Listen to this track by Akron Ohio blues-rock twosome The Black Keys. It’s “Tighten Up”, a single as taken from their 2010 album Brothers.
The single was twinned with another hit in “Howlin’ For You”, hearkening back to the days of the double A-side. Both songs evoke the spirit of one of the band’s greatest influences, that being Howlin’ Wolf. Even the album design mirrored Wolf’s 1969 album The Howlin’ Wolf Album on which the self-referential words “This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”. Even if that statement about his view of his own record was true, it showed that the blues was changing by the latter years of Wolf’s career, mixing with rock music and psychedelia.
Even if this song hearkens back to what Wolf helped to establish – echoey and subterranean blues that is coloured with an edge of desperation and menace – it also demonstrates that the form is not stagnant by the 21st century, either. It still had plenty of space to grow, with The Black Keys certainly playing their part to get the music back on mainstream radio and on video screens too. With this, another aspect comes to the fore; that this is not mere musical curation of sounds from days gone by. It’s a part of a living tradition that also has a place in the pop charts. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Montreal-based, Providence Rhode Island originated folk-rock fraternal outfit The Barr Brothers. It’s “Beggar In The Morning”, a single as taken from their 2011 self-titled record The Barr Brothers. The titular brothers Brad (guitar, voice) and Andrew (drums and percussion) had been a part of experimental rock band The Slip from the mid-nineties, but had been playing music in one form or another since 1983 when they were still children growing up in Rhode Island, with Chuck Berry and Miles Davis getting equal time on the record player as they learned their craft on their instruments.
The results of vocalist and guitarist Brad Barr’s songwriting output reflects a sense of emotional gravity and textural variety. His brother Andrew keeps the beat and add percussive accents and melodic accessory on drums and percussion. Classically-trained harpist Sara Page was added to their line-up after Brad heard her playing harp through the drywall, since she was his neighbour. with her addition to the brothers’s sound, the band was officially born. Multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial rounds out the membership, adding further nuance to the whole, which is a meditative and subtle approach to modern roots music that escapes easy comparison.
How did the brothers cover the distance between Boston, where they were based for a decade, and Montreal? It was a question of an odd and unexpected welcome they received in a city that was gaining in stature as a key cultural destination for innovative music.
Listen to this track by proto-punk poet and her merry band of garage rock enthusiasts The Patti Smith Group. It’s “Gloria”, the opening track to their 1975 record Horses. That album would be a reflection of their work that melded fifties beat generation poetry with sixties garage rock music.
This song is the embodiment of that mix, taking a poem that Smith had performed for years called “Oath”, and fusing it to the 1965 garage rock classic by Them, which makes this a quasi cover version of sorts. It’s almost as though, in a time before sampling was formalized in the way we know it today, this piece was manually sampled. It was an effort at trying to tie the deeper questions of life to something that was just as common; a love of rock ‘n’ roll radio. It was also a way to tie it directly to the experiences of her generation.
Where is all of this pointing toward? Something that looks at lot like a search outside of that which had always been accepted as fact by the generation that came before. That’s what makes this so punk rock. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Oklahoman new-psych art rock trio The Flaming Lips. It’s “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”, the second track off of their 1999 magnum opus The Soft Bulletin. That album was not only a landmark album in their career, being their ninth. It also became a landmark album for the times as well, a sumptuous and artfully realized goodbye to the twentieth century.
This song is one of many that laid out a new template for the ‘Lips for which they continue to be associated today. On it, they decided to cut back on the guitars a bit, and focus more on varied textures. Part of this was an embrace of electronics, which was a natural progression for rock bands in the nineties. The walls between rock music and electronic music were very thin indeed then, and certainly musically permeable without the artists being self-conscious about it. Another was a more expansive approach to production (handled here in part by the band themselves) and to arrangements that included orchestral instruments, including harp, strings, and gong, the latter played (whacked?) by lead singer and head writer Wayne Coyne when they toured the record that summer. Seeing him wail on the gong live on stage was a musical highlight for me that year.
But, getting back to the idea that this album and this song seemed to be a marker of the late twentieth century, there are certainly threads to follow that tie it to pop music of several decades earlier. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this song, and about The Soft Bulletin in general is that it captures something that is quintessentially twentieth century; optimism and idealism when it comes to the future. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Gothenburg Sweden singer-songwriter and sublime soundtrack contributor José Gonzáles. It’s “Stay Alive” a song as featured in the 2013 film based on James Thurber’s story The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. The song appears on the soundtrack album as well, along with two other Gonzáles contributions.
At points, the film is set in Greenland, Iceland, and the Lower Himalayas as its main character, who is prone to daydreaming, lives out a fantasy in real life as he chases a photojournalist for a missing negative of an image meant to be the cover for the last issue of Life magazine. See the film, it’s good. But, for our purposes here, Gonzáles’ song sets a scene of desolate beauty, seeming to evoke the big questions of life; identity, meaning, and the sense of purpose that comes out of both of those.
Even without a cinematic narrative to frame it, the song itself evokes those very things on its own. Continue reading
Listen to this track by gospel music fan and one-time “topical” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who recently had another birthday; he’s 74! It’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, his 1979 hit single that would represent the last time to date he’d have a song in the top 40. This one reached #24 on the Billboard 100 upon its release in August of 1979.
The song was also featured on his new record, Slow Train Coming, a work that reflected his philosophical shift toward evangelical Christianity. It was the beginning of the Gospel Bob period! As such, it was something of a controversial release, with many of the songs on the album taking on a strident and spiritually polemical tone, tinged with a religiosity that seemed to be antithetical to the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. Dylan had always been something of a mercurial figure who seemed committed to undercutting expectations at every turn. But, even the session musicians who played on this track, and producer Jerry Wexler, were taken aback by Dylan’s new worldview. It was something of a surprise to Dylan’s peers, too. John Lennon of course wrote “Serve Yourself” in direct response to this tune. Many fans held the same point of view as Lennon on Bob’s gospel trip.
Yet, with this song that won him a Grammy for Best Male Vocal that year, there are elements here that had been a part of Dylan’s songwriting style all along, even celebrated in his earliest work. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Australian post-new wave ambassadors Hunters And Collectors. It’s “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, a hit single off of their high-profile 1986 record Human Frailty, and released earlier as a stand-alone two years earlier.
This song is considered to be a national treasure, being highly regarded as one of the best singles recorded by any band in Australia. It has scored top ten placements in poles for decades after it was re-recorded on the album and put out again as a single. Maybe a part of its appeal is that it’s a love song, although one that adds some lyrical angles that isn’t typical in love songs. Another aspect is that it’s nothing short of an anthem, designed to be sung for and with a live crowd. Listening to it, you can hear the space set apart in the arrangement for the heaving throngs singing along while swaying out in front of stages.
It also hints at something that is certainly resonant to human experience; our ephemeral existence and our call to seize the day. Continue reading