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)
* 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.