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
Listen to this track by Madchester scene-stealers and dance-indie-psych-rock purveyors Happy Mondays. It’s “Kinky Afro”, their top five UK hit single that would otherwise appear on their landmark 1990 album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, their third LP. That release would consolidate the band on the scene as being one of the key acts coming out of Manchester by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. It would also provide an important template for many bands from similar geographic origins to follow during that decade, including The Charlatans and Oasis.
Along with The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays were among the acts that best helped to represent a few movements during that time period in Greater Manchester. First, their output would re-emphasize something that had been firmly established in the 1960s; that music scenes springing from the provinces in Britain were in many cases just as vital as those centered in London, which was still viewed as the seat of the industry. Second, the sound which the Mondays had developed since their formation in 1980 showed that rock bands still had musical regions to explore that remained largely untapped.
But, what else did Happy Mondays bring to that scene, and what do they deliver on this song? Well, I think it has to do with how rock music needed to develop by that time, and how much a sense of the dark side needed to be re-injected into the mix, too.
Listen to this track by tri-colour schemed indie-blues-rock twosome from Detroit The White Stripes. It’s “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, a cut as taken from their breakthrough 2001 album White Blood Cells. It served as the third single from that record scoring a top twenty showing on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
The impact The White Stripes had on rock music by the beginning of the two-thousands was hefty. Their music challenged many of the conventions of the time, while also reinforcing many of the same that fans had perhaps forgotten about. It was brand new, and yet somehow dusty and old at the same time. The band’s approach certainly undercut the idea that to make new music, one had to leave the past behind. But is also undercut the idea that one couldn’t take a left turn when it came to presenting it in a new context.
That what this song illustrates so well, and perfectly frames why The White Stripes were able to make such an impact on the mainstream. Continue reading
Just that first name alone conjures up so much imagery, so much cultural currency, so much good feeling for generations of people. Born in Tupelo, MS and raised in Memphis TN, Elvis was an eighteen year old who recorded a single at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio for his mum one day in 1953 on the occasion of her birthday as a gift to her; “My Happiness/That’s When The Heartaches Begin“. Who did he sound like? Well, he didn’t sound like nobody. From there, the landscape of popular music, and the barriers that existed between musical genres at the time, would be changed forever. From the cramped studios at Sun Records, to Hollywood movie sets, to Las Vegas residencies, to global satellite transmissions from Hawaiian stages, Elvis weathered all those changes besides.
What also changed was the man himself of course. By the end, he was no longer the earnest American boy with a singular talent for musical interpretation of anything thrown at him. He had become transformed into something more; a cultural avatar of almost religious stature. Those who came after him, carrying legendary mythologies of their own, all held him in the highest esteem. Even to his peers, he was The King; a messianic figure who stood above all of the trends, and enjoying the seemingly unconditional love of the masses up until his death at the young age of 42 on August 16, 1977; thirty-eight years and a day from today in the year that would have had him celebrate his eightieth birthday.
Since his passing, the mythology surrounding Elvis has endured in the imaginations and the works of many. Here are ten songs about Elvis, or at least ones that touch on his cultural importance. Some are down to earth and humourous. Some are profane. Others are almost Biblical in their veneration of that boy from Tupelo who made good. Overall, the range of songwriting styles and musical textures shows that even though he’s gone (or is he?), Elvis’ musical and cultural reach remains extensive even today.
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