!, 2010)
“Salt of the Earth” – The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, 1968)

Stray notes:

* I’m never sure how far into these mixes that listeners tend to get but please do yourself the favor of hanging in there this month at least until you get to the majestic Frankie Valli single “The Night,” which elevates melodrama to the awe-inspiring. The bass-driven beat will lure you in, the horns will charm you, and the theatrical melody, with its heroic intervals, will all but take your breath away. Many thanks to George from Between Two Islands for the tip on this brilliant ’70s nugget.

* I will say up front that I have very little knowledge when it comes to the vast array of sounds that have been recorded outside of my limited Anglo-American musical bubble, and in particular had zero exposure to Sudanese jazz before the song “Argos Farfish” had a moment in the spotlight over on Hype Machine a few months ago. The artist, Sharhabil Ahmed, is known in some circles as the “King of Sudanese Jazz”; seven of his recordings were gathered last year into a compilation on the German label Habibi Funk, which specializes in reissuing “Arabic funk, jazz, and other organic sounds.” Their 16 album releases to date can be found on Bandcamp. Try as I might I cannot locate a specific date for “Argos Farfish,” but it seems to have been recorded some time in the 1960s. I obviously still know very little about any of this, but I know that the song caught my ear and wanted to work its way into a playlist so here it is.

* At another end of the spectrum, we have Taylor Swift. I’ve never previously connected to her music but also never doubted her talent. And while her widely-praised Aaron Dessner-produced 2020 albums didn’t turn me into a fan per se, they did have me listening. On the one hand, even in a new sonic setting, her songwriting style veers too much towards the “spill words out in double time without a melody” end of things to hold my interest.  On the other hand, there is “Mirrorball,” in which she lets a graceful melody take root in a gauzy, quasi-dream-poppy setting–to me, an encouraging detour. (With a different but related vibe, “Marjorie,” from the follow-up, evermore, is another good listen.)

* Two of my favorite all-time songs share a title: “Stay.” Then again, maybe not surprising, given that Wikipedia lists more than 90 songs with that same one-word title. But I am particularly partial to David Bowie’s “Stay,” from Station to Station, and, best of all, this one from the Blue Nile’s debut album, 1984’s  A Walk Across The Rooftops. Paul Buchanan’s voice may be an acquired taste through the album’s more meander-y tracks, but on the comparatively buoyant “Stay,” he and the band hit it out of the park.

* Ian Sweet is the performing name of the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Jilian Medford. “Sword” is from Show Me How You Disappear, her third album, released earlier this month on Polyvinyl Records.

* As disconcerting as it was to have a David Byrne solo album, in 1994, after being so indelibly presented as Talking Heads’ front man all those previous years, he has long since succeeded in making it seem almost equally disconcerting to think that he used to be in a band. Anyone with access to HBO: I all but demand that you go and watch “American Utopia” at your earliest convenience, if you haven’t done so already. It will bring a smile to your pandemic-weary face; in fact, watching him perform “I Zimbra” during the show made me so happy I started crying.

* Sadly little is known about the group called The Dynells, except that that were fronted by the dynamic Brenda McGregor, and that this song, originally released on a Philadelphia label called Vent Records in 1967–and more widely released on Atco Records in 1968–was produced by none other than Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This was a few years before they founded Philadelphia International Records, but in the same time frame as when they produced their first big hit, which was “Expressway To Your Heart,” by the Soul Survivors. Why wasn’t this a hit also? It’s a mystery; the song is fantastic, with a groovy guitar riff and fully developed horn charts. Just about every piece of information about McGregor on the internet is word for word the same sentence about how she was later in a group called the Vonettes and how she died at age 25.

Free and legal MP3: Ciel

Melodic splendor, w/ squonky noise

“Pretty Face” – Ciel

Launching without an introduction, “Pretty Face” brings us promptly into the compelling world of vocalist/guitarist Michelle Hindriks, a Netherlands native, transplanted to Brighton. Her lightly accented English and pellucid tone combine with irresistible potency, all the more so when we reach a chorus that ravishes with its melodic sweep and splendor. The subtle double-tracking of the lead vocals here adds to the poignant beauty.

At the same time, tune your ear further down into the mix and track if you can what Jorge Bela Jimenez’s guitar is doing, which is quietly and intermittently going crazy in a “don’t mind me” kind of way. You won’t hear it at first unless you listen for it. By the chorus’s third iteration (2:05), Jiminez is becoming less restrained, setting up the all-out assault that breaks free at 2:43, and carries us through a memorably squonky coda.

Lyrically the song veers into unexpected territory. By Hindriks’ account, she was inspired by a number of documentaries she found herself watching under lockdown about a variety of cults, and one particular story about a man who lost his wife to a cult–how he knows she’s still out there, but forever separated from him. While it’s not a direct experience many of us (thank goodness) can relate to, it can stand as a metaphor for living with the grief of heartache and separation.

Ciel has put out two EPs to date, most recently Monument, in April 2020. “Pretty Face,” released last month, is the second single the band has released since then. Check out the full discography on Bandcamp.