Listen to this track by documented Grammy-magnet and Texan country-jazz-indie-whatever singer-songwriter Norah Jones. It’s “Sinkin’ Soon”, a Tom Waitsean political parable as taken from 2007’s Not Too Late, her third album.
This song was released as a second single from that album, which overall was something of a departure from the meticulously wrought jazz and country hybrid she’d perfected on her first two albums, both of which sold a boatload, and made her a household name. For one thing, this time Norah Jones herself along with bassist and songwriter Lee Harris helmed the controls in place of legendary Arif Mardin who had produced those first two albums, making it looser and with more unfastened edges.
The result was still a debut at number one on Billboard’s top 200, three for three where top spot showings were concerned for Norah Jones. Another big change was an emphasis on original songs. Instead of songs sourced from various external sources to fill out the running time, Jones had a hand in writing all of them, either alone, or with band members. She worked many of these out on guitar rather than from her expected place at the piano.
Lee Harris also co-wrote this one with Jones, a story about an ill-fated journey by sea that reflected a certain political point of view during a time when the destiny of a nation seemed to be very much in doubt. Continue reading
Listen to this track by prolific songwriter and one-time Pixies lead Frank Black, neé Black Francis, neé Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV along with a band which he had formalized as The Catholics. It’s “All My Ghosts” the opening track to their 1998 debut album craftily entitled Frank Black & The Catholics.
The song, and the rest of the album was recorded very quickly in a matter of days on two-track tape. Because of the nature of the recording set-up, the parts were all played live off of the floor. You can hear on this song that there is something of a false start, with a snippet of the theme from the ’60s TV show Green Acres quoted before the band kick into the proceedings. The record was committed to tape at Sound City in Van Nuys California, the site of many a famous recording session, including Nirvana’s Nevermind. Besides being recorded at such a famous site, the single and the record would make history in the way it was initially distributed, too; as a legal download in Mp3 format, and the first of its kind on a major label (American Recordings) to do so.
With all of that said, let’s not forget about the songs! This song in particular would hook into some recurring themes for its author since his Pixies days, in particular the business of myth through a biblical lens. Continue reading
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