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
Listen to this track by top-of-the-heap prog rock players Yes. It’s “And You And I”, a track that served as a single in a radio-edited form, and heard in its full form on their 1972 record Close To The Edge. That record is the last in a trio of key albums that would define their peak period, kicked off by The Yes Album, with Fragile in the middle.
These records feature what is widely acknowledged as the classic line-up of Yes; Jon Anderson singing, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Steve Howe on guitars, Chris Squire on bass, and Bill Bruford on drums. It was this configuration that enabled them to connect smaller musical ideas into larger and more involved extended pieces for which they became known. This song is certainly one of those, which to this day is among the core tunes on set lists.
As popular as this piece is, a lot of the discussion around it is on what it’s actually about. Is it a love song? Is it a spiritual homily? Is it what the band (inexplicably) called it, a protest song? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Los Angeles folk-chamber-pop vehicle with a moniker laced with irony, The Negro Problem. It’s “Bleed”, a key track as taken from their 1999 album Joys & Concerns.
“The band” is more of an artistic vehicle for songwriter Mark Stewart, professionally credited and known as simply “Stew”. Being black in LA, his decision to record music that is inspired by more by Jimmy Webb than by Sly Stone is a rebellion against the undrawn lines of demarcation around who makes what kind of pop music and with whom — specifically if you’re not white.
Yet, Stew is a part of a continuum of music made in that city, most notably by Arthur Lee who made some of the same stylistic moves as Stew over thirty years before. Along these lines, maybe the name of the band isn’t all that ironic after all, or at least not in the way that one might think. That aside, this song is hinting at themes that go beyond all that still, out of the realm of musical divisions and into one of human foibles.