Listen to this track by gothically-inclined and supremely literate songwriter Nick Cave and his stalwart backing band The Bad Seeds. It’s “Breathless”, a single as taken from one-half of the 2004 double LP, or really a two albums in one package, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
The two records were designed to be separate listening experiences, even if they were packaged as a unit. Abattoir Blues is the crunchy rock record, full of snarling fire and brimstone, and relying on Cave’s well-known and unique ability to deliver his story-songs with the intensity of a nineteenth century traveling preacher with the devil at his heels. The Lyre of Orpheus is the kinder, gentler statement of the two, characterized by a kind of ecstatic poetic vision rooted in the English Romantic tradition. This song, a single released as a double A-side with “There She Goes My Beautiful World” in November of 2004, is a sterling representation of that latter approach.
Yet, Cave’s common thread that blurs the lines between the erotic and the sacred is well in place on Lyre of Orpheus, just as it is on Abattoir Blues. This song covers these themes pretty soundly, too. Continue reading
Listen to this track by New Hampshire native transplanted to New York City and singer-songwriter progenitor Connie Converse. It’s “One By One” one of seventeen home-taped songs she recorded sometime at the end of the 1950s. After many years of awaiting discovery, this song and Converse’s other material was commercially released in 2015 on the album How Sad, How Lovely.
Converse’s songs and her general approach to making music — by writing, singing, and playing it herself — have become cited as the earliest example of the singer-songwriter genre. Now, that claim is perhaps tenuous if you want to take it apart on a musical level. Lots of people were writing their own songs and singing them by the fifties. But, when connected to the scenes in the late sixties and into the seventies, maybe you can see why this claim has been made, so common are the threads found in her music when compared to, say, Judee Sill, Tim Hardin, Bridget St. John, or Nick Drake. Like those writers, Connie Converse dealt in contemporary themes while referencing traditions of the past, along with a love of imagery and wordplay that goes beyond the confines of pop music of her times. In Converse’s case, it was early twentieth century parlour songs, folk ballads, hymns, and cowboy songs.
But, like some of those examples given earlier of singer-songwriters, Converse had a limited body of work due to its lack of commerciality. And in addition to that, there’s a certain amount of mystery surrounding the fate of Connie Converse. Continue reading
Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure. Continue reading
Listen to this track by gothic Americana proponents The Handsome Family. It’s “So Much Wine”, a cut as taken off of their 2000 record, In The Air. On this record, the band that is made up of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks along with collaborators, continue their artistic path that evokes the darker corners of old-time and country music which had helped to lend perspective in the nineties, when glossy country-pop ruled the airwaves.
Country music and the folk musics out of which it came always had this darker edge to it, concerning itself with loss and loneliness, and not in a way that was so easily lampooned by outsiders and non-fans of the genre over the decades. Like the blues, country music was always about being at ground level, and very often a lot lower than that spiritually speaking. It dealt in being pulled in two directions; up into the light of divinely inspired well-being, and down into the depths of despair and hell.
That’s where The Handsome Family staked their territory when they began in the early nineties, and very much continue to do so on this tune. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Bexleyheath-born singer-songwriter and art rock innovator Kate Bush. It’s “Cloudbusting”, a top twenty single as taken from her 1985 masterpiece The Hounds Of Love. The song was inspired by the story of psychoanalyst, inventor, physics theorist, and (some would say) kook Wilhelm Reich and his relationship with his son Peter, the story of which Bush read about in the younger Reich’s book A Book of Dreams.
An immigrant from Austria to America, Reich the elder was personally acquainted to and worked directly with both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, arguably bridging their two disciplines of psychoanalysis and particle physics. Reich was a contributor to both fields, interested in how human sexuality and particle energy converged. Particularly in his later years, he sought ways of finding the Life Force as linked to the human libido as an observable physical phenomenon, leading up to his theories of orgone energy, his invention of orgone “accumulators” that would collect and harness that energy, and even ways to use it to manipulate the environment with the invention of “cloudbusters”. This device was, effectively, a weather control machine that was meant to excite the orgone energy particles in cloud formations in order to make it rain — literally.
That seems like an unlikely subject for a top twenty UK hit, right? And yet, Bush found herself drawn into Reich’s story, and that of his son. Even the video (starring Donald Sutherland as Reich!) reflects the drama that unfolded surrounding Reich, his life in rural Maine at his home Orgonon (named after orgone energy, of course), and his unpleasant encounters with the establishment, who eventually jailed him in part for his theories connected to sexuality. What were some of the common threads that tie it all together in this song? Well, amid all the sex and science, I think what this song is really about is perception, specifically from the point of view of a child to his parent. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Brummie blue-eyed soul and rock quartet The Spencer Davis Group. It’s “I’m A Man”, their 1967 hit single as taken from the self-same album I’m A Man. This would be the group’s last hit single in their original incarnation that featured Stevie Winwood on vocals and organ before he left to join Traffic later in the year.
Like many soul singers, Winwood started his musical journey in part while involved with the Church, although this time it was the C of E and decidedly not a sultry Baptist chapel somewhere in the American South. Nevertheless, access to a bona fide church organ had to be important to his trajectory. He had something that a lot of British musicians didn’t have at the time besides. Winwood didn’t just pick up his trade simply by listening to blues and soul records. The time he spent playing in pick-up bands to back up American bluesman like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker as they toured Britain was also an important part of his musical apprenticeship. This gained him first-hand exposure and training to achieve the real sound of the blues and get straight to the heart of soul music. It also introduced him to how all-consuming it can become to pursue a musician’s life.
That’s what this song is all about; a love song to the music itself and to the state of being in a band, despite the dangers of losing oneself while being entangled in it all. It’s a snapshot of a mind that is both juvenile and ambitious all at once, which is part of why it became a rock standard. But, it goes beyond that, too.
Listen to this track by gravelly-voiced troubadour and downtown Saturday night mythologist Tom Waits. It’s “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”, a sumptuous tune as taken from his 1976 album, Small Change. The album was recorded quickly in the last two weeks of July of that year.
This record represents a high point in Waits’ initial foray into a unique and signature take on the emerging singer-songwriter “genre”of the early-to-mid-seventies, in Waits’ case complete with heavy jazz flourishes and hard-boiled lyrical imagery to go along with his distinctive and texturally complex singing voice. Additionally, some high profile West Coast Jazz musicians back him up on this one, including renowned drummer Shelly Manne who’s intricate brushwork is a highlight through out, coupled with warm acoustic bass, and a lot (a lot!) of tenor saxophone that provides an effective musical foil to Waits’ voice.
“I Wish I Was In New Orleans” includes this jazz dynamic, but centers on Waits’ piano and voice, contrasted with a string arrangement that seems to weep with melancholy. On this one, you can almost see Waits leaning in close to the microphone while hunched at the piano, eyes closed and brow furrowed. This has always been one of his strengths; vivid and wholly embodied performances, even on a studio recording. It’s not just the arrangements, the playing, and the production we get, either. It’s another element that is common to many successful singer-songwriters and bands of that era — the evocation of a mythological world within the music. In this case, it’s a world that is in the process passing, or has passed entirely. Continue reading