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.

A crack in the door

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.07 – July 2021

Did I speak too soon last month about not wearing a mask? I did. But the pleasures of interacting with unmasked faces remain real, if somewhat mitigated one month later by the need to keep the spread tamped down with the new variant elbowing its way around the country (in some places more vigorously than others). It remains true that the vast majority of new cases are rising among the unvaccinated; the fact that there remain people putting energy into protesting events that require masks would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. What’s next?: protesting at the airport because they require you to have a ticket to get on a plane? People around the world are clamoring for the very vaccines that a determined group of raging American idiots refuse to take. Perhaps the ongoing moral of the story is this tiresome one: that internet-disseminated ignorance remains the bane of our century to date. (As Rachel Cusk’s narrator in her brilliant novel Second Place writes, “Whatever power it is that I have, it’s nothing compared to the power of stupidity.”) Personally I’ve been wondering lately about what evolutionary purpose stupidity serves, because it seems as persistent as the cockroach.

Moving (thankfully) on to the playlist, this one as usual has a little bit of a lot of different things, mixing the familiar with the less familiar, rock and pop with soul and jazz, the new wave with the old guard, and sprinkled throughout with a batch of 21st-century goodies; a vague sense of summer is in the air but mostly by accident. While on many days I wonder at the foolishness of my endeavor here—today’s music scene seems definitively to have hoisted my taste and perspective into a box gathering dust in our cultural attic—I try to rise above the doubts by reminding myself that fashion is a different filter than quality, and however many people are out there chasing shiny objects, there remains a persistent bloc of artists who care about longer-standing standards of craft and musicality. Thus the aforementioned “21st-century goodies,” as well as my inclination to circulate them in and among quality songs from decades gone by. It’s a quixotic task at best; if you’re out there listening I appreciate your time and attention more than you know.

“Complex” – Tristen (Aquatic Flowers, 2021)
“I Want More” – CAN (Flow Motion, 1976)
“Bernadette” – The Four Tops (Reach Out, 1967)
“Summer Rain” – Star Tropics (single, 2015)
“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” – Andrew Bird (The Mysterious Production of Eggs, 2004)
“Houses in Motion” – Talking Heads (Remain in Light, 1980)
“Wonder” – Natalie Merchant (Tigerlily, 1995)
“Don’t Let Me Down Again” – Buckingham Nicks (Buckingham Nicks, 1975)
“Song For My Father” – The Horace Silver Quintet (Song For My Father, 1964)
“Tom The Model” – Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man (Out Of Season, 2002)
“Sleep All Summer” – Neko Case, w/ Eric Bachmann (Hell-On, 2018)
“Linger” – The Cranberries (Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
“More Love” – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Make It Happen, 1968)
“Life In Tokyo” – Japan (Assemblage, 1981)
“Poison My Cup” – Shannon McArdle (Summer of the Whore, 2008)
“At Attention” – Northern Portrait (single, 2020)
“Scattered” – The Kinks (Phobia, 1993)
“Swimming” – Tracey Thorn (Love and Its Opposite, 2011)
“Boxcars” – Joe Ely (Honky Tonk Masquerade, 1978)
“Morning Come” – Marianne Faithfull (A Child’s Adventure, 1983)

Random notes:

* Tristen has been doing her adroitly-crafted indie singer/songwriter rock’n’roll for more than a decade (she made her Fingertips debut back in 2010, for what it’s worth). To my ears her music sounds far more expansive and curious about the world than the music her somewhat younger and more well-known one-named peers have been recently making. Tristen’s latest album is Aquatic Flowers, released in June.

* I am only peripherally familiar with the work of the avant-garde, improvisational German band CAN but they do present me with the irresistible challenge of figuring out how to work something of theirs into a playlist here. That said, the band did have a certain number of songs that managed to be hits in their native land, “I Want More” being one of them. And they were super-influential among a certain arty sort of rock’n’roller; note for instance a certain CAN-iness to the Talking Heads track a few slots down in the playlist. And while three of the original four members are no longer alive, the band does have a thorough presence on Bandcamp, where you can listen to and purchase all of their (intermittently impenetrable) albums.

* Why was Buckingham Nicks, the one-off duo album recorded by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, a commercial failure in 1973 when the two of them joining Fleetwood Mac shortly thereafter is what ended up generating Fleetwood Mac’s monstrous success? It seems mysterious in retrospect, given how similar the sound of this album is to music that became hugely popular on the Fleetwood Mac album released two years later. (One song, in fact, from Buckingham Nicks—“Crystal”—later appeared on the landmark 1975 album.) Chalk it up, apparently, to colossal promotional mismanagement. But given the messy/unpleasant interpersonal history involved, there does seem something star-crossed about Buckingham Nicks, which has yet to this day to have an official digital release, either on CD or via any streaming service. (High-priced unofficial copies can be had, however, because the internet.)

* “Scattered” is the closing track on Phobia, the 24th and final studio album by the Kinks. While Ray Davies’ material grew a little wobbly as the band sputtered out of the late ’80s, he could always be counted on for two or three unusually good songs even on lesser releases. If this, as is likely, remains the last official original Kinks song of the band’s storied career, it’s a strong farewell indeed. Then again, I personally could listen to that man sing just about anything. What a voice.

* A slow burner with a stellar chorus, Neko Case’s “Sleep All Summer” features Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf) on co-vocals. As the lyrics are more suggestive than conclusive, this is one of those songs whose inherent drama is linked more to the sound, vocal quality; you do however get the strong sense that something deep is going down here. Case’s 2018 album Hell-On was a lot to take in at the time, as the mighty singer/songwriter has taken to writing and singing increasingly complex “pop” songs, so it took me a while to find this one.

* Speaking of vocal quality, any excuse to place Tracey Thorn into a playlist I will gladly take.

* Earlier this year I featured a Keith Jarrett song that Steely Dan borrowed from to create their song “Gaucho.” This month I stumbled on and am here including another jazz piece the Dan utilized (pilfered?), in the Horace Silver Quintet’s “Song For My Father”: that introductory keyboard riff (minus, interestingly, its first note) is employed in the same position in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which turned out to be Steely Dan’s most successful single. I’m not sure how the riff manages to be so simple and so distinctive at the same time but it’s easy to see why Fagen and Becker felt the need to re-use it.

* The ever-mysterious, ongoingly elusive Beth Gibbons, front woman for the iconic trio Portishead, has released one solo album, 2002’s Out Of Season, which she made along with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (calling himself Rustin Man for reasons never explained). As scintillating as her performances have been with Portishead, this album—which I circle back to every few years, wanting at some point to love it, not quite getting there—has always felt somewhat off, in part because of the music’s bleary iciness, in part because of Gibbons’ puzzling inclination towards Billie Holiday mimicry. And yet the album still casts enough a spell to stay in long-term rotation. And this new flash: after years of inactivity, Paul Webb has abruplty released two Rustin Man albums in recent years, one in 2019 and one in 2020.

If I could make sense of it all

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.06

Suddenly it’s summer time and, for some of us fortunate ones, it’s also rather suddenly semi-normal again. Disconcerting but encouraging. Turns out it’s super easy to get used to walking around without a mask and without steering clear of fellow pedestrians. And smiling at people!: if only the anti-mask lunatics had centered their arguments around the idea that being unable to smile at people is really harmful to one’s psyche they might at least have been making a reasonable point. As for this month’s mix, I’m just going to get out of the way and let it unfold for you. Part of me feels it’s a bit of a strange ride, and yet I kind of needed all these songs in this particular order, which is as follows:

“Act of the Apostle” – Belle and Sebastian (The Life Pursuit, 2006)
“You Better Move On” – Arthur Alexander (single, 1961)
“I Want To Run” – Mates of States (You’re Going to Make It, 2015)
“School Days” – Stanley Clarke (School Days, 1976)
“When I Get It Right” – Joan Armatrading (Walk Under Ladders, 1981)
“Here Today” – The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds, 1966)
“All I Want” – Sarah Blasko (As Day Follows Night, 2009)
“Barbed Wire Heart” – The Sinners (Piece By Piece, 1990)
“Satta Massagana” – The Abyssinians (Satta Massagana, 1976)
“Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten (Tramp, 2012)
“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” – Robbie Robertson (Robbie Robertson, 1987)
“Unleashed” – Christine Fellows (Roses on the Vine, 2018)
“Live As You Dream” – Beth Orton (Trailer Park, 1996)
“Children of Coincidence” – Dory Previn (We’re Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx, 1975)
“Hey Now Now” – The Cloud Room (The Cloud Room, 2005)
“Me and My Machine” – The Easybeats (demo, 1968; released on The Shame Just Drained, 1977)
“Forget Me Nots” – Patrice Rushen (Straight From The Heart,1982)
“Monday” – Wilco (Being There, 1996)
“On Melancholy Hill” – Gorillaz (Plastic Beach, 2010)
“Glenfern” – Kathleen Edwards (Total Freedom, 2020)

Stray observations:

* The internet tells me that Arthur Alexander is the only songwriter whose songs have been covered on studio albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. If true it’s a fine bit of trivia. In any case, Alexander was a much admired songwriter in the early ’60s who never really got his due as a performer; he died in 1993 at the age of 53. “You Better Move On” was, in fact, covered by the Stones, whose version is styled rather precisely after Alexander’s original.

* While Sharon Van Etten’s profile has grown mightily in the past few years, it was the 2012’s Tramp that put her onto my personal radar–in particular the single “Serpents,” which I featured in December 2011. You can read what I made of it at the time (“sizzling, guitar-driven drama” were among the words employed); she’s had a mysterious pull on me ever since. (Note that the free download is still available.)

* As much as Pet Sounds has been revered and discussed, almost more here in the 21st century than in the preceding decades, one song that seems ever to slip through the cracks is “Here Today.” Me, I love it to pieces. That wordless vocal section, with its galumphing orchestral accompaniment and its ascending melody line, and the way it separates the word “Here” from the word “today” (as well as “gone” from “tomorrow”)? So so good; despite the ostensibly negative message, the song feels uplifting and smile-inducing to me.

* Kathleen Edwards re-emerged in 2020 after eight years away from music, most of which she spent running a coffee shop in suburban Ottawa. I wanted to love Total Freedom more than I (so far) do, but “Glenfern,” the opening track, is vintage KE. The rest may yet grow on me.

* The Easybeats were a Kinks-adjacent mid-’60s-ish band from Australia whom no one here would have heard of in the slightest were it not for their having written and recorded one of rock’n’roll’s signature “can’t-wait-for-the-weekend” songs, “Friday On My Mind.” Here in the US that was pretty much all we got from them until someone decided to put out a B-sides and stray tracks compilation in 1977 called The Shame Just Drained. The two creative forces behind the Easybeats, Harry Vanda and George Young, went on to form the strange but compelling band Flash and the Pan, where their knack for writing catchy melodies found an interesting new setting. “Me and My Machine” is on the one hand a throwaway, and on the other hand a marvelous bit of semi-dramatic, vintage pop-rock with the rarely encountered “killer verse” (as opposed to the more pedestrian killer chorus).

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).

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.

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.

I can see you’ve had a rough few months

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.02 – February 2021

I’m squeezing this playlist into February even as it was actually March 1 when I hit the “publish” button. The short month always takes me a bit by surprise. The playlist took me a bit by surprise as well, from its over-reliance on the 1980s (not usually my thing) to its ongoing parade of strange bedfellows. It started when I got sidetracked into watching a documentary on Genesis, took a detour on George Harrison’s birthday (when I discovered via WXPN that he did not in fact write “Got My Mind Set On You”) and was thrown for another loop at the last minute by the word of mouth swirling around Cassandra Jenkins’ brand-new album, which required finding a place for “Hard Drive.” Lots of other goodies in here, including what is surely one of the great covers of all time (Cake doing “I Will Survive”; I mean come on–the arrangement, the vocals, the bass line, just perfection) and an admittedly unusual side trip into what might be considered “smooth jazz” (yikes?) except that Bob James/Earl Klugh song, however mellow (okay, smooth), has a beautiful inevitability about it. Consider it a respite ahead of the more prickly tracks to follow, including a blast of sound from the Chromatics and that unexpected spoken-word journey from the aforementioned Ms. Jenkins. Here, specifically, is what you’ve got in store:

“Turn It On Again” – Genesis (Duke, 1980)
“This Mess We’re In” – PJ Harvey, w/ Thom Yorke (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, 2000)
“Mourning Sound” – Grizzly Bear (Painted Ruins, 2017)
“Got My Mind Set On You” – James Ray (b-side, 1962)
“Driving” – Jane Aire and the Belvederes (Jane Aire and the Belvederes, 1979)
“Regret” – New Order (Republic, 1993)
“Misguided Angel” – Cowboy Junkies (The Trinity Session, 1988)
“Kari” – Bob James & Earl Klugh (One on One, 1979)
“Kill For Love” – Chromatics (Kill For Love, 2012)
“Hard Drive” – Cassandra Jenkins (An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, 2021)
“I Will Survive” – Cake (Fashion Nugget, 1996)
“What” – Judy Street (b-side, 1968)
“On the Rocks” – Dennis Brown (Foul Play, 1981)
“Sweet Heart Said” – Shelley Short (Captain Wild Horse Rides the Horse of Tomorrow, 2006)
“Born To” – Jesca Hoop (The House That Jack Built, 2014)
“Mumbo Jumbo” – Squeeze (East Side Story, 1981)
“I Wished on the Moon” – Billie Holiday (All Or Nothing At All, 1958)
“The Adults Are Talking” – The Strokes (The New Abnormal, 2020)
“Borderline” – Joni Mitchell (Turbulent Indigo, 1994)
“On My Way” – Sandy Denny and the Strawbs (All Our Own Work, 1967 [released 1973])

Stray notes:

* I’m not sure anyone writes songs like “Mumbo Jumbo” at this point in time, and the world is a worse place for it. After the short, ear-catching intro, we get five or six really strong hooks in a song that doesn’t have one moment that feels like it’s treading water. The chorus alone is a multi-faceted wonder of movement and development. Tilbrook and Difford at their best were among the best we’ve had. Let’s not leave them behind.

* Leave it to the Strokes to record an album in 2019, call it The New Abnormal, and release it in April 2020. We’ve been living in the new abnormal ever since. You may recall that their debut album was released in October 2001, a month after 9/11.

* Reggae is (clearly) not my specialty, but over the years, certain songs have stuck with me. I don’t know much about the late Dennis Brown, except that he was a huge star in his native Jamaica, and put out a gazillion albums during a career that was cut short in 1999, when he died at the age of 42. “On The Rocks” is not especially representative; it came out during his stint with A&M Records, when he shed his lovers rock sound for more of a pop/R&B sheen. Purists probably object but I’m no purist so I think it’s pretty wonderful.

* It’s hard to believe that Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, considered a late-career highlight, is now itself 27 years old. I remember feeling that the album was over-praised when it came out; and yet here in 2021 I’m countervailingly inclined to feel that it is underappreciated. Even as she lost interest in melody, her sense of musical space and texture never dimmed. And let me say this while she’s still with us: Joni Mitchell is in my mind the best singer/songwriter of them all, and to me it’s not even a close contest.

*  Jane Aire was one of three singers to emerge from Akron, Ohio in the late ’70s–the other two being Chrissie Hynde and Rachel Sweet. Hynde you know, Sweet perhaps you know, but Jane Aire probably not. She recorded for Stiff Records and Virgin Records in England, made one full-length album, and either left the business or the business left her. The internet has little else to offer. I do know that “Driving” was a cover of an independently-released single by the Bay Area new wave group Pearl Harbor & The Explosions (they called it “Drivin'”),  whose follow-up song, “You Got It (Release It),” is itself a bit of a lost power pop classic. Meanwhile, if you wanted to hear music that crystallizes the sound of the American new wave, you could do a lot worse than Jane Aire.

* As for Genesis: while I find their early, prog-rock sound rather too precious and noodly for my taste, and their last few albums veering towards the insipid, I am a big fan of their middle years–let’s say 1973 through 1981. There was a sweet spot in there when the songs grew shorter and sharper even as they retained a complexity well beyond standard pop fare. “Turn It On Again”–catchy demeanor covering a tricky progression of time signatures–is a highlight from the later part of this fertile period.

Everyone else has lost interest

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.01 – Jan. 2021

The Eclectic Playlist Series enters its eighth year. Many things were very different eight years ago, but the guidelines here remain the same: I feature 20 songs each month, and look to spread the songs out somewhat evenly among the decades. I also aim for male-female balance, but I don’t mind it if there are more songs sung by women than men in a given month–consider it a small gesture towards symbolically overcoming rock’n’roll’s longstanding misogyny. And then there’s the primary rule, self-imposed from the beginning, that no artist can be featured more than once in a calendar year. As the years have gone by I have also done my best to keep introducing artists who haven’t previously been featured here; I like at least half of the artists in each new mix to be making their EPS debut but that doesn’t always work out. (The passing years have made this increasingly challenging.) This month, for instance, there are only seven new artists. Conversely, here in January, Kate Bush moves quickly into the all-time lead, having been featured once each year to date, including, now, 2021.

With those guidelines in place, the playlists are otherwise constructed via intuition alone. I don’t have any concrete theme in mind when I start, and I don’t purposefully juxtapose songs based on lyrical similarities. When, say, “If You Change Your Mind” arrives two songs after “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind,” which itself comes after “I Meant What I Said,” I consider it a bonus; I don’t usually plan this kind of thing, although I don’t rule out that there’s some unconscious architecting going on. The same goes for the segues. I will rule out songs that just don’t fit next to each other because of how one ends and the other begins, but when a really great segue occurs (for instance, this month: “Song For Zula” into “Uncle Alvarez”), it’s almost always a happy accident. And the immediate lyrical reference to “Ring of Fire” right after a song from Rosanne Cash? Definitely an accident, but an enjoyable one.

And so, for those who haven’t lost interest, here we go:

“This One” – Paul McCartney (Flowers in the Dirt, 1989)
“The Dirt” – Waxahatchee (Ivy Tripp, 2015)
“Couldn’t Believe a Word” – The 45s (single, 1979)
“Linger” – Jonatha Brooke (Steady Pull, 2001)
“Fall On You” – Moby Grape (Moby Grape, 1967)
“Teardrop” – Massive Attack (Mezzanine, 1998)
“Three of a Perfect Pair” – King Crimson (Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)
“I Meant What I Said” – Rosehip Teahouse (Fine EP, 2020)
“Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” – The Stylistics (Fabulous, 1976)
“My Maudlin Career” – Camera Obscura (My Maudlin Career, 2009)
“If You Change Your Mind” – Roseanne Cash (King’s Record Shop, 1987)
“Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent (Muchacho, 2013)
“Uncle Alvarez” – Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespaceegg, 1998)
“Girl Don’t Come” – Sandie Shaw (single, 1964)
“‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” – Keith Jarrett (Belonging, 1974)
“Astronaut” – Ass Ponys (Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, 2000)
“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush ([new vocal] The Whole Story, 1986)
“Romeo’s Seance” – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters, 1993)
“Sparrow Song” – Acrylics (Lives and Treasure, 2010)
“Bulbs” – Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece, 1974)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* Earlier this month I posted a playlist on Spotify featuring Paul McCartney, noting how many excellent and overlooked songs he’s written in his long post-Beatles career. I started that playlist with the same song that starts us off here: “This One,” from 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for weeks. You’ve been warned.

* I somehow missed the kerfuffle way back when over the similarity between Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and Keith Jarrett’s “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours,” which came out six years earlier, in 1974. Jarrett brought a lawsuit, or at least threatened a lawsuit (the internet record is fuzzy on this), and in any case did up end with a songwriting credit. The two songs are clearly related in vibe and musical details, even if sticklers can find no note-for-note melodic plagiarism. The Dan later admitted they were big fans of the Jarrett tune and did in fact find more than a little inspiration there for “Gaucho.” In the end, both songs are wonderful. Me, I say it takes no small talent to do what Becker and Fagan did to the Garrett tune to create “Gaucho”; it’s right for them to have credited Jarrett, and this takes nothing away from their own artistry.

* Rosehip Teahouse is a five-piece band from Cardiff, fronted by Faye Rogers and trafficking in a bittersweet, echoey, guitar-washed vibe that I find very appealing. “I Meant What I Said” is a song from their debut EP, called Fine, released in December. You can listen to it, and buy it, via Bandcamp. A brand new video for a second track from the EP, “No Gloom,” just came out this week. The band was originally scheduled to play in Austin at SXSW last year; this year, they will participate in the virtual SXSW that’s happening in March.

* While Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is wondrous classic–written by an 18-year-old!–I always found her teenaged voice to be a little harsh in conjunction with the song’s melody and vocal range. Perhaps Bush herself thought as much in retrospect; how else to explain her re-recording of the song in 1986, in conjunction with the release of a “best of” collection that year. The song was remixed but presents as largely the same, except the vocal. And wow: to hear Bush, in full command of her mature voice, revisiting this remarkable song is, to me, goosebump-inducing. I could listen to this over and over, for all the subtle grandeur of her phrasing and intonation. “Wuthering Heights” was her first-ever single, and a smash hit in the UK, although not even released as a single in the US. Fun fact: Bush was inspired initially by a BBC production of Wuthering Heights; she later read the book, and then discovered that she and Emily Brontë have the same birthday.

* I love Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg to pieces, and have always been particularly captivated by “Uncle Alvarez,” for reasons that seem to be beyond my conscious awareness. I still eagerly await her forthcoming album, Soberish, slated however vaguely for release this year.

* I have a soft spot for Ohio’s Ass Ponys from my years of living in Cincinnati right around when the band was having their major-label moment in the mid-’90s. As melodic as they could be, the Ponys were too quirky a band to satisfy A&M’s commercial needs. Some Stupid With a Flare Gun was their first post-A&M album, released in 2000. That album’s title comes from the lyrics to “Smoke On The Water,” for those keeping score at home.

Nothing stays the same

Eclectic Playlist Series 7.11 – December 2020

You don’t need me to remind you what a poisonous year this has been so I’ll sidestep the rants and simply express gratitude for surviving, gratitude to everyone who has persevered, everyone who has displayed resilience in the face of 2020’s twin plagues (COVID-19, malignant ignorance) and still dares to look ahead to something better. As I mentioned in the most recent Fingertips email, the writer Deborah Eisenberg noted in an essay this fall that “if things could only get worse, we would all have been dead millennia ago.” And I added that I find that this offers a weird sort of consolation during the kind of year 2020 has been.

Music is an ongoing consolation as well. I don’t need songs to be outwardly cheery to be consoling; for me, beauty will do it, or finesse, or even just the way this chord turns into that chord, the way a particular voice sings a particular word. Kirsty MacColl’s “Autumngirlsoup” is truly one of the saddest songs I know but at the same time, its grace and brilliance provide a bittersweet sort of inspiration; that someone could write that and sing that means that the world isn’t a lost cause, even if the singer herself met a tragic end (more below). I like that this playlist leads ultimately to Jenifer Jackson–whose timbre has a Kirsty-like smoke to it–and her anthemic declaration of “We Will Be Together,” complete with the mighty Spector beat and an indefatigable spirit. Enjoy the music, look to the horizon with curiosity and hope and we will be together again next year.

The playlist:

“Back of My Hand” – The Jags (UK single, 1979)
“The Magic” – Joan as Police Woman (The Deep Field, 2011)
“Without a Doubt” – Major Lance (single, 1967)
“Radiation Vibe” – Hem (No Word From Tom, 2006)
“Careless” – Paul Kelly and the Messengers (So Much Water So Close to Home, 1989)
“Off My Mind” – Hazel English (Wake UP!, 2020)
“Take Me For a Little While” – Jackie Ross (single, 1965)
“Something in 4/4 Time” – Daryl Hall (Sacred Songs, recorded 1977; released 1980)
“Say Anything” – Aimee Mann (Whatever, 1993)
“Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” – Julia Jacklin (Crushing, 2019)
“Everything Under the Sun” – The Walker Brothers (Images, 1967)
“That Year” – Uncle Tupelo (No Depression, 1990)
“Autumngirlsoup” – Kirsty MacColl (Tropical Brainstorm, 2000)
“Turn Your Lights Down Low” – Bob Marley and the Wailers (Exodus, 1977)
“Never Stop” – Echo & The Bunnymen (Songs to Learn and Sing, 1985)
“Shouting at the Dark” – The Mynabirds (Be Here Now, 2017)
“Footsteps” – Alison Moyet (Hoodoo, 1991)
“Surrender” – Will Butler (Generations, 2020)
“The Things That I Used to Do” – Guitar Slim (single, 1953)
“We Will Be Together” – Jenifer Jackson (So High, 2003)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* If you’ve been around here a while you’ll know I have a hard time resisting power pop nuggets from the late ’70s and early ’80s and this month’s mix launches with one of the most nuggetty of all. The Jags were one of any number of bands who got lazily tagged as Elvis Costello wannabes; like most of those bands, their story was neither that simple nor mercenary. The sound was in the air back then, and it flowed through a lot of outlets. “Back Of My Hand” is top-notch power pop, but it has somehow faded further than some of the era’s other hits. I blame part of that on the record company, which took the original UK single and mucked it up for the US release with a revised version (additional production provided by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, otherwise known as The Buggles), which added a hermetic sheen that retained the hooks but, to my ears, took some ineffable part of the charm away. I think the Buggles-infested version sounds soulless and calculated and I gladly present you here with the earlier UK iteration.

* From roughly the same era but an entirely different space comes a song from Daryl Hall’s first solo album, Sacred Songs. This has an even worse record-label-messes-with-things story, as the album was recorded, in a collaboration with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, in 1977, but the record company, RCA, didn’t think it sounded commercial enough and simply shelved it, with no intention of release. For three years. Hall at some point went rogue and began sending bits of it to journalists and disc jockeys; eventually RCA relented and released the album in 1980. I think it’s excellent work, showing off both Hall’s ever-impressive vocal prowess and his willingness to venture musically beyond the realm of whatever you’d call what Hall & Oates were doing. Note that this was recorded after Hall & Oates first go-round with top-40 success and before the duo went platinum (and multi-platinum), which started later in 1980 when Voices came out, during a somewhat fallow commercial period for them. I really like the vibe on Sacred Songs, but then again my favorite Hall & Oates album by far is 1978’s Along the Red Ledge, a release from their supposed “lean years.”

* As one more 2020 nod in the direction of the late great Adam Schlesinger, here is one of my favorite covers of all time, because first of all it’s a such a friggin’ good song and second of all the subtle but sure means by which the band Hem has transformed it. Typically a cover version is either super loyal to the original or works hard to find a whole new approach. What Hem does here is rather magically splits the difference. As sung by the very appealing Sally Ellyson, and arranged by whoever arranges their stuff, “Radiation Vibe” is both instantly recognizable and rendered different and new. The amusing backstory to the song is that Chris Collingswood once told an interviewer that the song “was written in less time than it takes to play.” He also confirmed what you kind of have to suspect, even as your brain works hard to overcome the suspicion: that the song quite literally doesn’t mean anything. It’s a bunch of words that sound cool together.

* And, yes: Kirsty MacColl. This month marks the 20th anniversary of her death in the ocean in Mexico, at the hands of a reckless motorboat driver, a fate that stings doubly for both how unfair and how horrific. I’ve featured her a few times here over the years because my heart beats strongly for her still, and while I’ve so far presented her catchy and flashier material, at the end of the day I’m not sure she wrote and performed anything quite as deep and moving as “Autumngirlsoup,” from what turned out to be her final album. An unexpected bonus is that the thing is also pretty hilarious; her extended metaphor (woman as a dish devoured by man) is both over the top and razor sharp, at once skewering and despairing over the ingrained misogyny of human history. I mean who would think to write this?: “Carve up my heart on a very low flame/Separate my feelings then pour them down the drain.” Kirsty did. A singular presence, and talent.

* As for Jenifer Jackson, consider her another talented musician all too easily lost in the unending waves of digital music that have washed up on our cultural shores in the 21st century. (She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, something that I might go about fixing.) Her 2003 album So High, her third, released on the acclaimed Bar-None label, was well-regarded and remains a pleasure to listen to; succeeding albums drew successively less attention, with no notable drop-off in quality. She continues to make records to this day–her most recent is the album Paths, released last year. You can find all her stuff here. (Note that a  bunch of her older albums were just this year put up on Bandcamp, so their release dates are off.)

Until you get heard (Eclectic Playlist Series 7.10 – Oct. 2020)

(Note from the future–November 6, to be precise: The original post accompanying this playlist in October has gotten lost in the transition to the new hosting service and the accompanying site redesign. It’s maybe just as well–that post was a pre-election rant that, while still relevant to the extent that our country remains deeply wounded by misinformation and disinformation, we at least managed to elect a decent human being. That the horrific man currently occupying the White House wasn’t rejected by everyone is worrisome to say the least. How awful would a person have to be, now, to be obviously unworthy of elected office? Not a rhetorical question. Anyway: here’s the playlist.)

“Worried Man Blues” – The Carter Family (1930 recording)
“You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker, 2016)
“Don’t Talk To Me About Love” – Altered images (Bite, 1983)
“Bloodline’ – Orenda Fink (Invisible Ones, 2005)
“13 Questions” – Seatrain (Seatrain, 1970)
“Vow” – Garbage (Garbage, 1995)
“Thousands are Sailing” – The Pogues (If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987)
“Ole Man Trouble” – Otis Redding (Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, 1965)
“Shark Smile” – Big Thief (Capacity, 2017)
“Bored By Dreams” – Marianne Faithfull (A Secret Life, 1994)
“Sing the Changes” – The Fireman (Electric Arguments, 2008)
“Can You Get To That” – Funkadelic (Maggot Brain, 1971)
“Everything Works If You Let It” – Cheap Trick (All Shook Up, 1980)
“Here Goes Nothing” – Jess Cornelius (Distance, 2020)
“Dusty Trails Theme” – Dusty Trails (Dusty Trails, 2000)
“Say Goodbye” – Sophie Barker (Seagull, 2011)
“Someday, Someway” – The Marvelettes (b-side, 1962)
“Put The Message in the Box” – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo, 1990)
“The Walls Are Coming Down” – Fanfarlo (Reservoir, 2009)
“I Know The End” – Phoebe Bridgers (Punisher, 2020)