Listen to this track by hard rock prog trio hailing from Willowdale Ontario of all places (just north of Toronto for you out of towners …) Rush. It’s “Red Barchetta”, a cut off of their 1981 landmark album Moving Pictures. That album kicked off the decade for them as a new-wave influenced, although still rock-oriented unit and with this song being a stalwart fan favourite and live number, often introduced as “a song about a car”, which it is. But, there’s more to it than that.
This song is set an era when the ominous “Motor Law” makes muscle cars and Italian sports cars illegal, enforced by gleaming alloy air cars roving the roads in search of joy-riding perpetrators. The intricacies of this aren’t really outlined, and it probably doesn’t matter. If you were a teenager in 1981, you’ll know why. How many muscle car-driving Rush fans were there at that time? Too numerous to count. For all of the time-shifting math rock and seamless and staggering musicianship for which the band is known, they knew their audience.
But, what else influenced the writing of this song? Continue reading
Listen to this track by studio wunderkind hailing from Dundas Ontario and now proud Londoner, Dan Snaith, AKA Caribou. It’s “Melody Day”, a kaleidoscopic slice of fantastical neo psychedelia re-imagined as a folktronic piece as taken from 2007’s Andorra.
The record was looked upon as his best work under the Caribou name (he’d previously gone by “Manitoba” until The Dictators’ “Handsome Dick” Manitoba took issue …). It was the winner of the 2008 Polaris Music Prize, going up against acts like Basia Bulat, Black Mountain, and Stars, among others, which certainly indicates its considerable quality.
The song itself hearkens back to a time when pop music was expanding inwardly as times were a-changin’ in the mid-1960s; think late-period The Zombies, Soft Machine, and Syd-era Pink Floyd. This Anglicized style of yesteryear may or may not be a result of a move that Snaith made from Canada to London in 2001, where many a great British psych record was made. Regardless, Snaith is a modern artist, using the tools of his own era to somehow evoke the spirit of that earlier analogue era, which is no mean feat. This certainly shows that the sound of the past can still make an impact, regardless of the tools it takes to make it.
Snaith may have used another arrow in his quiver as well, of course; his PhD in Math! Continue reading
Listen to this track by legendary back-up vocalist phenomenon and vital solo artist in her own right Merry Clayton. It’s “Southern Man”, a song written by Neil Young and recorded by Clayton on her 1971 solo record Merry Clayton. The sessions were overseen by Lou Adler, and the material was sourced from some of the best writers of the era besides Young; Carole King, James Taylor, Leon Russell, and others.
A few years after this tune was laid down for her self-titled record, Clayton had been called on to sing on the answer song to this tune, that being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which chided Young by name on his criticism of southern life. But, the Skynyrd song fails to acknowledge in any distinguishable way that southern life for one is not the same life for another, depending on one’s background. The cultural weight and matters of historical record behind all of that is impossible to ignore. For Clayton, participation on that song rankled. But, as she said about the Skynyrd session in the excellent documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, part of her calling when it came to civil rights was singing. So, she sang on the Skynyrd tune anyway, and “sang the shit out of it” with the boo-boo-boo backing vocal lines when governer George Wallace is alluded to in the song being among the stand out elements.
But, that session would be after she covered this Neil Young tune. In retrospect now that we’ve got both songs to listen to, Clayton twisted that dialogue back in on itself by doing a full on interpretation of “Southern Man” and transformed it while she was at it. Continue reading
Listen to this track by returning neo-soul new hope and R&B auteur D’Angelo, also crediting the band who appear on the record, The Vanguard. It’s “Really Love”, a single as taken from 2014’s Black Messiah. The record was certainly a long time coming, following up 2000’s critically-acclaimed Voodoo.
The song is a reflection of the rest of the album in that it is a densely layered work that seems to draw together multiple threads of musical tradition, from jazz to soul, funk and rock music. It’s marked by the influentces of Parliament Funkadelic, Prince, Riot-era Sly & the Family Stone, and What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye, all while avoiding crude imitation at the same time.
“Densely layered” seems to be the sonic manifesto that drove the making of the album, which may explain why it took so long to create. Apart from songwriter and singer D’Angelo, the record is replete with contributions from Questlove of The Roots, solo artist and former Tribe Called Quest founder Q-Tip, and legendary sessioners Pino Pallidino on bass and drummer James Gadson. Work on the album stretched from 2000 and into the end of last year. That’s a long gestation period that even Axl Rose would be proud of! Yet, even though the record took a long time to craft, it’s release date was rushed at the end for reasons of social significance, and not necessarily for capturing a commercial wave.
Listen to this track by tremendously gifted and seemingly cursed British R&B singer Amy Winehouse. It’s “Back To Black”, the title track to her 2007 sophomore album, Back To Black. The song comes off an album produced by Mark Ronson, who also co-wrote this tune with Winehouse, a tale of a lost relationship, and the mourning period that often follows.
This was the third single off of a record that made her name on the international stage, with “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” being the other two. One of the reasons that these songs, and this record was a success was Winehouse’s voice which connected to a rich seam of R&B singing tradition laid down by Etta James, Erma Franklin, Betty Wright, and others. By the 2000s, these influences were new all over again. Yet, Winehouse was a new voice beyond her influences, with a seemingly effortless capacity for the blues and soulful phrasing all of her own.
But, I think another reason why this song works so well is because it establishes the persona of its author. Of course it would be this that would secure her place in the pop pantheon (not to mention the tabloids), and be her downfall, too. Continue reading
Listen to this song by early ’60s London blues-boom quintet turned ’80s stadium-filling champeens The Rolling Stones. It’s “Waiting On a Friend”, a smash single from 1981’s equally smash-success full length record, Tattoo You. This new record would be their last (to date) to hit the top chart positions internationally. The album would also make several “best records of the 1980s” lists by the end of the decade. This would be pretty ironic, considering the album’s origins.
By the end of 1980, and after something of a hiatus period as a live act, the Stones were eager to tour again, and to do so behind a new record. Of course, the timing was a bit tricky. It takes time to make an album, and to write new songs. So, with the help of Chris Kimsey who served as co-producer on their previously successful album Some Girls, and their not-as-successful predecessor to this new one Emotional Rescue, they raided their own vaults for some bits and pieces to turn into new tracks. From here, lead singer Mick Jagger wrote a few new melodies and lyrics to shore up that earlier material as well as lay down some new vocal tracks. This song came out of that process, with the original backing track dating back to the late 1972 Goats Head Soup sessions, complete with parts from former Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and stalwart sideman at the time Nicky Hopkins on piano.
This cobbling together of old material from a previous decade rushed out in time for a tour doesn’t sound like a likely recipe for a landmark album, does it? Well, it was anyway, with this song being a high point. So, what is the secret to its success? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Portland Oregon indie-folk paragons The Decemberists. It’s “Make You Better”, the new single off of the upcoming album What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, due out on January 20. The record and single is a return to the field after a rest since 2011’s The King Is Dead.
Side projects ensued during the planned hiatus period, including singer Colin Moloy’s series of Wildwood books, which he creates with his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis. But, a return to the Decemberist fold was always in the cards. As you can tell, it was worth the wait. Continue reading