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)
* 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.