Listen to this track by former Czars frontman and plain-spoken confessional singer-songwriter John Grant. It’s “GMF”, a sweeping pop vista of melodic delight that employs some fairly colourful metaphors having to do with mothers and the coital act. The song is taken from Grant’s 2013 record Pale Green Ghosts. Note: that’s Sinéad O’Connor on back-up vocals!
The song is chock full of musical ingredients that complement each other seamlessly. Grant adds touches of orchestral pop, progressive rock, and even Beatlesque pop into this song that is the seeming portrait of a narcissist. In pop music, there are all kinds of central characters in songs that appear to be thoroughly repugnant characters who speak as if they are the hero of their stories. From Dion’s “The Wanderer”, to The Smiths'”Bigmouth Strikes Again”, to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again”, unpleasant and cruel acts as casually delivered by characters of questionable motives and justifications are practically a pop staple.
This song is among the best of those for many reasons. But, one big one is this: this character is not a monster, but rather a real person in pain, hinting that what is monstrous is the circumstance that has brought him to where he is as we find him in this song. Continue reading
Listen to this track by bespectacled beloved entertainer Declan Patrick MacManus, AKA Elvis Costello. It’s “Veronica”, a hit single from 1989’s Spike. This is one of a number of songs Costello wrote with Paul McCartney by the end of the 1980s, in the beginning of his post-Attractions phase. Several of these songs would appear on the records of both men from the late eighties into the early-to-mid nineties. In this case, McCartney plays his trademark and iconic Hofner bass on the track. Also, this tune was arguably the most personal track they wrote together, and among the most personal songs in Costello’s catalogue on the whole.
The song was inspired by Costello’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, with a vibrant life, a carefree mind of her own (and a devilish look in her eye) behind her that could only be recalled by her in brief moments of lucidity. In some ways, McCartney was the perfect collaborator on a song like this, having a solid track record even when he was in The Beatles in writing songs about women and the pressures and stresses they must endure.
As far as Costello’s part, and beyond the disease aspect of what inspired this tune, there is a series of wider themes that are served by it; human dignity, vulnerability, memory, the nature of old age, and of identity itself. Continue reading
Listen to this track by golden-throated singer-songwriter and soon-to-be Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Harry Nilsson. It’s “Turn On Your Radio”, a deep-cut from his 1972 album Son of Schmilsson. The record is a self-consciously-titled follow-up to his Nilsson Schmilsson album, which is his biggest selling record to date.
By 1972, Nilsson had scored a number of successes, with seven records behind him, songs on mainstream movie soundtracks, and songs of his covered by other artists. Also, Nilsson had made a lot of friends by then, and had won a number of celebrity fans too, some of whom helped him realize his musical goals during the sessions. This included two Beatles — Ringo Starr (credited as “Ritchie Snare”) on drums, and George Harrison playing his signature slide guitar. Later on of course, he’d have another Beatle in his inner circle; John Lennon, who helped Nilsson drink a lot of Brandy Alexanders at the Troubadour Club. But, that’s another story!
Beyond that, this song illustrates the magnitude of Nilsson’s talent by then. He was able to strike a balance that few songwriters were able to do, between sumptuousness and simplicity. Lyrically too, this song seems to hit two chords at the same time. Continue reading
It’s been a dry and hot summer; the hottest on record, ever. On this coast, we’ve spent the summer watching lawns die, and breathing in the smoke of forest fires. As I write this, it’s raining, sending down life-giving waters as a new season dawns; fall. Or autumn. Whichever you prefer.
In any case, like the rains that are currently quenching the thirst of a parched West coast landscape as I write this, it’s new tunes that help to bring life and health to our spirits during a season when the natural world is thinking about turning in for a long night of winter. For that, as usual, the ‘Bin has got your cure right here.
Here are sixteen new songs to let trickle down into your thirsty souls. Read, listen, and as always, let me know your favourites! Continue reading
Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, poet, essayist, and all-around musical genre defier Labi Siffre. It’s “Watch Me”, a single on the Polydor label released onto the UK charts with a top thirty placement in 1972. That year, he would also release his third album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying.
Before his recording career as a solo artist began in the 1970, Labi Siffre was a jobbing musician in the jazz clubs of Soho in London in the 1960s. His music would be delivered in two separate stages. First, he would put out six albums from 1970 to 1975. Later, he would retire as a recording artist, only to return in the mid-eighties, and make four more records by the end of the nineties. His work would be covered by acts ranging from Madness, who had a top ten hit with Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”, to Rod Stewart who would record “Crying Laughing Loving Lying”. His music has since been sampled by Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z, and Primal Scream.
In this early part of his career, he would become known in England as a writer of great depth and dimension to be compared to many of his contemporaries who had come out of similar scenes including Joan Armatrading, Cat Stevens, and Al Stewart. This song is a prime example of what he was able to do; write towering love songs full of beaming optimism without any hint of soppiness or hackeyed sentiment of any kind. He would also make a point of breaking down all kinds of barriers, both of a musical and of a personal nature. Continue reading
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