Pop Music

Wreckless Eric Plays ‘Whole Wide World’

Listen to this track by Stiff Records urchin and new wave scrapper Wreckless Eric.  It’s ‘Whole Wide World’ as taken from his self-titled, 1978 LP Wreckless Eric. The song had previously been released as a single (twinned with ‘Semaphor Signals’), as produced by Stiff house producer Nick Lowe.

This song is one of the results of a keen interest that Wreckless Eric (born Eric Goulden) had in pub rock, a scene that grew up alongside punk rock, and in fact pre-dated it.  ‘Whole Wide World’ and the innocence it exudes was used to great effect in the film Stranger Than Fiction, when Will Farrell’s repressed IRS agent finally falls in love, getting the girl by singing this song to her.

Wreckless Eric’s sound was looked upon as something of the runt in the Stiff Records litter, basic three-chord constructions that drew from 60s garage rock, girl groups, and early 70s glam poppers Slade. His music is idiosyncratic, and sometimes half-baked, making him something of an English Jonathan Richman.  But, like Richman, Wreckless Eric got by on his ability to charm, even while demonstrating a sort of studied ineptitude when it comes to traditional pop subject matter.

It’s arguable that Wreckless Eric was the most ‘punk’ of the Stiff stable, with a adenoidal whine of a voice matched with a muddy, bludgeoning stomp of a beat behind it.  But with this song, you’re hearing something of a return to  classic pop songwriting aimed at teenagers.  This is a tried and true approach to rock ‘n’ roll songwriting, and has been from the beginning.

There is something endearingly juvenile about this song, with some truly clunky lyrics and bare bones arrangement.  To me, this tune is a look inside the mind of an early teen, a snapshot of a kid’s idea about romance.  As such, this song does what the best rock ‘n’ roll songs do; it gives a voice to the awkward teen audience it’s aimed at.  For all of Wreckless Eric’s wide-eyed innocence here on this song, it’s clear that his approach to songwriting betrayed the mark of experience, too. And with this tune, he captures a kernel of truth, which is another aspect to be found in the best of pop songwriting.

For more information about Wreckless Eric, check out Wrecklesseric.com


Peter Gabriel Sings ‘Digging in the Dirt’

Listen to this song, a confessional piece from an artist formerly known for his role playing more so than for his emotional candour. It’s Peter Gabriel with his “Digging in the Dirt” as taken from his 1992 album Us, a record that was a loose concept album about the nature of relationships.

When Peter Gabriel fronted Genesis, the role he appeared to take on was a using himself as an empty canvas, literally and figuratively dressing himself for each song; a Moonlight Knight, a Watcher of the Skies, a rapidly and unnaturally aged old man, a deformed Slipperman, and many others. He used his body as a tool to communicate characters, with costumes, with hairstyles, with make-up.

It was the early 70s, a period rife with this kind of theatricality and distance between audience and performer. Gabriel and his bandmates were in their early 20s, and (not to put too fine a point on it) British.  The possibility that the band would take on a confessional singer-songwriter approach that revealed their deepest vulnerabilities and complex psychologies without filtering it through a character was pretty remote. Even by his arguable peak as a solo artist in the mid-80s, Gabriel was known more as an animated head, more so than a fully-dimensional person in his own songs.

But, by the early 90s, Gabriel had come a fair distance, career-wise and on a personal level, too.  He’d been married and divorced. He’d had high-profile affairs with celebrities.  His children were grown up.  And he’d moved on from the approach that had him emphasizing fanstastical or observational material, including a more political vantage point starting in the 80s, telling stories of social oppression (‘Biko’) and the fear of where reactionary politics might affect our fate as a species (‘Red Rain’).

By the time Us came out, he was ready to tell his own story using his own face.  And this was the first single, which revealed all of the pain and turmoil that is often associated with the great adventure that is involved in seeking intimacy with another.  The emotions here are extreme, with frustration and rage in a relationship (‘shut your mouth, I know what you are..’) coupled with a recognition that isolation is just as intolerable (‘stay with me, I need support…’).  It also acknowledges that seeking the past is a key to the future too, with finding that which is ‘dark and sticky’ inside of us is the first step in dealing with it.

This song was representative of the album as a whole, with songs like ‘The Blood of Eden’,  ‘Washing of the Water’, and ‘Secret World’ being other highlights  that brought out some of the writer’s most intensely personal material he’d ever committed to vinyl. In some ways, it’s no wonder that he took over a decade to follow this up, seeming to say it all here.

For more information about Peter Gabriel including news of a new album and tour, check out petergabriel.com.

Also, check out the video for Digging in the Dirt, which includes footage of a snail-festooned Gabriel, who endured some pain in letting them crawl on him.  In the days before you could fake that kind of thing, those are real snails.  And they had a bite or two while the video was being filmed.  Talk about an artist’s dedication!


The Zutons Play ‘Valerie’

Listen to this song by Liverpudlian rock-pop heroes The Zutons. It’s their UK hit from 2006 “Valerie”, as taken from their second album Tired Of Hanging Around, what an R&B-flavoured burst of poptastic charm it is, too!  This soul/indie-stew may come from the fact that this band has an element once very popular, and now rare in rock-pop outfits – a full-time sax player!

This band comes out of an area of the world known to produce hook-laden pop music as if it’s a cash crop – the North-West of England, and even more specifically, Liverpool.  Not even mentioning a certain world-changing quartet, this city has produced some of the most influential bands of more recent eras including Echo & the Bunnymen, The La’s, The Pale Fountains, Shack, The Coral, and the Lightning Seeds, among many others. Indeed, head Lightning Seed Ian Broudie produced their first album in 2004, Who Killed the Zutons, nominated for the coveted Mercury Music Prize that year.

Abi Harding of the Zutons - a full-time sax player! (photo: Mark Whale)

The thing I notice about this band, and this track in general is the fact that it diverges quite a lot from typical jangly guitar pop out of Liverpool.  This isn’t the Beatle-esque power pop song you might expect.  To me, it seems to have soul music at its heart more so than Revolver, with guitarist/vocalist David McCabe’s passionate, belting voice, punctuated by saxophonist Abi Harding’s abrasive horn stabs. The overall construction of this tune is downright funky, with the on beats and off-beats kind of pulling and pushing as the song rolls along.

One criticism that indie guitar music gets is the lack of sweat to be found in it, that spark of physicality.  With this tune, you get plenty, and is a case for the fact that just because a band hails from a certain region famous for a sound, it doesn’t mean that one can’t be pleasantly surprised by a shattered expectation.  Of course, this band was dropped from their label at one point, an indication that record labels still don’t get it.

For more information about this band, make sure and visit the Zutons on MySpace.

And for real time updates, make sure and follow David McCabe on Twitter @davezuton


Crowded House Play ‘Something So Strong’

Listen to this top 40 hit and opening salvo from Split Enz spinoff band Crowded House.  It’s the immensely radio-friendly ‘Something So Strong’ from the band’s 1986 debut album, and cleverly titled it is too, Crowded House.

By the end of its life, Split Enz had been abandoned by one Finn brother, Tim, and handed over to the songwriting talents and leadership of his younger brother, Neil.  The younger Finn had penned an important single for the band, ‘I Got You’ in 1979 on the pop-oriented True Colours album. And  under his guidance, the band recorded another storming single in “Message To My Girl” by the early 80s.  But, by then, Tim had left the band to pursue a solo career, and momentum for Split Enz was beginning to wane.

Split Enz held their farewell concert in 1984.  One of the latter-day members of Split Enz was drummer Paul Hester, who followed leader Neil Finn’s path to the formation of a new band which also included the younger brother of Hunters & Collectors Mark Seymour, one Nick Seymour, on bass guitar.  The fruits of their labours, with the help of producer and keyboardist Mitchell Froom, was the debut album that featured this song, and another international hit single “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, as their ticket onto the North American charts.

This song just pops with a sheen of aural optimism, even if the lyrics hint at something far more dark. And indeed, this radio single that was a top ten hit in North America, sounds like a jubilant love song, that actually hints at the dangers of love as much as it does its wonders.  Neil Finn would never write a lyrically straight-forward pop song .  But, his ability to create songs which sound like simple ear candy, while equally revealing hidden thematic depths, would always be his strength.

By the mid-80s, it seems to me that the face of pop music had taken a turn for the worse.  At one point in pop history, accessible songs did not mean shallow writing hidden by studio trickery.  But, generally speaking, the state of pop chart entries seemed to veer pretty close to this precipice by 1986.  In this, the arrival of  Crowded House on the scene helped to curtail this, and listeners were reminded that pop songs in the mainstream could be well constructed musically as well as lyrically challenging. And this would be Crowded House’s manifesto through out, even with this debut.

The band would put out four more albums, including a live farewell album, before dissolving officially in 1997.  Members would join and fall away in this time, which is a hell of a run when you consider the quality of the material through out that span.  The reunion tour and a new album by 2007 would bring them to public attention again, reminding everyone how many songs they had recorded that were instantly familiar.

For more information about Crowded House, check out CrowdedHouse.com


Paul Simon Performs ‘Gumboots’ Featuring The Boyoyo Boys

Listen to this track by singer-songwriter, folk-rock pioneer, and world-music promoter Paul Simon.  It’s the album-track “Gumboots”, which among other things going for it, features the Afro-pop stylings of The Boyoyo Boys from South Africa.  Another thing this song has going for it of course is one of the best lyrical marriage proposals in pop music history: “why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute?”

Paul Simon was lauded for his 1986 Graceland LP, off of which this track is taken. Coming back from a three-year recording hiatus, Simon married his interest in folk music to (among other styles) African pop music, creating a highly textured and idiosyncratic album that captured the imaginations of the critics and the record buying public.  But, he also took some flak, too.  Some leveled some pretty heavy allegations against the project, deeming it to be a product of cultural imperialism, and an implied dismissal of the anti-Apartheid boycott at the time .

The song was originally an instrumental by the Boyoyo Boys, which Simon heard and was fascinated by.  It captured his imagination enough to write lyrics to the song, sparking a project which would provide something of a path to a comeback album. That path would eventually frame South Africa as a rich musical hotbed, despite the political unrest for which it had been known since the National Party put the deliberately racist Apartheid system in place in 1948.

As for the resulting song itself, there is nothing like it in Western pop music, with jubliant sax lines against hyperactive percussion and fidgety accordion lines. It’s a joyful, happy tune, derived from a country which, at the time, wasn’t so joyful.   I guess the closest style to which it might be compared is New Orleans Zydeco, a style that developed many thousands of miles away.  It’s hard to say which style influenced which first, or even if the two styles developed completely independently.  It’s a mystery!

The point is, what works for a song, just works.   It doesn’t ultimately matter where it comes from, even if the origins are fascinating to trace.  As far as cultural imperialism goes, to me music has always thrives best when cultures mix.  This is not exploitation, it’s evolution.  For Simon’s part, he was making a record characterized by textures that interested him at the time, which is not really a radical approach to making an album.   As such, the album features many African musicians and their respective styles, but also features Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Adrian Belew, and Los Lobos, among others.

Many of the South African musicians he worked with to help him get the sound he needed must have most certainly seen the advantage of having a prominent Western musician as an ambassador.  Their musical traditions, which hadn’t received a fraction of the attention it would get upon the reception of the Graceland LP, were as important to them as a thing to promote as the album was to Simon.  And arguably, the eye of the world may not have focused so keenly on the corruption of the Apartheid system in South Africa, if not for the exposure that country received, at least in part, because of this album.

Check the link for more information about Paul Simon’s Graceland album and how it was made.


Mint Royale featuring Lauren Laverne Perform ‘Don’t Falter’

Here’s a clip of British dance outfit Mint Royale along with Sunderland-born DJ, TV presenter, and former frontwoman for punk-poppers Kenickie, Lauren Laverne.  The song is taken from the group’s 2001 album On the Ropes.

This song was a big hit in England, all over the radio during the last summer I spent there.  Therefore, it holds something of a special place in my heart.  And what  a song it is; just a burst of youthful vigour and the optimism of young love that makes it a classic slice of summery pop.  One of the things that makes it is how strongly Laverne’s perkiness shines through, and as such it has miles and miles of personality along with being highly danceable.

As mentioned, Laverne had made a name for herself as the lead singer and guitarist of the mostly-girl punk pop band Kenickie who had a few hits in the end of the 90s, including ‘Punka’ and the irresistible ‘In Your Car’, It was clear that even though the band was short-lived, it wasn’t for lack of charm.  Laverne and her cohorts had that in spades.  And it’s the charm she exudes which really makes this song shine.

More recently, Laverne has secured a gig as a TV and radio presenter, known for a quirky and ironic style.   Among many shows, she’s presented coverage of the Glastonbury festival, the NME awards, and the British Saturday morning pop show CD:UK, and the London XFM breakfast show .

With those lucrative gigs in broadcasting, it’s unlikely that she’ll continue to develop a solo career  as a pop singer; kind of a shame for those of us who don’t live in Britain, and who (like me) find her to be a breezy, and unaffected pop singer in an age where personality and pop couldn’t be farther apart.

For more about Mint Royale, check out the Mint Royale MySpace page.

And it makes sense to investigate laurenlaverne.co.uk too.


Goodbye, Michael Jackson

Here’s a clip of Michael Jackson with a song from his most popular album, 1982′s Thriller.  It’s “Human Nature”, my favourite track off of that smash LP which solidified Jackson as a worldwide phenomenon in a manner that I believe, for good or ill, will never occur again.

There is a lot we didn’t need when it came to Michael Jackson.  There was the eccentric behaviour, the self-mutilation disguised as serial celebrity surgical procedures, and of course there was the speculation about his sexual proclivities.  But, what is measured against all of that is his immense talent that seemed almost supernatural.  And where he drew inspiration from Jackie Wilson and James Brown, he inspired Justin Timberlake and every other dancing R&B pop singer in turn.  Love him or hate him, that’s what true artists do; they pass it on.

And of course there is his worldwide fame and celebrity, from smash albums in America, Canada, the UK and Europe, along with similar success in every corner of the planet for years and years from Thriller onward.  In the days before music, movies, and TV were at one’s fingertips through various online channels whenever we wanted them, Michael Jackson dominated popular culture, with his songs, his face, his influence pervading nearly every medium.  And it strikes me that in this current age of media fragmentation, such influence, such fame, can never again be so ubiquitous.

But, fame destroyed Jackson, argubly never having developed as a person, as a man, due to all of the other things on his plate when other kids his age were playing baseball, hide and seek, and out on their bikes.  For Michael, it was stage shows, Jackson 5 TV appearances, and (incredibly) a concurrent solo career by age 11.  He was the image of a person who was victimized by fame, becoming a parody of himself; an image that subsumed the man.

And why did this happen?  Why did he allow himself to get swallowed up by his own success?  Was it the money, the love emanating from his fans which he didn’t otherwise get when he needed it as a kid, or was it just insecurity, the insecurity of a child trapped in the shell of a grown man walled off from reality?

Whatever the reason, he was only human, and subject to the very human nature he sang about.

RIP Michael.

The Mull Historical Society

Listen to this song by one man act Colin MacIntyre, AKA Mull Historical Society.  It’s the self-referential “Mull Historical Society” as taken from MacIntyre’s debut album under that name, Loss, put out in 2001 to critical acclaim if not to worldwide adulation.  Yet, this is the sound of pure pop, and seemingly infused with sunshine and optimism, which is my favourite kind of pop.

There seemed to be a spate of pop artists coming out of Scotland by the end of the 90s and the early part of our current decade, inspired by the orchestral pop of the late 60s.  And MacIntyre certainly struck me that way, along with other acts like Cosmic Rough Riders and The Pearlfishers, all motivated by the creation of bright pop tunes, heavy on the melody and on scale too.  These were big and unabashed pop songs.

This one in particular is not only a big pop record, it seems to defy you not to sing along in spite of some very over-the-top arrangements of horns, wah-wah guitar, and anything else MacIntyre can think to add.  With a sound like this, you’d expect that the Mull Historical Society was just that – a throng of people all playing together with whatever instruments they had on hand, rather than a single multi-instrumentalist with aspirations to Lennon-McCartney and Brian Wilson visions of pop grandeur.

And at the same time, this song and the approach it took to create it makes you think that indie music need not necessarily mean sullen, or po-faced.  For me, creating a little world inside of a pop song is a tough bit of sonic alchemy at the best of times.  Yet this one, seems to have been handed down from the heavens, maybe even on a flaming pie.

For more about Colin MacIntyre and Mull Historical Society, check out the Colin MacIntyre website.

If it’s more music you crave, investigate the Colin MacIntyre MySpace page.


Sam Phillips Sings “Baby I Can’t Please You”

Here’s a clip of former Christian-rock chanteuse turned secular Beatlesque pop singer Sam Phillips, singing her 1994 song “Baby I Can’t Please You” as taken from her T-Bone Burnett-produced disc Martinis & Bikinis.

Sam Phillips started her recording career singing straight-ahead Christian rock, being herself a woman of faith and recording under her given name, Leslie Phillips.  Yet the Christian subculture and the sub-sub culture of being a Christian rock artist began to take its toll on Phillips.  Firmly aligned to her own ideas of her faith, and aware that the mainstream church’s (and her label’s) right-wing political baggage had very little to do with that faith, Phillips broke away from being a Christian singer in favour of being a Christian who sings.  And Sam Phillips was born where Leslie Phillips once stood.

As he was in assisting Bob Dylan through his Christian period, producer T-Bone Burnett was instrumental in helping Phillips to make this transition from the Christian rock ghetto to a secular pop space which allowed Phillips to address spiritual and earthly matters on a level playing field.  Burnett helmed her first two albums The Indescribable Wow and Cruel Inventions both to critical praise, if not in the smash sales or chart positions she’d enjoyed as a Christian rock artist with a guaranteed niche audience.  The couple married in 1991.

One of her critical breakthrough’s was this album, Martinis & Bikinis, and particularly this song which could be about a dysfunctional relationship with the God of the Right Wing as much as it could be about a relationship with a self-righteous human being.  The line ‘you say love when you mean control’ seems to speak volumes in favor of this idea.  In actuality, the entire album has little moments like this, with lines that point to the need to refocus on the ideas of what love really means, and how far away it is from the impulse to wrest, and maintain, control over others.

Sam Phillips most recent album, Don’t Do Anything, is out now.

For more information about Sam Phillips, check out the Sam Phillips MySpace Page.


Album Review: A Camp “Colonia”

Recently, I was sent the newest album by Nina Persson-fronted band A Camp, mostly because I am a big fan of their initial album, and the single “I Can Buy You”, which I talked about in another post.  Thanks to Stunt Company, the band’s American promotion company for sending the disc.  And good news; this is a fantastic album.

A Camp lead singer Persson recently moved from her native Sweden to New York City, having married Shudder to Think’s Nathan Larson who also fills out the line up.  Perhaps it’s this that inspired the title of A Camp’s newest album Colonia, having shifted from what might be considered the Old World, to the New World, sometimes called ‘The Colonies” by some even today.  And where this is not a concept record about the contrasts between one world and another, there is certainly undercurrents to be found in a song like “My America”, which captures the idea that a new place can seem both fascinating and disorienting at the same time.

The overall sound here is more focused than the band’s eponymous debut, which is not to say it’s a better record, necessarily.  But, you get the sense that the group has finally landed on a musical neighbourhood patch, rather than the sonic road trip they’d been on while cutting their debut.  There are fewer country-rock textures here than there were on that debut. The textures here on this new disc are a bit more orchestral, with real strings and brass accentuating the guitars-bass-piano-drums, and electronics.

What they’ve created is a smart, grown-up strain of pop music, with singer Persson at the very centre of it all.  Her voice is some of the best singing I’ve heard from her, including her work with the Cardigans.  Her voice is perfectly positioned on every track, fitting in comfortably into each of the songs, maybe most strikingly on the single “Stronger Than Jesus”, which you can hear here. Other stand-out tracks are the Beatle-esque “Chinatown”, the string-laden and melancholic “It’s Not Easy To Be Human”, and the album opener, “The Crowning”.

There is something classicist about this album, with a strong emphasis on songwriting and strong melodies more so than a simple study in stylistic excursion.  And it belongs firmly to the writers as a result, with nods to the band’s influences (The Beatles, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, The Sundays), yet easily avoiding pastiche.  It helps that musical guests are heavyweights in their own right, including Joan Wasser (AKA Joan As Policewoman), Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, original A Camp-er Mark Linkous, and sought-after cellist Jane Scarpantoni, among others.

The only criticism that might be levelled at the band is that they gave fans quite a wait for this excellent disc. Yet, perhaps this gestation period is a part of why it is so focused, why the songs are so richly realized, and why they seem to belong together as an album.

For more information about A Camp, including tour dates (they’re coming my way in mid-June!), check out the band’s website,  ACamp.net.

And of course for more music, be sure to check out the A Camp MySpace page.