Listen to this track by Northern Irish pop concern with a rotating line-up, The Divine Comedy. It’s “National Express”, a single and a top ten hit in the UK as taken from their 1998 album Fin de Siècle. I say “their”, but perhaps I should say “his”, given that The Divine Comedy is steered by the central figure of singer and songwriter Neil Hannon, working with other musicians in the creation of his albums when not playing multiple parts himself.
Hannon’s general musical neighbourhood is centered around the minutiae of British life that is both real as well as that which is steeped in cultural myth. His approach also owes a debt to that which Ray Davies took in the 1960s with the Kinks, with his well-respected men about town, dedicated followers of fashion, and Village Green Preservation societies that populated a decidedly British landscape. Maybe that Kinksian connection is why The Divine Comedy are very often included when the subject of Britpop comes up.
But, I think Hannon’s work went one better than most. (more…)
Listen to this track by East Village ’60s scenester and folk and folk-rock interpreter Karen Dalton. It’s “In My Own Dream”, a track as taken from her second, and last, album In My Own Time released in 1971.
That album title was apparently very apt for Dalton, who was never comfortable in a studio setting. In some ways, she was the polar opposite of all those artists who are creatures of the studio, trying to perfect a recording for posterity. Dalton wasn’t about posterity. She was about the performance in the moment, never to be repeated again. This proved to be pretty trying in the studio when she came to record, a place where multiple takes in order to find “the one” is the common goal.
But, what was clear was the power of her voice, a favourite on the scene when she traveled north from the sepia dust of Oklahoma, eventually to New York City like so many others. Where others were students of American folk traditions, reproducing their studied interpretations on the stages of Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, The Gaslight, and many others, Dalton brought only her voice, her 12-string guitar, and her banjo. And that was more than enough. She was the real thing. No study necessary. (more…)
Listen to this track by Montreal-born poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. It’s “Almost Like The Blues”, the first single from his new record Popular Problems, released this year on the anniversary of his 80th year on earth; September 21st. The record follows 2012’s Old Ideas, which was the highest charting release of his entire career along with extremely positive reviews across the board; not bad for a guy in his late seventies at the time.
By then, there’d been an eight-year gap in releases. So, this new record and its single has enjoyed some momentum in terms of its creation riding the wave of his previous one. Yet despite this success, Cohen is still dealing in the shadows when it comes to subject matter.
And where does this new song fit into to things where Cohen’s intimidatingly potent back catalog is concerned? (more…)
Fall is cool.
I mean things are cooling off from a glorious summer now gone, sure. But, fall really is cool, especially when you add new tunes to the mix. This is what I’m suggesting, as I did last year. Because this is the second annual Fall Into Tunes, a selection of new songs that you must hear this autumn season.
So, here are 16 songs to help you build your autumn playlists, from different points of the musical spectrum, and from near and far.
Lend me your ears!
Listen to this track by L.A folk-rock-indie trio with a feel for psychedelic texture, Grant Lee Buffalo. It’s “Mockingbirds”, a single as taken from 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon, their second album. The song scored a top-twenty showing on Billboard’s “Modern Rock” chart, representing their initial exposure to a wider audience.
By the time this track was recorded, the band had a clearer idea of what they wanted to sound like, and had had some experience in the studio to help them realize their ambitions. That’s the magic of the second album! Also, though, they had had a lot of road experience as headliners and also as a supporting act of the some of the biggest bands of the time, including Pearl Jam, REM, and Smashing Pumpkins. They were seasoned pros by this time!
But, this sense of success, and the feeling of taking things to a more professional level began to become a source of stress, along with personal events in the life of head writer Grant Lee Phillips that seemed to run in parallel. How is that reflected on this song?
Listen to this track by great American composer and supreme jazz immortal Duke Ellington. It’s “Diminuendo” and “Crescendo in Blue”, two compositions dating back to 1937 and re-positioned here from the band’s book (aka their catalogue of songs) on the 1956 “live” release Ellington At Newport.
This was a game-changing date for Ellington and his guys, and I put the quotation marks around the word live because it was pieced together after the fact, supplemented by studio recordings and with audience applause. Duke felt that the band wasn’t properly prepared for their appearance to the point that he felt it might not make for a good recording. He made the suggestion of a studio album and live album hybrid to paper over what he felt were some of the cracks. But, that’s not the big story here.
The big story is what happened to the real audience, and how it became a vital chapter in the career of one of the greatest American composers of all-time, actually ensuring his success for the remainder of his life – including a cover shot in Time Magazine.
Listen to this track by Mancunian post-punk trendsetters Joy Division. It’s “Transmission”, a single released in October of 1979 between their two sole albums as a seven inch on the Factory label. By the next year in December, it would be re-released as a twelve inch single, later to be celebrated in cover versions by bands from Low to Smashing Pumpkins, to Hot Chip.
By this time, the band had morphed from what they would describe themselves as an “undistinguished punk band” called Warsaw into one that would write a template for bands up until the present day. This would be a highlight in a small but vital body of work, cut short by the death of lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, himself something of an iconic figure for post-punk influenced acts, and certainly for frontmen looking beyond the standard shrill-voiced golden god variety.
Actually, this band would provide an example to succeeding ones in many ways beyond even that. They broke the rules of being a rock band. But more importantly, they wrote their own. (more…)