She is too often irritatingly referred to as a sort of “female Bob Dylan”, which still makes my hackles rise and keeps my gag reflex in good working order. Nothing against Bob, of course. But, the two artists are not to be compared, least of all while using the tag of “female” as a modifier, and ultimately as a way to reduce her significance on the basis of gender. I will say no more about it (maybe).
Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Mitchell took her art to the folk scenes of Calgary, Toronto, Detroit, New York, and eventually to La-La land and the Laurel Canyon scene starting in the 1960s and on through the 1970s. She started off with a girl-with-guitar hippie-chick image, where she has often stayed in the minds of the uninitiated. But, Mitchell’s work is expansive and fearless well beyond labels or eras, even from her earliest period. Lately, she’s made the headlines because of her ill-health, and also due to her rather cantankerous attitudes having to do with the music industry as well as toward her contemporaries.
But, it is her art that remains to be her strongest and most vital voice, sometimes with that cantankerous outlook built in, sometimes not. And as such, I hereby present ten tracks of Joni, ten musical beacons in a galaxy of bright points that measure her unique and far-reaching artistic journey. Some are hits, while others are simply examples of her fearlessness in an industry in which she thrived, and against which struggled in equal measure.
Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Ottawa-born former folk-psych guitarist turned mystical folkie singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Let Us Go Laughing”, the centerpiece to his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, his second.
This song is a culmination of where Cockburn had come by this time in his career. Behind him were his days at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz improvisation and composition in the mid-sixties. Also behind him was his journeyman period as a guitar player and keyboardist in folk rock and psych bands, some of which appeared as opening acts for The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience by the end of that decade.
But something else had risen to the surface by the time this song was written; a feel for lyrics that reflected his rich inner life and his gravitation toward the spiritual.
Listen to this track by LA-based concern with a penchant for vivid narratives Eels, led by head songwriter E (neé Mark Oliver Everett). It’s “Susan’s House”, the second single off of the band’s debut record Beautiful Freak in 1996.
This song, and its fellow single “Novocaine For The Soul” made a splash particularly in Britain where both of singles gained top ten chart showings. The success of this song surpassed that first single in the UK, quoting a piano figure from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Love Finds It’s Own Way“, and generally being a langourous and restful-sounding record, released in May of 1997 just as summer approached.
But, of course, there is plenty of restlessness to be found here in the urban landscape as traversed by the narrator as he makes his way to the titular location. There is plenty of tragedy, too. It makes one wonder whether this song isn’t just about a specific journey, but alludes to a greater one, too. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Leeds-born new new wave quintet Kaiser Chiefs. It’s “Falling Awake” the newest single as taken from their upcoming and currently untitled sixth record.
After four albums in their original incarnation, and with their 2005 debut in Employment that made a splash big enough to provoke Brit Awards and Mercury Prize nominations, Kaiser Chiefs underwent something of a personnel change. After twelve years in the drum seat, co-founding member Nick Hodgson departed in 2012. The band were able to bounce back with a new drummer in Vijay Mistry, and with a new record last year, Education, Education, Education & War. That year, they also played for crowds at the London Olympics, playing “Pinball Wizard” subbing in for none other than The Who.
This year, the band are on the road again, with this single to serve as something of a preview for the awaited sixth full-length record. I got a chance to chat with Nick “Peanut” Baines, resident keyboardist and guitarist for the Kaiser Chiefs about the new single, their current tour, and about how the band is evolving from their mid-2000s original incarnation. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Atlanta-born singer-songwriter Chan Marshall going under the name for which she is better known, Cat Power. It’s “I Don’t Blame You”, a single as taken from her 2003 album You Are Free. That record was a return to the stage after a three-year hiatus, resulting in her first record of original material since 1998, and her first charting album on the Billboard 100.
This song was the opening song on the album. But, it was the last one recorded on the sessions and was laid down almost as an afterthought. It remains to be Marshall’s personal favourite from the record; a spare and contemplative tale of fame, alienation, and ultimate loneliness. For many years, she was evasive about the central figure in the song, possibly because sometimes it’s often better for an artist not to spell things out for an audience. After all, explanations can change the perception of the work, which can risk undermining its power. In interviews, she said that the song could be about anyone. And really, she’s right. The story to be found here is a common one among those who take the elevator of fame upwards into the stratosphere, only to find that the air up there is often too thin to sustain them.
Eventually, though, the hero of the story was revealed to be he whom many had suspected all along; Kurt Cobain. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Bentonia, Mississippi guitarist, pianist, and all-around legendary bluesman Skip James. It’s “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”, a sepia-toned treasure from the age of delta country blues that would be featured on James’ 1966 album Today!
The song would be sourced from his repertoire that appeared many years before in 1931 with his initial recordings on the Paramount label. During that era, Skip James’ career as a full-time musician and songwriter would be scuppered by the Great Depression. When most of your audience doesn’t have a job, it’s hard for them to buy records. So, after recording his Paramount sides, he slipped back into obscurity. This economic reality had impact on many, including Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, among others.
But, like those two other musicians, Skip James would enjoy a second wind in the 1960s, thanks to a bona fide hero’s quest to find the grail of true American culture. Continue reading →