Trouble acting normal

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.08 (August 2022)

Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the hiatus, or maybe it’s the ever-unfolding perturbations of life in the 2020s, but I’m going to let the music do the talking this month. For a few enlightening details on a few of this month’s songs, scroll down past the playlist and the widget.

1. “Every One of Us” – Goldrush (The Heart is the Place, 2007)
2. “Dog & Butterfly” – Heart (Dog & Butterfly, 1978)
3. “Harps” – The Sea and Cake (Runner, 2012)
4. “Falling Down the Stairs” – Even As We Speak (Feral Pop Frenzy, 1993)
5. “Weird Fishes” – Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas, 2020)
6. “Reptile” – The Church (Starfish, 1988)
7. “The Planets” – The Clear (Patchwork, 2017)
8. “Pavement Cracks” – Annie Lennox (Bare, 2003)
9. “Bones” – Soccer Mommy (Sometimes, Forever, 2022)
10. “1,000,000” – R.E.M. (Chronic Town EP, 1982)
11. “She Loves the Way They Love Her” – Colin Blustone (One Year, 1971)
12. “Small Pony” – Dott (Swoon, 2013)
13. “Don’t You Even Care” – Leslie Uggams (single, 1965)
14. “What About Now” – Robbie Robertson (Storyville, 1991)
15. “Mirage” – Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean, 1977)
16. “Dandelion Wine” – Ron Sexsmith (Retriever, 2004)
17. “Round Here” – Counting Crows (August and Everything After, 1993)
18. “Ese Chico” – Christina Rosenvinge (single, 2022)
19. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” – The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
20. “Come All Ye” – Fairport Convention (Liege & Leaf, 1969)

Odds and ends:

* Sometimes Wikipedia is enlightening, sometimes it’s weirdly dense, and other times it’s just plain sad–and here I’m thinking about the way the information can just stop, page abandoned (but still online) because a band has ended its life without fanfare or notice. A page can go from being updated by various fans and observers to being deserted seemingly in midstream, with no one even bothering to change the present-tense intro (“XYZ are a band from…”) to past tense (“XYZ were a band…”). The Oxford, UK-based band Goldrush seems to have suffered this fate, despite being a band with a certain amount of notice and success in indie rock’s early-21st-century halcyon years. I don’t claim for Goldrush an undue amount of praise but I did feature them twice in the ’00s, and in particular loved “Every One of Us,” which I still find deep and affecting.

* With its bedroom rock ambiance, hazy vocals, and midtempo stasis, Soccer Mommy’s song “Bones” could’ve veered into a faceless mush but instead elevates to fabulous via the anchor of a terrific, poignant chorus melody. And don’t miss the increasingly frantic guitar work that dominates the last third of the song. Soccer Mommy is the Nashville-based singer/songwriter Sophie Allison; “Bones” is the opening track on Sometimes, Forever, her excellent third album, which was released in June.

* For a minute there in the 1970s, Jean-Luc Ponty was the planet’s most famous electric violinist. After working with Frank Zappa, Elton John, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, among other notables, he recorded a string of solo albums that collectively sold in the millions. His most recent project seems to have been 2015’s collaboration with Jon Anderson, the Yes front man, on an album called Better Late Than Never. Ponty will turn 80 next month. The track featured here comes from his mainstream heyday, 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean.

* I find it delightful that Lianne La Havas would even think of covering Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” independent of what the finished product sounds like. Watching talent seek talent is invigorating. And yet, not surprisingly, the end result is a marvel–an unexpected showcase for La Havas’s uncanny vocal prowess on the one hand, and for the emotional resonance, on the other, of a song that always intrigued but seemed, previously, a bit too abstract for its own good. It’s a surprising and satisfying winner from La Havas’s 2020 self-titled album.

* I programmed the old-school R.E.M. song “1,000,000” into this mix just because it seemed like a good idea, which is pretty much how I put these together in general. Only after I slotted it in did I find out that the band’s debut EP Chronic Town, where it comes from, which is 40 years old this year, was being released–last week–for the first time as a standalone CD, with a bunch of new liner notes from Mitch Easter, who produced it. I enjoy a good synchronicity whenever I encounter one.

* In our current pop cultural moment, Leslie Uggams is known, if at all, for roles in the Deadpool movies and in the television series Empire. But the 79-year-old actress/singer has been in show business and recording singles since she was a child in the 1950s. As a teenager, she was a regular on NBC’s popular Sing Along With Mitch series, a show that seems preposterous now but was a thing for a few strange early-’60s years. Then there was the probably inevitable effort to establish her as an R&B singer, which to these ears sounded pretty promising, if 1965’s “Don’t You Even Care,” on Atlantic Records, is any indication. But she soon found her niche in more pop- and/or musical-theater-oriented material, and landed in 1969 as the host of The Leslie Uggams Show on ABC, which was the first network variety show hosted by a Black woman. Since then she’s had a multi-faceted career including a star turn on the original Roots mini-series and a lot of varied stage work. MCUers can expect her back as Blind Al when Dead Pool 3 eventually emerges.

* I have long-standing admiration for the Spanish singer Christina Rosenvinge, who ditched a successful pop career as half of the duo Alex y Christina in the late ’80s for a more offbeat, soul-searching, and substantive solo career; she’s worked off and on as an actress as well. Openly critical of the misogyny she has encountered over the years in the music industry, she is likewise vocal in her support of the LGBTQ community, as this new single of hers demonstrates. I stumbled on it in Spotify but haven’t seen it talked about in any English-speaking media, so you can be the first on your block to check it out.

* And then there’s Ron Sexsmith, the Canadian troubadour with a extraordinarily consistent–and consistently overlooked–catalog of recorded music, with 14 quality studio albums now to his credit, dating back to his self-titled debut in 1995. What he does is neither ever in fashion nor quite out of fashion but boy does he do it well. Every album of his contains hidden gems, perhaps none gemmier and more hidden than “Dandelion Wine,” from his fine 2004 effort, Retriever. (The album received stellar reviews on both Pitchfork and AllMusic, with neither mentioning this song among the highlights.) His most recent release is 2020’s Hermitage, which I still haven’t caught up with, but I will note that his previous album, 2017’s The Last Rider, ranks up there with his best.

* There’s no standout segue this month but the best one may be “Round Here” into “Ese Chico”; I can definitely nominate a worst segue, which would be “1,000,000” into “She Loves the Way They Love Her”–it was one of those that was almost brilliant but in missing by a little it’s kind of a clunker. Apologies to the deep listeners among you.

Even though I might

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.07 – July 2022

I’m thrilled that Kate Bush is having a moment; I’ve been a fan for decades, and, 37 years later, I still place Hounds of Love at the top of my Favorite Albums of All Time list. Bush is an artist with an exceptional individual vision and the fortitude to remain her own person throughout her career–an unusual combination in this profit-fixated world of ours.

That said, I’ll admit there is likewise something discomfiting about this abrupt burst of Bushmania. While I am happy for the well-deserved exposure, in the U.S. in particular (“Running Up That Hill,” here in 2022, has become her first top five U.S. hit ever), the fact that it’s been generated so randomly, based on some music supervisor’s suggestion for a so-called “sync,” leaves me a bit unsettled. How randomly are the fruits of capitalism distributed to creative people! Kate Bush is just as brilliant and singular an artist now as she was before her song was featured in Stranger Things. The fact that the wide world is now paying attention to her is terrific on the one hand but highlights on the other the fact that our most deserving artists often lack the rewards they ideally merit. Our culture has brainwashed itself, through the ascendancy of “poptimism” in the 21st century, to treat our most popular artists as the most artistically deserving of their popularity but that’s a lie we tell ourselves to avoid having to operate in the slippery land of quality versus the concrete territory of quantity.

Even so, I’m trying not to be too much of a grump about it. Kate Bush will always be one of my favorite artists (she’s now been featured here 8 times, tied at the top with David Bowie and Radiohead) and I should only be happy that more of the world now knows about her. (Note that she has rarely allowed her music to be licensed in this way in the past; she only agreed this time because she was already a fan of the show.) My disgruntlements, such as they are, have to do with the capitalist-driven materialism that overwhelms the Western world, about which, alas, there seems little right now to be done.

In any case, here we are again. Even as Fingertips remains on a summer hiatus with respect to individual song reviews, the Eclectic Playlist Series carries on. Enjoy the mix, which this month features 14 artists not previously heard here. Oh, and that Kate Bush song? Watch the 1986 video and see how naturally it aligns with the Stranger Things vibe, so much so that it makes me wonder if the Duffers had her in mind all along.

Bonus commentary below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Nowhere Girl” – B-Movie (single, 1980/1982)
2. “Saddest Day” – Ephemera (Sun, 2000)
3. “Don’t Forget” – Sky Ferreira (single, 2022)
4. “I’ve Seen the Saucers” – Elton John (Caribou, 1974)
5. “’74-’75” – The Connells (Ring, 1993)
6. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” – Okkervil River (The Stage Names, 2007)
7. “Face of the Sun” – Shana Cleveland (Night of the Worm Moon, 2019)
8. “Children’s Songs: No. 6” – Chick Corea (Children’s Songs, 1984)
9. “Play Me” – Marcia Griffiths (Sweet & Nice, 1974)
10. “Down on the Corner” – Creedence Clearwater Revival (Willy and the Poor Boys, 1969)
11. “The Spur” – Joan Shelley (The Spur, 2022)
12. “I Lost the Monkey” – The Wedding Present (El Rey, 2008)
13. “Experiment IV” – Kate Bush (single, 1986)
14. “900 Hands” – Elskling (single, 2014)
15. “Don’t Change Your Love” – The Five Stairsteps (single, 1968)
16. “I Can’t” – Radiohead (Pablo Honey, 1993)
17. “Liquid Numbing Pain” – Lucy Francesca Dron (Leftovers, 2021)
18. “Only Skin” – The Spring Standards (Yellow/Gold, 2012)
19. “You Got It (Release It)” – Pearl Harbor & The Explosions (Pearl Harbor & The Explosions, 1979)
20. “Glory Box” – John Martyn (The Church With One Bell, 1998)

 

* Radiohead, like Kate Bush, is here for the eighth time this month, and this time I dip all the way back to their typically overlooked if not disparaged debut. I think it’s unfortunate that this album doesn’t get more respect–sure, the band will grow a lot from here onward (understatement) but it’s still an admirable slice of ’90s guitar rock. Song quality is a notch down from their follow-up but The Bends is about the highest bar possible. Trust me, there’s more to Pablo Honey than “Creep”; start with “I Can’t” and explore from there. Among other things it’s interesting to be reminded of quite how much they were influenced at the outset by U2.

* Texas-based Okkervil River was a semi-regular presence here on Fingertips during the indie rock glory days of the middle ’00s. Featured four times between 2004 and 2008, and once more in 2011, they rightly or wrongly faded away from my awareness through the rest of the 2010s, even as they remained and still remain an active–if shape-shifting–ensemble; front man Will Sheff is the only one left from Okkervil River’s ’00s incarnations. “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” comes from the record that represents their commercial, and possibly their critical, high water mark, 2007’s The Stage Names. The band’s most recent album is In the Rainbow Rain, released in 2018.

* Is there a reason, I wonder, that Neil Diamond songs have been so gracefully transmuted into reggae songs? There’s “Red Red Wine,” of course, which UB40 made so much their own that few knew that Neil Diamond was the original songwriter. John Holt’s cover of “Holly Holy” is considered a classic by aficionados. And then there’s Marcia Griffiths and her marvelous cover of “Play Me,” which manages to convert a slightly cheesy tune into something welcoming and delightful. Might it possibly have to do with Diamond’s song “Reggae Strut,” which appeared on his 1974 album Serenade (and on the B-side of the single “Longfellow Serenade,” a pleasingly bombastic song which I’d entirely forgotten about until right now)? To our contemporary ears, “Reggae Strut” may sound, um, a little colonial. But for better or worse it’s possible the attention worked both ways? After all, 1974 was still pretty early for Diamond, a huge mainstream success at that point, to be tuned into reggae enough to write a song about it. Maybe the reggae community decided to check him out, if they hadn’t previously? Lord knows that by now there are more reggae versions of “Sweet Caroline” than you probably care to know about.

* I am not much of a jazz guy or a classical guy, although I dabble in both as the mood strikes. The 1984 LP Children’s Songs, by the late Chick Corea, is an album that shows how blurry, sometimes, the line between these two ostensibly separate genres can be. Featuring 20 original piano compositions–most shorter than two minutes–the album was inspired by one of Corea’s musical heroes, Béla Bartók, combining an unadorned simplicity of feel with a gratifying melodic and harmonic complexity. I stumbled on it a few months ago and found myself struck in particular by the playful movement and tension embodied by “No. 6.” I hope it works as a friendly interstitial within this wide-ranging mix.

* I was speaking earlier of the random nature of what draws our cultural attention to some artists and not to others; with the advent of social media over the last 10 years or so the situation has become something of a travesty, as the endless jockeying for clicks and followers has debased our collective interactions greviously. This is obvious at a political level but applies in the arts as well. With everyone seemingly seeking popularity at all costs, what cultural room is left for the acquired tastes, for quality that whispers as opposed to quantity that overwhelms? I listen to Brisbane-based Lucy Francesca Dron and am saddened by how much less attention a musician of her quality and taste seems at this point to be receiving versus all the shiny, interchangeable popsters dominating the charts and feeds. I featured Dron’s song “What Is Next?” last year here, and later in the year was taken as well by a follow-up single, “Liquid Numbing Pain.” I make it a policy not to review two songs by the same artist within one calendar year but am happy to present that second single here within a 2022 playlist. The song can be found on her 2021 EP, Leftovers.

* Sky Ferreira has had a troubled go of it from the outset of her intermittent career. While pretty astonishing at the time, her 2013 debut album Night Time, My Time if anything sounds even better in retrospect for its adroit blending of processed pop with grungier edges not usually heard on the charts at that point. Her very long-awaited second album is due–supposedly–later this year. “Don’t Forget” is the second single now available from the upcoming LP. Don’t believe Pitchfork’s sniffing dismissal; to my ears, the track rewards far more listens than this particular reviewer seems to have given it.

* When I first heard John Martyn’s version of “Glory Box” I thought hm, how clever of the Bristol-based trio to have found a song from that veteran blues-folk pioneer and given it the Portishead treatment. I was properly abashed to find out at some point that it was Martyn who grabbed the tune from Dummy. Without actually changing it all that much, Martyn excavates the blues swing hiding in plain sight in the original. Some covers succeed by thoroughly re-interpreting the first version, some work by hewing close to the original in a act of homage; a rare few manage somehow to do both at the same time.

* Formed in 1978, Pearl Harbor & The Explosions were one of the first new wave bands in the U.S., and scored a minor indie hit with the song “Drivin'” in 1979. Warner Brothers scooped them up for a major label deal, but, despite the listener-friendly hooks of “You Got It (Release It),” the album sunk and nothing much stuck after that. (Note that lead singer Pearl E. Gates, born Patricia Gilbert, named the band as she did because her parents were married on Dec. 7, 1941.) Relocating to the U.K. after the band broke up, she there adopted the British spelling (Harbour) because that’s how her name kept appearing in the press. In 1982, she married Clash bassist Paul Simonon, who played without credit (along with Mick Jones and Topper Headon and other notable British musicians) on Pearl’s debut solo album, the rockabilly-infused Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too. She and Simonon divorced in 1989, at which point she moved back to California, where she’s been ever since. Pearl is still active online (see IG:@pearlharbourmusic) but doesn’t seem to have released any music since 1995. (Thanks to The Forty-Five for some of the background information here.)

Maybe I’m just a fool

Eclectic Playlist Series 9.06 – June 2022

I recently read and was disheartened by a Pitchfork article from last month about how AI is on the verge of turning the music industry and music production upside down. As usual with such articles, there was much to read about the various gee-whizzy things technologists have done and are yet dreaming of doing by applying AI tools to artistic endeavors. Also as usual there was no discussion of the perpetually overlooked fact that art is ever and always about one human consciousness communicating with another. Whatever a computer can produce, it’s still and forever doing so minus the depth of a human consciousness. Sure, a machine may one day (soon?) become self-aware at some level, but no matter what it will never be an organic being that is born, that is aware that it will die, that exists with all the flesh-and-blood peril and pleasure and connections we humans live our lives with and among. Accordingly, everyone relatedly misses the fact that regardless of what a computer produces, it is not the same as the product of a human consciousness, even if it looks the same or sounds the same.

As a convenient example, take the exceptional guitar work in Luka Bloom’s “Delirious,” down there in the second half of this month’s mix. I’m sure someone could program a computer to create a similar if not the exact same sound, and someone is also probably working feverishly as we speak on creating software that can generate on its own the music the guitar is playing. And in so doing would take all the visceral thrill out of the music, which as far as I’m concerned depends upon the knowledge that a human being conceived of and performed what I’m hearing. I wrote about this in more detail here if you’re interested. I may be intellectually curious–mildly–about what a machine may produce, but deep in my heart and soul I don’t give a shit about what a machine “thinks” or “feels” and accordingly have no interest in music that might be entirely composed by a computer no matter what it sounds like. If it turns out at some point there are no humans left who are interested in playing their own music–something the article appears to imply–then I guess I’ll stick with what we humans have already created. There’s a fair amount of it.

Meanwhile, hello. Welcome back to the latest incarnation of the Eclectic Playlist Series, which turns out to be especially eclectic this month, with everything from indie rock, classic rock, and Motown to French movie-star pop, weird new wave, and Swedish jazz. There are a smattering of familiar names but fully 15 of the 20 songs this month come to us from artists who have not previously been featured on an EPS mix, going back some eight-plus years at this point.

Oh and everything you’ll hear here was written and performed by humans, for humans.

Commentary about some of the specific songs can be found below the playlist and the widget:

1. “Love and Mercy” – Brian Wilson (Brian Wilson, 1988)
2. “When the Lights Go Out” – Crybaby (Crybaby, 2012)
3. “Sure Enough” – Angela Desveaux (The Mighty Ship, 2008)
4. “Hold On” – Sharon Tandy (single, 1968)
5. “San Diego Zoo” – The 6ths (Wasps’ Nest, 1995)
6. “The Tunnel of Love” – Fun Boy Three (Waiting, 1983)
7. “Believe in Me” – Sally Shapiro (Sad Cities, 2022)
8. “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” – Bob Dylan (Street-Legal, 1978)
9. “La Madrague” – Brigitte Bardot (Brigitte, 1963)
10. “Girlfriend” – Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, 2009)
11. “Mama’s Pearl” – The Jackson 5 (Third Album, 1971)
12. “Only Lonely Lovers” – Pure Bathing Culture (Moon Tides, 2013)
13. “Delirious” – Luka Bloom (Riverside, 1990)
14. “Fox on the Run” – Sweet (Desolation Boulevard, 1974)
15. “I Know There’s Something Going On” – Frida (Something Going On, 1982)
16. “Talk” – beabadoobee (Beatopia, 2022)
17. “Visa från Utanmyra” – Jan Johansson (Jazz på svenska, 1964)
18. “Hippychick” – Soho (Goddess, 1991)
19. “Slip” – Motorcade (See You in the Nothing, 2022)
20. “Jerusalem” – Steve Earle (Jerusalem, 2002)

* A couple of the big names here are especially notable for having recently celebrated 80-something birthdays–namely Mr. Bob Dylan (81) and Mr. Brian Wilson (80). While Wilson has had a wild and woolly go of it over the past half century, with erratic output at best, Dylan remains by all accounts at the top of his game–however much his game, as it were, has altered with the passing decades. While many fans still idolize his run in the mid-’60s, with all that surreal electric output of his, I find his mid-’70s material to landing most solidly in my sweet spot: namely, the albums from Planet Waves through Street-Legal, with those two in between–Blood on the Tracks and Desire–at the top of my all-time favorite Dylan efforts. (And were it not for the unfortunate “Joey” I’d actually put Desire on top.) Street-Legal, meanwhile, puzzled everyone at the time, if it didn’t outright exasperate them. But me I always kind of liked its obscure charms, and there’s no doubting the classic status of a few of its offerings, most particularly “Changing of the Guards” and track 8 here.

* Sharon Tandy was a South African singer who came to the UK in the 1960s without ever hitting it very big at the time; she recorded a number of 45s in the process. “Hold On” seems to have been the strongest cut, and certainly has the feel of something that could have been a major hit. She did make it to British TV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4O-gKNiDXA) so she maybe had at least a bit of a moment. In a few years she returned to South Africa and recorded through the ’70s. In 2016, the year after she died, Rhino Records saw fit to release a compilation entitled Playlist: The Best of Sharon Tandy, and “Hold On” is the lead track. Oh and speaking as I was about guitar work, don’t miss the long and wild guitar solo about halfway through this one. Crazy stuff.

* Turns out it’s Sweden month here for no particular reason. If you make it most of the way through you’ll be treated to a song that is far more well known there than here–“Visa från Utanmyra,” from the jazz pianist Jan Johansson. The song is a jazz arrangement of a traditional Swedish folk song, as in fact are all the songs on the 1964 album Jazz på svenska (“Jazz in Swedish”), which remains, according to Wikipedia, the top-selling Swedish jazz album of all time. Johansson, sadly, died in a car crash in 1968 at age 37. On a happier note, we also hear this month from long-time Fingertips favorite Sally Shapiro, which is both the name of the band and the pseudonym used by its anonymous lead singer. After announcing their retirement in 2013, the band–which is really just “Shapiro” and the producer/writer/arranger Johan Agebjörn–re-emerged out of the blue last year with a new single, and then released an entire new album of material earlier this year entitled Sad Cities. Its sparkling neo-italo-disco/synth pop is as enticing as ever. And then there’s Frida. Remember Frida? Born Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad, formally (since 1992) called Princess Anni-Frid Reuss, Dowager Countess of Plauen, she is by far best known as one of the four founding members of ABBA (one of the As there is for Anni-Frid). The album Something Going On was Frida’s first album in English, and her first post-ABBA solo release. After being obsessed with Phil Collins’ super-popular 1981 album Face Value, Frida enlisted Collins both to produce and do his magic at the drum kit, and the collaboration paid off. The single “I Know There’s Something Going On” was a decent-sized hit for her and still sounds pretty darned good to these ears.

* The 6ths were a short-lived side project masterminded by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. While Merritt wrote and produced all the music, and played most of it too, he sung lead vocal on only one of the final product’s fifteen songs. “San Diego Zoo” was the opening track and it was sung by San Diego-born Barbara Manning, something of an indie/alternative rock legend herself. Manning has a long, interesting, and complicated career, dating back to the 1980s, but does not appear to have recorded anything new since the first decade of the current century. In her daily life she is a middle school science teacher.

* My old-school tendencies leave me skeptical of sampling but boy oh boy does the Smiths sample anchoring Soho’s “Hippychick” sound fresh and glorious to this day. Based in the UK and fronted by twin sisters Jacqui and Pauline Cuff, Soho released six more albums through the ’90s but never gained traction again commercially or culturally. Their 1991 album Goddess, where you’ll find “Hippychick,” seems to be the only one reasonably easy to find digitally these days.

* Angela Desveaux’s “Sure Enough” is the sole song this month that was previously featured on Fingertips. That was back in 2008. But two other artists in this mix have also been reviewed here in the past, for different tracks–the aforementioned Sally Shapiro (twice), and, as it turns out, another duo: the Portland, Ore.-based Pure Bathing Culture. PBC have had three features here to date, most recently in 2019, and are still active; I should go investigate what they’ve been up to, as I haven’t in a while. Angela Desveaux on the other hand seems to have slipped off the internet entirely; 2008’s The Mighty Ship was her last release. I hope this was a proactive decision and if so more power to her.

* I don’t know much about the Dallas band Motorcade but I sure like this song, from their recently released second album. The rest of it seems worth exploring; the band sounds especially adept at taking its post-punk influences into something that feels more like an evolution than an homage.

* “I don’t remember learning how to hate in Sunday School.” Someone should tell that to the GOP, as well as their puppet-filled Supreme Court, as they hide behind a warped view of “faith” that not only flouts Constitutional guarantees but contradicts every bit of spiritual wisdom espoused by the very guy they claim to believe in–the same guy who said absolutely nothing, zero, about abortion.

No matter who you are (Eclectic Playlist Series 9.05)

Along with this playlist comes a larger announcement: Fingertips will be taking a summer hiatus starting with the unofficial start of the our American summer this coming weekend. I’m not sure whether the MP3s are drying up or whether it’s just me in need of a break but I know that as I tried over the last couple of weeks to work on the regular update I just wasn’t feeling it. I’m taking that as a sign that I can use a few months away from the MP3 review side of Fingertips. The plan is to keep the playlists going in the interim but we’ll see how that goes. I’m assuming I’ll be back with reviews at the end of the summer but we’ll see how that goes too.

In the meantime, here’s another idiosyncratic compilation, iteration 9.05, spanning the decades and the genres as usual. Don’t forget this means that there are more than nine years of playlists already stored and ready to listen to–you can go straight to the widgets on Mixcloud, or access them via the commentary about each mix on the Fingertips web site. Or, for a different and longer-lasting experience, there’s the Eclectic Playlist Series Master Mix on Spotify. It doesn’t have every last song ever featured on an EPS mix because Spotify doesn’t have every song but there are about 1,500 songs in the mix at this point; shuffle it and you’ve got an instant and pretty damn interesting radio station.

As usual, I’ll have a few stray observations about some of the song’s on this month’s offerings below the playlist and the widget:

1. “A to Z” – Alice Russell (To Dust, 2013)
2. “Peaches en Regalia” – Frank Zappa (Hot Rats, 1968)
3. “Speed of Sound” – Coldplay (X&Y, 2005)
4. “Madness” – Carlene Carter (Musical Shapes, 1980)
5. “I’ll Try” – Sharon Van Etten (We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, 2022)
6. “The Only One I Know” – The Charlatans (Some Friendly, 1990)
7. “Help Me Make Up My Mind” – Joyce Jones (single, 1969)
8. “Release, Release” – Yes (Tormato, 1978)
9. “Ablaze” – Liz Durrett (Husk, 2005)
10. “Cry” – Godley & Creme (The History Mix Vol. 1, 1984)
11. “She Loves Everybody” – Chester French (Love the Future, 2009)
12. “Sunday Morning” – Margo Guryan (Take a Picture, 1968)
13. “Every 1’s a Winner” – Hot Chocolate (Every 1’s a Winner, 1978)
14. “The Unheard” – Fabryka (Sparkles EP, 2015)
15. “Airstream” – Low-Beam (Every Other Moment EP, 2004)
16. “We’re Not Deep” – The Housemartins (London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
17. “Everybody Needs a Hammer” – Willie Nile (Places I Have Never Been, 1991)
18. “Asking for a Friend” – CHVRCHES (Screen Violence, 2021)
19. “Brother” – Color of Clouds (Satellite of Love, 2010)
20. “The Hurt” – Cat Stevens (Foreigner, 1975)

Random notes:

* Last month I featured the Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Russell near the top of the mix; this month I’m starting with a song from the British soul singer Alice Russell–two quite different but equally wonderful performers. Alice Russell has been recording since 2004, but only recently came to my attention. (So much music, so little time…) A powerhouse singer inspired by classic soul recordings while committed to contemporary ideas and sounds, Russell has somehow never gained the widespread recognition that Amy Winehouse did mining similar territory. “A to Z” is the lead track from To Dust, a 2013 release that remains her most recent album.

* Sharon Van Etten slays it yet again with her new album, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. You kind of have to sink into her vibe when listening to an album of hers–she tends towards similarly-paced songs, somewhere on the slower side of midtempo. But there’s always something intense and gorgeous going on with her music, and when she does allow a song to pick up the pace a bit, it seems effortlessly brilliant, as with “I’ll Try.” And while I’m fanboy-ing SVE: if you’ve never seen her covering “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with the band Shearwater you are in for a treat if you go there right now. Mysterious feelings arise for me as this video unfolds. And don’t miss the face she makes at the very end. Melts my heart every time.

* I am neither much of a Yes fan nor a prog rock fan but the occasional song of theirs appeals to me for inscrutable reasons. These seem always to be songs that were recorded past their first few extra-proggy albums, which means that the Yes music I like is probably all the stuff that their “real” fans disparage. “Release Release” is something of a lost track from something of a lost album, 1978’s Tormato. It’s kind of a lovable mess, with energy and hooks to spare. Bonus points for that short section when Anderson isn’t singing in his screechiest register. Not sure what the crowd noise is doing there in the middle of the instrumental break, but when it turns off we get one of the song’s best if subtlest moments.

* “Airstream” was originally featured here back in 2004 and it still sounds elusively original to me; you can read my original review here. All these years later it’s hard to track the New London band Low-Beam, which had its regional heyday long before social media took hold–their original releases, three EPs and a single, happened between 2002 and 2007. According to one online account, the band began work on a full-length as early as 2004, but there were a variety of unspecified difficulties. The album did eventually come out; on Bandcamp the release date is listed as 2011, but the dates listed on Bandcamp are not necessarily the dates of an album’s original release but when an album was uploaded to the site. There are also two double-sided singles up on Bandcamp with release dates of 2010 and 2011. The only thing that seems clear is that the band is no longer around, although the Bandcamp page as noted is available and worth exploring.

* I am impressed by how much staying power the best songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens still have, some 50 years or so after the fact. To my ears his biggest hits (“Wild World,” “Peace Train,” et al.), while worthy and ear-wormy, are a notch below a healthy handful of other songs that had their moments on the FM dial back in the day but are less widely remembered today–“Sitting,” “On the Road to Find Out,” and “Sun/C79,” among others, including this month’s closing number, “The Hurt.” “The Hurt” did get its share of radio play when it was released, but it was a track off an album, Foreigner (1973), that marked a commercial dropoff from his super-popular LPs from a few years earlier, Tea for the Tillerman(1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971). Foreigner was complicated by the fact that side one was taken up with one long track–not an uncommon move for a rock act in 1973 but maybe nothing Cat Stevens’ fans were hoping for. He had one more big album in him, 1974’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box, before his music began losing its strange but compelling spark, as his long-standing mixed feelings about rock’n’roll stardom culminated in his forsaking not only the career and lifestyle but his very name, converting to Islam late in 1977, and abandoning his musical career for two decades. In recent years Yusuf Islam has re-embraced his Cat Stevens side–he is identified now as Yusuf/Cat Stevens–and has released a few albums that bring his classic sound to mind. Check out 2017’s The Laughing Apple as an example if you are at all curious. To my ears the new stuff is missing the deep melodic magic of his prime ’70s work but his voice remains a wonderful instrument indeed.

* If you manage to listen through to the end you’ll be rewarded with one my best accidental segues to date, as “Brother” glides into “The Hurt.”

* Four other songs on this playlist, beyond “Airstream,” were originally reviewed as MP3s here on Fingertips: “Ablaze,” “She Loves Everybody,” “The Unheard,” and “Brother.”

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.