Listen to this track by former sixties London R&B scenester turned cosmically-inclined singer-songwriter David Bowie. It’s “Space Oddity”, a single as taken from his second self-titled 1969 album that would in time be re-titled Space Oddity when it was re-issued in the early seventies. The song would be released on July 11 in the UK, on the same day of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The BBC held off on playing it until the astronauts returned safely.
For Bowie’s part as far as the approach to writing this song, parallels to science fiction and his journey with fame would begin here, with many other songs and at least one movie role in his future that would explore the same themes. In this case, this dynamic is achieved through his character of Major Tom, a renowned astronaut lauded by the masses, but finding himself isolated and searching for meaning when confronted with the planetary scale of things, all awash in acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy drumming, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s appropriately spacey mellotron lines.
From here, it’s not too difficult to draw parallels between floating in a tin can far above the world, the nature of fame, and of existence in general. Continue reading
Listen to this track by experimental rock noise makers from New York City Sonic Youth. It’s “Teen Age Riot”, a breakthrough song from an equally breakthrough record in 1988’s Daydream Nation. This was the release that put the band on the map after having formed a full seven years before.
The band that included singer and guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist and singer Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Renaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley built their sound on their experiments with distortion, re-thinking the traditional structures of rock music and distilling them into their component parts. Then, they added their own elements to those structures true to the American underground DIY approach that was growing steadily by the early eighties. They added in spoken word elements, and tying it all together with a ferocious guitar sound that opened up the possibilities for rock guitar into the 1990s.
But, in the meantime, they had their own reputations to build with alternative radio, pulling from influences that ranged from The Beatles, to Neil Young, to The Minutemen. As experimental as they continued to be by 1988, they also understood that traditional rock structures in a song were traditional for a reason; they resonate with listeners. But, this song goes beyond an embrace of standard structure still.
Listen to this track by musical pilgrim and singer-songwriter Jim White, along with his guest in fellow pop scribe Aimee Mann. It’s “Static On The Radio”, a cut as taken from White’s 2004 record, Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See.
Before he became a professional songwriter, Jim White was known by his birth name: Michael Davis Pratt. He had had a storied career in non-musical fields such as film school student, pro-surfer, preacher (he’d been in the Pentecostal church as a teen), and cabbie. He learned his instrument and his craft while laid up with a broken leg, watching game shows, and learning chord shapes. All the while, his gift for narrative was waiting to blossom, which eventually it certainly did in his songs, and in his prose fiction, too.
I think that mixture of writing disciplines on White’s part is what primarily feeds this song, which a series of vignettes that are decidedly nocturnal in nature and in execution. It’s almost a literal dark night of the soul kind of song. From where does it spring, and what does it say about White’s own experience, and maybe ours, too? Continue reading
Listen to this track by former blues-rock titans turned folk and pop-oriented concern featuring an evolving line up, Fleetwood Mac. It’s “Dust”, a song written by the band’s 21-year old guitarist and vocalist Danny Kirwan, and featured on the band’s 1972 album Bare Trees. The song features lines from a poem of the same name by Rupert Brooke, an Edwardian poet who died in 1915.
Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac when fellow guitarists and original members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were still both in the band. The Then Play On album would feature Kirwan’s dual lead vocals and his emerging talent on the guitar, which was a tall order when considering Green’s enormous stature as a player in particular. By the time the elder guitarist departed the group in 1970, Kirwan was well-established to take his place, or at least become the focus in Green’s absence.
This song is evident of Kirwan’s influence, which was the slow drift away from the blues, and into a more wistful, pastoral, and more radio-friendly direction during a time when folky singer songwriters were making headway when it came to selling records. This song in particular would reveal something else about Kirwan though, and would unfortunately foreshadow his fate at the same time. Continue reading
Listen to this track by London-born, Sudanese-originated musical genre-defier now based in Brooklyn, Ahmed Gallab who records under the name Sinkane. It’s “Mean Love”, the title track to 2014’s Mean Love, his fifth solo record.
Maybe it’s his continent-spanning international experience that allows him to seemingly know no bounds when it comes to creating pop music that can’t be easily filed. But in any case, Sinkane’s music has explored several stylistic paths from krautrock to funk, Afrobeat to free jazz. In addition, he’s lent his instrumental talents to a range of artists including Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer. He served as musical director to a show celebrating the music of early Nigerian synth innovator William Onyeabor, himself something of a maverick when it came to unexpected instrumentation and disregard to musical barriers, while at the same time appealing to a distinct pop sensibility.
This particular tune, sung in a keening gender-neutral falsetto, incorporates soulful torch singing style in an R&B vein, coupled with a weeping pedal steel line that suggests the sounds of country music. There is something distinctly 21st century about this, even if the connection between these two poles has always been stronger than most immediately recognize. Maybe too, there are other connections that this song reveals which are of a more personal nature, specifically surrounding the concept of otherness, and of being a stranger in a strange land. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Teutonic singer, actor, and model Nico. It’s “These Days”, a song as taken from her 1967 record Chelsea Girl, her solo debut. That album is noted by the extremely high quality of songwriting and instrumental talent behind it, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Tim Hardin.
This particular tune was penned by Jackson Browne, who was a teenager when he wrote the initial iteration of this song. It would evolve later on, and be recorded by several artists including Browne himself later on when he made a name for himself as one of the key figures in the singer-songwriter boom in the early to mid-seventies. Nico was the first to record it in a finished studio version. Browne plays the distinctive electric guitar picking part, accompanying Nico’s distinctively austere and icily distant vocal performance, delivered in her signature lower-register range. All of this is contrasted by a bittersweet wash of strings, added in post-sessions by producer Tom Wilson.
By now, this song has been covered by many, and is perhaps best associated by modern audiences with its use in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Nico’s recording of this song seems to connect with its active ingredients better than most versions do. And what are those ingredients, exactly? And what does Nico bring to it to make it what it is? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Australian thrift shop denizens and razor-sharp sampling jesters The Avalanches. It’s their 2000 hit “Frontier Psychiatrist”, as taken from their (to date) sole full length record Since I Left You. The song would place on UK and US charts by 2001, providing critical and commercial success.
It’s difficult to broadly apply the term “songwriting” to this track in the traditional sense, just because it is made up entirely of found recordings from across a variety of recorded music streams. This includes comedy recordings, with the central one being Canadian comedy team Wayne & Shuster’s titular sketch which is heavily quoted, along with sound effects records, instructional recordings, Mariachi music, film scores, movie dialogue (John Waters’ Polyester to be exact), and sixties Enoch Light Orchestra flourishes all mixed in to make a glorious whole. How this was not a complete mess is a tribute to how deftly arranged the samples actually are. Sampling nay-sayers take note: not everyone can do this well.
I think another aspect of this song that is worth noting is that it helpfully undercuts what electronica and dance music had come to mean by the beginning of the century. A big part of that has to do with its varied and often unexpected source material, of course. But, another aspect of what makes this tune stand out is simply this: it’s hilarious! Continue reading