Listen to this track by politically motivated globetrotting singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call it Democracy”, a song as taken from his 1986 album World Of Wonders.
Cockburn had spent the 1980s making albums and writing songs while also making personal trips to points on the map where the negative effects of Western economic policy was making the most impact in that era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continued their “aid” to Third World countries, lending them the funds to manage their economies effectively (read: in line with Western corporate agendas) in exchange for turning over their right to self determination in support of private interests. This was, and is today, generally done by way of huge rates of interest on loans that are designed to never be paid off. Certain people might say this is nothing less than economic imperialism. People like me, say.
Heavy stuff, I know.
So, how does Cockburn make this into a compelling song, and not just an over-earnest polemic? Because when it comes to writing political songs, this is what separates the big dogs from the furry fashion accessories. Continue reading
Listen to this track by jazz-enthusiast and singer songwriter Joni Mitchell. It’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” as taken from her 1979 LP Mingus named after her artistic patron at the time, the incomparable Charles Mingus.
This song is a jazz standard, first appearing in its original instrumental form on Mingus’ 1959 album Ah Um, and a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young, the wearer of the signature headwear who died that year at the age of forty-nine.
Mitchell had veered into jazz territory on a number of albums previous to this one, working with several jazz musicians who were skilled enough to work within the framework of her penchant for open tunings. Despite its very experimental and non-commercial nature, the Mingus album still managed to peak in the top twenty on Billboard. This is possibly due to the fact that Mingus himself had died after contributing to six new songs on the album, plus two others from his existing portfolio, including this one. After a career of pushing the envelope musically speaking, this was his last musical pursuit.
Perhaps it’s fitting that “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was the closer of this record, originally a tribute to one musician becoming something of a tribute to another years later, complete with lyrics by Mitchell especially for the project. But, I think this song evokes something else, too.
Listen to this track by former pop synthesists turned minimalist orchestral art rock concern Talk Talk. It’s “Ascension Day”, the second track from the band’s last (to date, although I wouldn’t hold your breath, kids) album Laughing Stock released in the autumn of 1991.
The record was the final gasp from a band who were on a unique artistic parabola thanks to their critically acclaimed (well, eventually) but not-well-purchased 1988 masterpiece Spirit Of Eden. That album was a work that was a dramatic departure from their pop music origins, led by singer Mark Hollis and collaborator Tim Friese-Green. Since its creation and in the aftermath of its release, they lost bass player Paul Webb and their contract with EMI with whom they were in some conflict over the “not well purchased” point regarding said masterppiece.
So after pursuing their art and following the muse against the slings and arrows of outrageous record companies, you’d think they would make a more mainstream-friendly record to reset the balance, right? Well, no.
But, what they did do is create yet another masterpiece, well represented by this track. But, it was a harrowing ride. Continue reading
Listen to this track by singer-songwriter and serial musical collaborator direct from Portlandia M. Ward. It’s “Color of Water” as taken from his second album End Of Amnesia, released in 2001.
In addition to his solo career, M Ward has worked with a wide spectrum of talent in a support role including Conor Oberst, Norah Jones, Howie Gelb, Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, and several more. This doesn’t include his duet with actor-singer Zooey Deschanel, that project simply called She & Him. He’s also a part of the Monsters of Folk supergroup. But, before all that came this tune, with a decidedly Youngian vibe about it that isn’t a million miles away from Shakey’s Harvest Moon era output.
But, Ward is a unique voice, hooking into the primal waters that many have dipped into although not always with the same level of brilliance. So, how does this tune showcase that? Continue reading
Listen to this track by one-time experimental electronic outfit turned stadium-ready synthpop merchants Ultravox. It’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” as taken from their seventh album Lament. The song was an important stage in the revitalization for the band who scored top ten chart showings around the world (but not in the States – whaaat?).
The song features the vocals of lead singer Midge Ure, a seasoned musician who’d by this time played with bands as diverse as Thin Lizzy, Rich Kids (with Sex Pistols original bassist Glen Matlock), and Visage. It was through the latter band that he came to Ultravox, bonding with Billy Currie who also played part-time in Visage. When he came into the fold is was to replace original Ultravox lead singer John Foxx when Foxx left for a solo career.
Midge Ure’s obvious songwriting talents and incredible lead voice helped to usher in a new era of more pop-oriented direction. Within this new era for the band, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is a career highlight, and known for the accompanying video which reflected the lyrics about a last ride home before some cataclysmic event with the man on the wire crying “it’s over, it’s over!”.
As kids listening to the radio and watching videos at the time, most of us knew what that meant. Because apart from the pop appeal of the track rooted in some of the aesthetics of the time, this song captured something else which was very pervasive in pop culture and the general atmosphere of that era; fear.
Listen to this track by British Invasion rear guard turned retroactively celebrated pop-rock-psych quintet from St. Albans, England, The Zombies. It’s “Care of Cell 44″ as taken from the band’s second and final record by the original line-up, Oddesey & Oracle. That album is now confirmed as one of the best releases of the decade by a number of well-established sources. And this single was the first salvo from it in the UK.
The song deals in subject matter which is familiar to the pop song milieu. It’s a song about prison. But, in this case it’s about a loved one looking forward to welcoming the prisoner back home once a sentence has been served. Instead of being a doleful tune about being in the pokey ala “Folsom Prison Blues”, it’s a song of celebration, with a joyful melody to bear it up. The band were convinced of its commercial appeal.
But, they were wrong!
Among other things happening at the time, the failure of this track as a single was a nail in the coffin (pardon the pun) for the Zombies. They broke up as the original line-up of the band by the end of the year this record was recorded, 1967. But, that wouldn’t be the end of the tale. Continue reading
Listen to this track by super-studenty Scottish pop band with a fey streak a mile-wide Belle And Sebastian. It’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, the title track to their 1996 sophomore record of the same name.
When I say “studenty”, I’m referring to a common, totally made-up sounding adjective often used by the British music press that describes bands who could otherwise be described as bookish, a bit earnest, full of musical loose ends, or in fact formed while in university. Sometimes, it’s just that last one, which certainly describes this band. Belle And Sebastian not only formed in university, but they submitted their first demos to the school’s label!
Needless to say, groupies, blow, and throwing T.Vs out of hotel room windows would not be in this band’s future (that we know of!). So, where were they heading? Well, for one thing they were headed to critical acclaim. Continue reading