The lessons of patience

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.04 – April 2022

If you are reading this you are here not because an algorithm directed you but because you found your way via your own human volition. Existing below the recognition level of the algorithms helps keep an enterprise such as this supremely unpopular–“unpopular” as in “infrequently visited” versus “actively disliked”; funny how the two meanings are often co-mingled. But it also, to my mind, ongoingly highlights the failings of a culture that has allowed itself to be hijacked by metrics; steering people relentlessly to things that are already high-profile enough to be steered to is a kind of feedback loop that feels stifling and sad to anyone with a functioning human heart. Or should feel that way, if people weren’t by now trained to be brisk and mindless online; stopping to contemplate and consider is sort of the opposite of the behavior the tech companies require to feed the beast of clicks and page views. If you are fully engaged by said feedback loop there’s little beyond it you are ever going to notice, and will never be encouraged to wonder why.

I recently posted an essay that discusses the fate of quality in a quantity-obsessed world, and it’s a subject that deserves ongoing attention. Where would we be as a culture, historically, if we only paid attention to the most popular and/or easy-to-locate things? Yes, the internet’s algorithmic tools are sophisticated to the extent that they don’t point everyone towards the exact same pieces of content; but the silos they create of differently interested audiences–the famous “people who like X also like Y” directive–are still based on quantity rather than quality.

So if you are here you have decided on your own to be here and I thank you for that. Your reward, such as it is, is another thing beyond the capacity of our algorithmic tools: a playlist drawing upon a wide variety of musical styles and eras. It is a playlist that inherently defies the sorts of sortings that the robots rely upon (genre, decade, mood, etc.) to do their relentless recommending. All I’m ever trying to do is to carry on a tradition founded in the freewheeling era of so-called “progressive” radio–radio found on the FM dial in the mid- to late-’70s. This was before anyone realized there was very much money to be generated from programming in the land of frequency modulation, which is why everything felt loose and unpredictable and ongoingly engaging. The robots keep offering you things that sound like things you’re already listening to. It’s kind of like being surrounded by yes men; it props up the ego but not the soul. Enjoy, if you dare, and we’ll do it again next time, if you find your way back.

More on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Ship of Fools” – World Party (Private Revolution, 1987)
2. “Persephone” – Allison Russell (Outside Child, 2021)
3. “Sometime in the Morning” – the Monkees (More of the Monkees, 1967)
4. “Wonder” – San Mei (Heaven EP, 2018)
5. “High Ground” – Orenda Fink (Ask the Night, 2009)
6. “Drowning in the Sea of Love” – Joe Simon (Drowning in the Sea of Love, 1972)
7. “Tuesday Morning” – The Pogues (Waiting for Herb, 1993)
8. “Love Will be Reborn” – Martha Wainwright (Love Will Be Reborn, 2021)
9. “Beck’s Bolero” – Jeff Beck (Truth, 1969)
10. “As Far As I Know” – Paul Westerberg (Folker, 2004)
11. “Straight to My Heart” – Sting (Nothing Like the Sun, 1987)
12. “One of These Things First” – Nick Drake (Bryter Layter, 1970)
13. “Still Thrives This Love” – k.d. lang (Ingenue, 1992)
14. “Peripheral Visionaries” – Young Galaxy (Shapeshifting, 2011)
15. “Tell Me” – Groove Theory (Groove Theory, 1995)
16. “The Only One” – Stiff Little Fingers (Go For It, 1981)
17. “Who By Fire” – Leonard Cohen (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)
18. “All the Time in the World” – Maybe Baby (What Matters, 2003)
19. “Other Lover” – Mikaela Davis (Discovery, 2018)
20. “It’s All Too Much” – The Beatles (Yellow Submarine, 1969)

Random notes:

* “Sometime in the Morning” was one of my favorite Monkees songs when I was 10 years old and it still is. I applaud my aesthetic acumen as a youngster; I didn’t know back then that Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the song, or even who they were, but I did know a lovely series of melodies when I heard them, not to mention a satisfying song structure. The song, puzzlingly, hasn’t been covered very often, and of course there are internet people claiming that one or another alternative version to this one is actually better, because they are internet people. No one beats Micky Dolenz here as far as I’m concerned.

* I happened this year to catch some of the pre-Grammy webcast–where they handed out the bulk of the awards, and where some of the performances veered away from the mainstream pop that dominates the evening telecast. A highlight for me was the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell performing “Nightflyer,” from her album Outside Child. I’d heard the song many times before on WXPN but the energy she brought to it in live performance was transformative (not to mention instructive: I hadn’t realized she played the clarinet), and sent me quickly to Bandcamp to buy the album, which I recommend; consider “Persephone” a preview of the goodness to be found there.

* I know, I know: the Pogues weren’t really the Pogues anymore after Shane MacGowan got the boot. And yet: would the album Waiting For Herb, the first of two post-MacGowan efforts, have been better-received had it emerged from an entirely unknown band, with a different name? It seems likely. In any case, “Tuesday Morning” is pretty great, to my ears. For what it’s worth, it happened to be the best-selling single, internationally, the band ever released. And yes I am now holding popular acclaim out as a certain measure of success. Do I contradict myself? Very well then.

* Did you watch The Beatles: Get Back, the documentary that Peter Jackson directed and produced? What an experience. I’ve had one or two people tell me it was too long, and such people immediately went down ever so slightly in my estimation of them. To call any part of it “boring” is missing the bigger picture, it seems to me; even when it was ostensibly “boring” it was incredibly compelling to be there with it. The Beatles were lightning in a bottle; the movie gives us a glimpse of the bottle. Strip away all the cultural hullabaloo and focus on the music, which was and remains unprecedented in rock history for its unflagging quality and creativity. While they always sound like the Beatles, they managed to write and record a catalog of music in which no two songs sounded the same; at some intrinsic level of inventiveness and integrity they refused to revisit melodies and chord progressions. Paul McCartney has said, in retrospect, something to the effect of “What would be the point of that?”

* Karl Wallinger thought we were on a ship of fools back in 1987. Little did he know.

* While Jonatha Brooke’s career after the duo The Story gained traction and resulted in a number of reasonably high-profile album releases and other projects, her partner in The Story, Jennifer Kimball, receded into the background in the years following their partnership. I hope this was by design as opposed to being the results of the vagaries of the music industry. While Brooke’s singing voice may be the more immediately distinctive, I find Kimball’s tone equally compelling, and have always in particular loved this one track I stumbled on back in the early years of Fingertips from a band Kimball had formed in the early ’00s called Maybe Baby, with guitarist Ry Cavanaugh. He also happens to be her husband. I see from the internet that Kimball went on from there to study landscape design and start her own business. But she did release an album as recently as 2017, called Avocet, which you can listen to and purchase on Bandcamp. It’s really nice to hear her voice again. As for Maybe Baby, I don’t see it on Bandcamp, but it is available to listen to on Spotify, which tells me as I’m now looking that two other people have listened to it this month. Quantity never tells the whole story; why do we so often let it?

* It seems almost unfathomable that Nick Drake was so generally unrecognized in his day; the music sounds so incisive and remarkable now. It’s also pretty crazy that it took a Volkswagen commercial to bring him into the cultural mainstream in 2000, some 25 years after his death at age 26. You can read more about that in this 2016 article from Boston.com.

This is what we’ve seen

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.03 – March 2022

I could easily title each playlist “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” at this point in the story of our beleaguered world. Just as soon as we (kind of) pushed one fucked-up narcissist off the world stage we are terrorized by another, with a pandemic still spiraling around in the background. Regarding the cowardly, insecure war criminal holding court in the Kremlin, it seems a kind of evolutionary mistake at this point, the idea that humans are so easily hornswoggled by malevolent madmen. Someone should look into that.

In the meantime, we go on, as we do, and must. Here are the latest 20 songs that find themselves collected, from a variety of points of origin, into one (somewhat) coherent whole. Enjoy what you can, when you can:

1. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” – Janice Whaley (The Smiths Project: The Queen is Dead, 2010)
2. “When You Awake” – The Band (The Band, 1969)
3. “Cherry” – Anna Fox Rochinski (Cherry, 2021)
4. “Driven to Tears” – The Police (Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980)
5. “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” – The Decemberists (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
6. “State of Independence” – Donna Summer (Donna Summer, 1982)
7. “Tiny Town” – David Byrne (Uh-Oh, 1992)
8. “If That’s What You Wanted” – Frankie Beverly & The Butlers (B-side, 1967)
9. “Sure” – Hatchie (Sugar & Spice EP, 2018)
10. “Ricochet in Time” – Shawn Colvin (Steady On, 1989)
11. “All I Want” – Ronnie Spector (The Last of the Rock Stars, 2006)
12. “All That You Dream” – Little Feat (The Last Record Album, 1975)
13. “Stabilise” – Nilüfer Yanya (Painless, 2022)
14. Prelude & Fugue #21 in B Flat – Keith Jarrett (Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87, 1992)
15. “Aptitude” – Novillero (Aim Right for the Hole in Their Lives, 2005)
16. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” – Paul Simon (Hearts and Bones, 1983)
17. “Awkward Waltz” – Acapulco Lips (Acapulco Lips, 2016)
18. “Dosage” – Liz Phair (Soberish, 2021)
19. “A Secret Place” – Grover Washington Jr. (A Secret Place, 1976)
20. “Darling Be Home Soon” – The Lovin’ Spoonful (You’re a Big Boy Now – The Original Soundtrack Album, 1967)

Random notes:

* The Smiths Project, from British singer/songwriter Janice Whaley, is one of the most impressive acts of committed artistry I have ever encountered. I missed it at the time of recording and release in 2010 and 2011, only stumbling upon it in the last few weeks. What Whaley did, almost unbelievably, is create, in the span of a year or so, an a capella version of all 71 Smiths songs from the band’s six major releases (four studio albums and two compilations of singles, B-sides, and assorted non-album recordings). You can read more about it on Bandcamp, where you can listen to everything and buy what you’d like. For a more concise introduction, Whaley also released an 11-track “Best of the Smiths Project.” She did use pitch-altering technology to create bass lines, but everything you hear was originally voice-generated. As for the odd but compelling “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” the final track on The Queen is Dead, I’ve always been attracted to this song for a variety of reasons, and it’s one where Whaley’s treatment is particularly transformative. And don’t miss what’s hiding in plain sight: what a great voice Whaley has.

* I am no classical aficionado by any means but I do, somehow, find Dmitri Shostakovich to be one of the rock’n’roll-ier composers of the 20th-century. I was introduced to his suite of 24 linked Preludes and Fugues via Keith Jarrett’s 1992 recording, so that’s where I’m landing here–while readily admitting I haven’t the ears or the experience to know how his interpretations stack up to others. I do want sometimes to mix things up here with a classical track but have only managed it once or twice so far, because it does present a bit of an aesthetic challenge. Still, it’s worth a try every now and then. Note that Shostakovich modeled this series after something Bach had done centuries earlier–composing a prelude and fugue for each major and minor key.

* So great to hear from Liz Phair again after more than a decade since her last album, and nearly two decades after falling out of favor with those who had previously lionized her, thanks to her (unfairly) vilified self-titled album in 2003. Soberish is not necessarily a “Wow!” experience but it is a rewarding one. Her voice is subtly singular, her songwriting gift still underrated; I offer “Dosage” as a case in point. Note the lyrical call-back to Henry the bartender, from 1998’s “Polyester Bride.”

* A story has it that Jimi Hendrix once told his friend Ronnie Spector that her voice “sounds like a guitar.” In retrospect, we never quite heard enough of that voice, given the unfortunate path her life took after marrying the disturbed, controlling Phil Spector. While Ronnie attempted, in the ’70s and ’80s, to overcome the idea that she was merely an oldies act, her limited solo work never gained a lot of mainstream traction–although Eddie Money’s tribute, by way of his 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight,” did return her to the spotlight and rejuvenated if not her career than at least her status as a rock icon. Her death this January, at the age of 78, gave many of us motivation to re-examine her work and reacquaint ourselves with her influential style. It’s so cool that she found the Amy Rigby tune “All I Want” for her 2006 album The Last of the Rock Stars: a brilliant synthesis of retro rock’n’roll and contemporary brio, the song gave the former Ronettes’ front woman a chance to sing lyrics like “I feel kind of furious/And you’re not even curious/You’re way too oblivious/Where I’m concerned.” Listen carefully and see if you don’t get chills along the way. (Note that Rigby’s original functioned as the “title track,” as it were, for EPS 2.06 back in August 2015: “A list of things I didn’t do.”)

* “What began as a world-weary warning about how we are all limited by our inherent capabilities reveals itself (if I’m hearing it right) rather poignantly as a philosophy borne from disappointment in love”: that was my summary of the song “Aptitude” at the time (2005), and I stand by it. A terrific piece, at once catchy and complicated, both musically and lyrically, “Aptitude” came from the cleverly titled album Aim Right for the Hole in Their Lives. The Canadian band Novillero was formed in 1999, disbanded in 2010, sprung back to life in 2016, and had posts on their Facebook page as recently as 2020; current status unclear.

* Paul Simon’s visibility and commercial viability as an album artist both took a big dip following his popular 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years. His last ’70s hit, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” in 1977, was a new track on a greatest hits album; a few years later, the soundtrack to his movie One Trick Pony (1980) didn’t sell up to his previous standards, despite a hit single (“Late in the Evening”). His next regular release, Hearts and Bones (1983), generated no hits and little interest, becoming the least popular of his career to date. In retrospect this only shows how wrong the marketplace can be at any point in time. Personally, I loved Hearts and Bones from the first time I heard it; thankfully, its reputation has been corrected over the years, the album now widely regarded as one of his best. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” is a magical bit of singer/songwriter surrealism, and a song Simon concocted based on the title of two photographs he came across by the German photographer Lothar Walleh.

* The song “Driven to Tears” was identified in my digital library as being released in 1979; only as I was writing this post did I discover (or re-discover; I probably knew this once) that the album Zenyatta Mondatta was actually released in 1980. This matters only to my ongoing efforts to distribute music somewhat evenly through the decades in each mix. Meaning: I thought I had put three songs from the ’70s and three songs from the ’80s in this playlist, three being the number I aim for (if all goes well, one decade of seven gets two, the rest get three). But now it turns out there are actually just two songs from the ’70s and four from the ’80s. For what it’s worth, Sting did write it in 1979. That’ll have to do, this month. Much more important: the song remains sadly relevant, year after goddamned year.

Don’t act surprised

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.02 – Feb. 2022

There’s that story about St. Francis, hoeing beans in his garden, being asked something to the effect of “If you knew this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?” And his answer: something to the effect of “I would finish hoeing my garden.” I’m not Catholic and it’s apparently told in a variety of ways; I hope I haven’t butchered it too badly. But I think that’s the gist, and I find myself reminded of it a lot lately, in the context both of my own aging and the struggles of this fragile planet and its benighted denizens. I don’t see the St. Francis allegory as an argument for passivity or inaction, I see it as a testament to the simple fact that being present with what one is doing is both our greatest challenge and potentially our greatest gift.

While the moral of the story might appear to presume that one is engaged in a relatively humane pursuit, or at least doing no harm, it might be seen to apply to the gamut of human activity. So even, say, if you are a sociopathic leader, hell bent on invading a neighboring country, compelled by little but narcissistic fantasy, the idea might be that becoming truly present to one’s life and actions might expose the broken psyche underlying such insecure displays of malevolent power and make you think twice. It’s a theory anyway. For the rest of us, I see it as a way to animate whatever it is that you are choosing to do, or are required to do, in your day-to-day life, however haunted or not you might be by the knowledge of how short a time each of us gets here in the scheme of things. I like in particular the introverted resolve supporting St. Francis’s simple declaration. He’s not trying to impress anyone. He’s not expecting anyone even to notice. He’s hoeing his row.

And now, this month’s row (musical commentary below the widget):

“Talk to Me” – Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (Hearts of Stone, 1978)
“The Down Low” – Nelly McKay (Pretty Little Head, 2006)
“Weight” – Mikal Cronin (MCII, 2013)
“Airwaves” – Thomas Dolby (The Golden Age of Wireless, 1984)
“February” – Dar Williams (Mortal City, 1996)
“Wind” – Circus Maximus (Circus Maximus, 1967)
“Sun is Always in my Eyes” – Kindsight (single; album forthcoming, 2022)
“Roscoe” – Midlake (The Trials of Van Occupanther, 2006)
“Out in the Cold” – Carole King (Tapestry outtake, 1971)
“New Normal” – Caroline Polachek (Pang, 2019)
“Balloon Man” – Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians (Globe of Frogs, 1988)
“How Can I Forget” – Marvin Gaye (That’s the Way Love Is, 1970)
“I Predict a Riot” – Kaiser Chiefs (Employment, 2005)
“Cybele’s Reverie” – Stereolab (Emperor Tomato Kethcup, 1996)
“Seasons Come, Seasons Go” – Bobbie Gentry (Touch ‘Em With Love1969)
“If I Could Breathe Underwater” – Marissa Nadler (The Path of the Clouds, 2021)
“7 Seconds” – Youssou N’Dour feat. Neneh Cherry (single, 1994)
“Running on the Spot” – The Jam (The Gift, 1982)
“Whole World Knows” – Adia Victoria (A Southern Gothic, 2021)
“There is No Other Way” – Pacific Overtures (Original Broadway Cast, 1976)

Random notes:

* I finally remembered to put Dar Williams’ stunning “February” in a February playlist. As you may have noticed I don’t normally do a lot of time-of-year related songs but it’s a brilliant and poignant song that really doesn’t work in another month’s mix so I’m glad it at long last occurred to me at the right time. She’s got a lovely and distinctive singing voice that occasionally, to great effect, merges with her speaking voice, as you’ll hear here when she arrives at the word “March.”

* Emblematic of their late ’60s origin, the semi-psychedelic, semi-jazzy, semi-folky American band Circus Maximus might populate a lost footnote in the history of rock’n’roll by now but for two things. First, they happened to be Jerry Jeff Walker’s first band (he was identified merely as Jerry Walker on their eponymous debut; doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?); second, the song presented here, “Wind,” was a minor hit, gaining a significant amount of play at the time on the wide-ranging progressive FM radio stations that were sprouting all over the country at that point. They’re probably pretty much of a lost footnote here in 2022 anyway, but now you know.

* According to reliable sources, including The New Yorker, the Los Angeles-based musician Caroline Polachek, late of the band Chairlift, achieves her vocal effects through natural methodology–which is to say some tricks she accomplishes with her voice versus employment of Auto-Tune. Listen to “New Normal” and it seems hard to believe, but the more I spend time with 2019’s Pang, the more I’m taken with her artistry and creativity, independent of what she’s doing or not doing with her voice.

* “Out in the Cold” was recorded by Carole King during the Tapestry but was left off the final album. On the one hand, I think you can kind of hear why–there’s something a little off about it, or, at least, a little out of sync with the songs that were included on her seminal album. On the other hand, it’s Carole King! it’s the Tapestry sessions!; so it’s pretty great to hear. According to the internet, this song was actually lost and/or forgotten about until Tapestry was being remastered in 1999, and was released to the public for the first time with that remastered release. It only made its way to a digital release last year.

* Nearly 16 years have passed and, Midlake’s “Roscoe” remains as lyrically elusive as ever, and as welcome-sounding.

* Meanwhile, Marissa Nadler’s reverb-drenched indie noir seems to get deeper and richer with each release. “If I Could Breathe Underwater” is from 2021’s The Path of Clouds, which is roughly her fourteenth album–it’s a bit hard to track because she’s had a number of informal releases over the years, in addition to albums released via record companies. All of her recent work is consistent and compelling.

* Speaking as I was earlier of someone’s last day on Earth, the world lost a musical giant at the tail end of 2021 in the person of Stephen Sondheim. In his honor I close this month out with one of his most beautiful compositions, albeit it one of his lesser-known songs from one of his less-often-performed masterpieces, Pacific Overtures. Note that one character in the song is a woman and one is a man even as both parts, as a nod to traditional Japanese theater, are sung by men. The effect is somehow all the more touching.

Tell me I’m not alone

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.01 – January 2022

January always strikes me as the most elusive of months; it takes the entire 31 days to grow used to it and then, poof, it’s gone. Yes the weather is brutal and the general news is desperate, as usual, but I try to hold onto January, without ever the hope of succeeding. By the way, semantic sleight of hand aside, Yoda was wrong. There not only is “try” but that’s about all we’re ever really doing when we “do.”

I digress. I meant merely to offer the usual January boilerplate here about how the Eclectic Playlist Series works—how my self-imposed rule decrees that no artist appears in more than one playlist in any given year (at least not on purpose; I’ve done it by mistake at least once), and how in January everything is reset and all artists are up for grabs again. The EPS is now in its ninth year, and doing a quick survey of the past mixes I can report that only one artist has so far placed a song in a playlist in all previous eight years, and that artist is David Bowie. I’m surprised that none of my other favorites have managed the same feat, not Radiohead (seven), not Kirsty MacColl (seven), not Elvis Costello (six), not Kate Bush (seven). It’s kind of encouraging, to me, that I haven’t had to lean too heavily on my stalwarts, that the diversity upon which these playlists are founded has kept the mixes truly mixed. The other ongoing dictate here is a conscious spread through the decades, with each mix offering at least two and usually three (sometimes four) songs from each decade of the rock’n’roll past—typically starting with the ’60s but sometimes going further back. It’s been fun these past two years to begin to incorporate yet another decade into the canon as we now start the third year of the 2020s.

I do these for myself—my master Spotify list incorporating nearly every song featured to date has become my in-house radio station when I can’t decide on something specific to listen to—but I am really happy to offer them as well to whatever small number of like-minded music fans who find their way to this off-the-beaten-track, non-commercial, anti-algorithmic musical oasis. I’m okay on my own but a little bit of company is nice too.

“Sorry About That” – Michael Guthrie Band (Direct Hits, 1981)
“Can’t Hide It” – Curtis Harding (If Words Were Flowers, 2021)
“Like a Woman Can” – Kim Taylor (Love’s a Dog, 2013)
“Who Gets Your Love” – Dusty Springfield (Cameo, 1973)
“Come to Me” – Björk (Debut, 1993)
“What I’m Trying To Say” – Stars (Set Yourself on Fire, 2005)
“Space Age Love Song” – A Flock of Seagulls (A Flock of Seagulls, 1982)
“When Will I Be Loved” – The Everly Brothers (single, 1960)
“The Calculation” – Regina Spektor (Far, 2009)
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” – Prince (Prince, 1979)
“Girl of My Dreams” – Charles Mingus (Mingus Ah Um, 1959)
“Dishonor the Stars” – Elvis Costello & The Imposters (Look Now, 2018)
“Guinnevere” – Crosby, Stills & Nash (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969)
“Paprika” – Japanese Breakfast (Jubilee, 2021)
“Somebody to Shove” – Soul Asylum (Grave Dancers Union, 1992)
“Remember Me” – British Sea Power (The Decline of British Sea Power, 2001)
“The Name of the Game” – ABBA (ABBA: The Album, 1977)
“Dear Prudence” – Siouxsie and the Banshees (Hyæna, 1983)
“It’s Cold Outside” – The Choir (single, 1967)
“Tomorrow” – Waxahatchee (El Deafo original soundtrack, 2022)

Random notes:

* There were all sorts of regional and semi-regional bands in the US and the UK churning out some pretty sweet power pop during the new wave years and the Michael Guthrie Band, a trio from Virginia, was one of them. Their debut album, Direct Hits, isn’t streaming anywhere (a mint copy of the LP is selling on Discogs for $99.99), and their much-delayed follow-up, 1994’s Right Honourable Friend, has disappeared entirely. “Sorry About That” was the lead track on the debut album and works as the lead track here as well. The band appears to have had a bit of a 21st-century re-emergence; a 2011 song called “Now We’ve Started” is on Spotify, and their Facebook page is active, with 1,000+ followers.

* Speaking of melody (power pop being the most melody-forward genre in the rock universe), Elvis Costello is on hand to deliver a couple of melodies so strong and appealing I almost can’t believe my ears. And maybe neither can he, since he breaks “Dishonor the Stars” into disparate sections, as if the main melodies, like food that’s both amazing and a bit too rich, can only be taken in limited portions. Initially this frustrated me but I’ve learned to embrace the entirety of this short but intricate composition. It’s not clear what is verse and what if anything is chorus, and it’s not clear what he is singing about specifically. But, when he allows you to hear them: those melodies! Note that Elvis & the gang have another new album just out; this one comes from their briefly-paid-attention-to-but-since-forgotten 2018 album, Look Now.

* Might as well not waste time getting a 2022 release into the EPS, and also might as well not waste time getting Fingertips favorite Waxahatchee back into a mix here as well. Katie Crutchfield has been in quite the groove these past few years and can do no wrong as far as I can hear. This song comes from the just-released soundtrack, an EP, to the new Apple+ TV series El Deafo.

* If you are familiar only with Linda Ronstadt’s top-10 version of “When Will I Be Loved,” from 1974, I think you’re in for a treat when you hear the Everly Brothers’ 1960 original. Ronstadt did a fine job, don’t get me wrong, but she sped up and regularized a song that, in the Everlys’ hands, was full of nuanced, behind-the-beat singing and subtle hesitations. The song is both immediately recognizable and, compared to the ’70s cover, marvelously transformed.

* Curtis Harding is a singer/songwriter who was born in Michigan and raised in Atlanta. He’s been recording since 2014 but I only managed to come across him recently. I’m eager now to catch up on his work, which walks a wonderful line between the retro and the contemporary, with psychedelic undertones (or overtones; and hm what’s actually the difference?). “Can’t Hide It” is a song from his third album, 2021’s If Words Were Flowers. Harding cites an impressive variety of influences, from Mahalia Jackson and MC Lyte to Bob Dylan and (them again!) the Everly Brothers.

* Bonus note for the Elvis Costello curious: I just posted a playlist on Spotify featuring the best of his 21st-century releases. Despite his ongoing output and prodigious capacity for growth and variety, Elvis seems culturally stuck in the past, with his early output being the only music people seem able to remember and refer to. And yet to my ears the breadth and ongoing quality of what he’s been up to for decades now renders his later work even more notable than the early stuff. I offer up 20 songs in support of this idiosyncratic argument.

Instant special new

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.10 – October 2021

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

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

Random notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.