Listen to this track by jazz-rock concern and one-time aversionists to regular live dates Steely Dan. It’s “Pretzel Logic”, the title track to their 1974 album which is aptly named Pretzel Logic. This would be the last record of theirs for which they would tour during their 1970s heyday. It would mark the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
What this new record also meant was a return to the top of the charts for singles, after a dip in their fortunes a year before. This song was one single to get them back to where they wanted to be, along with their smash top ten hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. But, more importantly it was when they were beginning to phase into a new life as an exclusively studio-bound concern. Bassist Walter Becker and singer-pianist Donald Fagen were the principles of the band as a studio entity, and turned increasingly to sessioners to fill out the sound along with (and often instead of) full-time members Jim Hodder (drums, vocals), Denny Dias (guitar), and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar). Still, this tune hooks into what the core ensemble version of the group had always been able to deliver anyway, that being sophisticate jazz rock with a heaping tablespoon of the blues, not to mention a hefty dose of hipster irony and arch-sarcasm to tie it all up.
What were they being ironic about here? Continue reading
Listen to this track by one-time clubhousing musical pioneers and last waltzing quintet mostly from Canada, The Band. It’s “It Makes No Difference”, a classic deep-cut from their 1975 album Northern Lights, Southern Cross, their sixth.
This track features the vocals of bassist Rick Danko, known these many years later as one of his defining moments as a performer. It’s hard to deny. The song itself is heartbreaking, coming from the point of view of a man bereft of joy having lost his love with no hope of regaining it, and when sung by Danko, his very soul along with it. This is all bolstered by writer Robbie Robertson’s lyrical guitar voicings, and Garth Hudson’s mournful lines on the saxophone.
Robbie Robertson wrote the song specifically with Danko in mind, knowing what the possibilities would be. After all, this song is probably one of the most direct and personal songs he ever wrote. So, what is it about Danko’s voice that brings it to life so effectively to the point where all other vocalists covering this song over the years haven’t come near to capturing?
Listen to this track by jazz-enthusiast and singer songwriter Joni Mitchell. It’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” as taken from her 1979 LP Mingus named after her artistic patron at the time, the incomparable Charles Mingus.
This song is a jazz standard, first appearing in its original instrumental form on Mingus’ 1959 album Ah Um, and a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young, the wearer of the signature headwear who died that year at the age of forty-nine.
Mitchell had veered into jazz territory on a number of albums previous to this one, working with several jazz musicians who were skilled enough to work within the framework of her penchant for open tunings. Despite its very experimental and non-commercial nature, the Mingus album still managed to peak in the top twenty on Billboard. This is possibly due to the fact that Mingus himself had died after contributing to six new songs on the album, plus two others from his existing portfolio, including this one. After a career of pushing the envelope musically speaking, this was his last musical pursuit.
Perhaps it’s fitting that “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was the closer of this record, originally a tribute to one musician becoming something of a tribute to another years later, complete with lyrics by Mitchell especially for the project. But, I think this song evokes something else, too.
Listen to this track by progressive rock collective Traffic. It’s ” The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys”, the title track to their self-same 1971 album. It would be one of their career highlights of the second phase of their career, coming back from a break-up in 1969 that turned out only to have been temporary.
This phase of the life of the band featured an expanded line up that included Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah who had previously played on Nick Drake’s “Three Hours”, former Family/Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, and Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon. After a comeback record in John Barleycorn Must Die, scoring critical acclaim, this record that followed it up was a million seller as well as being critically praised. It reached platinum status by the middle of the decade. With those new members added to the talents of core members guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood, woodwind player Chris Wood, and percussionist-vocalist-lyricist Jim Capaldi, the band were able to explore the deeper territories where rock, jazz, and soul connect.
But this particular track owed something not only to those musical threads, but to another medium entirely – cinema. Continue reading
Listen to this track by wise beyond his years Canadian singer-songwriter and eventual radio broadcaster Murray McLauchlan. It’s “Child’s Song” as taken from his 1971 record Song From The Street, his debut album. The song was famously covered by fellow folk performer Tom Rush the year before on Rush’s 1970 eponymous record, where it tends to be better known outside of Canada.
As for McLauchlan, he would be among the first signees to True North, a label based in Toronto that is loosely the equivalent of Asylum in that it was meant to be a place for singer-songwriters. In this case, it was the artists coming out of the Yorkville folk scene there in Toronto in the late 1960s, songwriters with emotive and introspective points of view and with roots-oriented sound and arrangements that would characterize the True North stable for many years afterwards. Murray McLauchlan was certainly among the finest early examples, along with fellow signee Bruce Cockburn who was the first artist on the True North roster before McLauchlan joined him.
By the time McLauchlan wrote and recorded this song, he was a tender 23 years old seemingly with something of an old-soul and keen sense lyrical detail and emotional undercurrents. It seems to tell a very personal story about outgrowing the place where one grew up. But this song distinguishes itself in a way that standard “I wanna be free” songs written around this time do not. Continue reading
Listen to this track by East Village ’60s scenester and folk and folk-rock interpreter Karen Dalton. It’s “In My Own Dream”, a track as taken from her second, and last, album In My Own Time released in 1971.
That album title was apparently very apt for Dalton, who was never comfortable in a studio setting. In some ways, she was the polar opposite of all those artists who are creatures of the studio, trying to perfect a recording for posterity. Dalton wasn’t about posterity. She was about the performance in the moment, never to be repeated again. This proved to be pretty trying in the studio when she came to record, a place where multiple takes in order to find “the one” is the common goal.
But, what was clear was the power of her voice, a favourite on the scene when she traveled north from the sepia dust of Oklahoma, eventually to New York City like so many others. Where others were students of American folk traditions, reproducing their studied interpretations on the stages of Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, The Gaslight, and many others, Dalton brought only her voice, her 12-string guitar, and her banjo. And that was more than enough. She was the real thing. No study necessary. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Mancunian post-punk trendsetters Joy Division. It’s “Transmission”, a single released in October of 1979 between their two sole albums as a seven inch on the Factory label. By the next year in December, it would be re-released as a twelve inch single, later to be celebrated in cover versions by bands from Low to Smashing Pumpkins, to Hot Chip.
By this time, the band had morphed from what they would describe themselves as an “undistinguished punk band” called Warsaw into one that would write a template for bands up until the present day. This would be a highlight in a small but vital body of work, cut short by the death of lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, himself something of an iconic figure for post-punk influenced acts, and certainly for frontmen looking beyond the standard shrill-voiced golden god variety.
Actually, this band would provide an example to succeeding ones in many ways beyond even that. They broke the rules of being a rock band. But more importantly, they wrote their own. Continue reading