Listen to this track by science-blinded synth-pop innovator and early synthesizer tinkerer Thomas Dolby. It’s “One Of Our Submarines”, a single off of Dolby’s 1983 edition of his debut record The Golden Age Of Wireless. That album had been issued in an earlier form the previous year, with this tune not initally appearing. It also appeared on the 1983 EP Blinded By Science.
Before embarking on his solo career and crafting this first album that would also eventually include his most recognized song “She Blinded Me With Science”, Dolby was a session musician and songwriter for other artists. Even this song was originally written for the Thompson Twins, for whom Dolby also served as a session musician. Also by penning songs for new wave diva Lene Lovich (“New Toy”) and electro whiz kids Whoodini (“Magic Wand”), Dolby had his hand in the mechanics of what made for a sleekly designed pop song. Figuring out how things work came naturally to Dolby in any case, having always been something of a gearhead, particularly around electronics and musical equipment. It’s no wonder that “… Science” was a hit, since it combined all of his strengths with pop hooks and innovative technology into a whole.
But, this song has a decidedly murkier feel than that hit, true to its subject matter. There’s also a personal connection to this song where its writer was concerned as well. Continue reading
Listen to this track by sisterly Watford, Hertfordshire trio The Staves. It’s “Black and White”, a single as taken from this year’s If I Was, their second full length record. The band is led by the voices of three sisters; Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Stavely-Taylor. Shortening their name for the stage one night on the sign-up sheet at a regular open mic night, the three sisters became The Staves.
This second album comes after the release of several EPs, and an eventual debut record in Dead & Born & Grown in 2012 (produced by two generations of famous Johns’ – Glyn and Ethan!). In the middle of all that, the band served as an opening act to The Civil Wars and Florence & The Machine, and provided back up duties on recordings by Tom Jones, and Fionn Regan. Additionally, The Staves gave performances at SXSW that exposed them to an American audience. They also supported Bon Iver, which led to Justin Vernon producing this record, capturing their harmony-centric feel that bypasses traditional British folk-rock, and instead connects with a sound that is more transatlantic instead.
There’s a sense of menace in this song, which on first listen may not be immediately apparent, just because the combination of voices is so compellingly beautiful. There is also something to be said for local music scenes that encourage young musicians to create this kind of alchemy together, which is certainly the case here, with a single venue serving as a platform for an international path to success. Continue reading
Listen to this track by British pop chanteuse and peerless interpreter Dusty Springfield. It’s “Windmills Of Your Mind”, a shimmering pop gem as taken from her seminal 1969 album Dusty In Memphis.
That album was a strategic move on Springfield’s part to make a bona fide R&B album in the very heart of where some of the greatest soul albums were created during that era. The results of this and the story behind them is an epic tale with a who’s who of characters including Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and The Memphis Cats all in tow. But, all the while, Springfield proved above all that she was able to sing anything and in any style and make it all work on an LP that comes together in an extraordinary way. This tune isn’t strictly a soul song, for instance. But, it certainly has soul as Springfield sings it. So, it fits because of her voice.
Among other places, it was featured very prominently in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and sung by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 Academy Awards, at which “Windmills Of Your Mind” won for best original song. Its place in the film is where a lot of casual music fans will recognize it the most. So, how did Dusty Springfield take this song, and make it the one by which all others must be judged? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Braintree, Essex crossover hit makers and controversy-stirring dance floor urchins The Prodigy. It’s “Firestarter”, their monster dance hit that scored top ten placements on the British pop charts, and serving as the first single from the band’s 1996 record Fat Of The Land.
That album was a breakthrough into the mainstream for the burgeoning dance scene that had existed in various forms in Essex for many years. By the mid-to-late nineties, it provided something of a stylistic ballast during the height of the Brit-pop period. The Prodigy reminded music fans that there was more on offer when it came to making impactful music than guys with guitars, and that there was more to dance music than sanitized beats and thin synth riffs.
The Prodigy were dogged with controversy over many aspects of their presentation and their content. With this song, maybe controversy was stirred up because of the video, and the meaning of what a “firestarter” really is, too. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Dusseldorf duo and krautrock architects with an ironic consumerist moniker, Neu! It’s “Hallogallo” the lead track off of their eponymous 1972 debut record.
The band was made up of guitarist Michael Rother, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Klaus Dinger. Both were involved in early iterations of fellow innovators Kraftwerk, and deal in many of the same musical approaches to a generous use of space and economic instrumentation. Speaking of space, this tune in particular seems to evoke a vast aural landscape of motorways and fast car travel. A sense of childlike wonder is contrasted to the idea of a dehumanized world of metal and glass that is an important undercurrent and vital tension in the music.
The incredible thing about this song in general is that this tension is evoked by the sparsest means, most notably a simple and unrelenting drum beat that is so undeniable it even has it’s own name: motorik. Continue reading
Listen to this track by former Dambuilders/Black Beetle/Antony & The Johnsons violinist and solo singer-songwriter Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Police Woman. It’s “To Be Loved”, the first single from her 2008 album To Survive, her second release under the Joan As Policewoman name.
Launching her solo career with a self-referential moniker is very telling when ruminating on the subject of survival. The “police woman” reference is to Angie Dickinson, and the 1970s TV series Police Woman that was on when Wasser was a child. The show was about a tough and sexy police officer who happened to be a woman in a man’s traditional field. Parallels can be drawn to the music industry, even today.
This song reveals Wasser’s feel for classic soul and her langourous jazz influence that has provoked vocal comparisons to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. What it also reveals of course is the highly personal nature of her songwriting, particularly around the subjects of love and its relationship to loss. The challenge with personal songwriting in the end is to find universal threads that connect artist to audience. So, how does Wasser manage that balance between the personal and the universal here? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Los Feliz-based musical concern Eels as led by E, AKA Mark Oliver Everett. It’s “Parallels”, a single as taken from 2014’s blatantly self-referential The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett. The song would also appear on the excellent 2015 double live album Eels Royal Albert Hall.
Coalescing in the mid-1990s, Eels music covers a gamut of styles from sixties-influenced indie-rock, to roots-rock, to chamber pop, to a brand of Americanized trip hop, scoring E modest cult status enough to make a career as a professional musician known for brutally honest Lennonesque confessional songs. “Parallels” is one of them, springing from flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and accompanied by a keening lap steel, a foil for E’s charmingly rumpled and weary lead vocal.
Before his professional music career began, E had been a part of a household with another well-known name in limited circles; his father’s, physicist Hugh Everett III. Many years after his death, the elder Everett makes his way into the middle of this song by his son. Or, at least his theories of quantum mechanics do. Continue reading