Mission of Burma Play “Secrets”

mission-of-burma-vsListen to this track by Bostonian post-punk noise architects Mission of Burma. It’s “Secrets”, the opening track of their influential 1982 full-length debut record Vs. The record followed up the Signals, Calls, and Marches EP from the previous year, creating what many critics at the time considered to be a full realization of their sound and potential.

Forming in 1979, the group pulled together a sound that drew from punk rock and British post-punk, with a smattering of American avant garde influences in the form of tape loops and sound manipulation. Like many bands in the age when the term “alternative” as applied to rock music was just a twinkle in the eye of the mainstream music press, Mission of Burma was championed by college rock radio stations, in their case in the Boston area. This opener is emblematic of their approach, which affects a kind of barely contained chaos, with traditional rock grooves being taken on in one instant and then discarded in the next.

This is in line with the song’s subject matter, which is concerned with small moments in time that precede more widely encompassing changes ahead, with human connections becoming less reliable and more frightening all the while. Read more

Spring For Tunes 2017

After what seemed to be an endless winter this year, Spring is finally here. On the West Coast of Canuckistan, we’re used to bragging about spring flowers in February, posting Facebook pictures to torment our friends and family back east. Goshdarn it, it’s a tradition! Not so this year, though. In fact, it was balmy back east when we were still shoveling sidewalks. Thanks, global climate change!

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Still, even if winter didn’t take the hint that it was time to hit the road as fast as I would have liked, what remains is the music. For every thing, said Pete Seeger (or was it the Bible?), there is a season, turn, turn, turn. And so as if to fall in line with that as the buds on the trees are finally making good on their promises, here is a collection of new tunes just for spring 2017.

Lend an ear and drink in the life-giving splendour of each. And as always, tell me all about your favourites in the comments section, Good People.

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Sam Cooke Sings “A Change Is Gonna Come”

shake_sam_cooke_albumListen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem.  The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.

The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.

Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too. Read more

Peter Bjorn and John Play “Young Folks”

pbjyoung_folksListen to this track by Stockholm-based indie trio with a self-explanatory and comma-free name, Peter (Morén) Bjorn (Yttling) and John (Eriksson). It’s “Young Folks”, a single as taken from their 2006 record Writer’s Block, a record that served as something of a breakthrough for the band after forming in 1999.

The album title is not in reference to the lack of ideas that often plagues writers.
Rather, it’s a nod to the neighbourhood, Hornstull, in which the band was based at the time, known for a high concentration of writers and artists and for being a hip part of Stockholm. As a result, the sound they reached for on this song and on the whole record was a cooler and slightly detached approach to production and arrangement that brought forward a few more sonic idiosyncrasies than most, like whistling the key hook on this song. That’s a sound a listener might make reproducing it on their way to work. That approach helped to distinguish them, with this song being a standout in various forms on radio, streaming sites, TV shows, movie soundtracks, and beyond.

The song features the guest vocals of Victoria Bergsman of fellow Stockholmers The Concretes playing the role of the would-be lover to which the forthright narrator asks a very direct question.  Read more

Lorde Sings “Royals”

lorde_-_royalsListen to this song by precocious Kiwi singer-songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by pop radio fans as Lorde. It’s “Royals”, her smash single as taken from 2013’s Pure Heroine, her debut full-length record. “Royals” released in the summer of 2013 as the forerunner to the album.

When “Royals” hit the airwaves, it defied the very rigid format of commercial radio on a number of fronts; it was not traditionally arranged to the exact specifications of a hit song in 2013, and it enjoyed radio play on pure pop stations as well as alternative stations. It remains to be a singular musical statement that stands out among the great sea of commercial pop music that continues to play things safe when it comes to the way the music is made, how it’s presented, and even  its subject matter.

To that last point, this song reveals itself to be something of a generational anthem that calls the assumptions of pop culture into question directly. But it isn’t as simple as being a song about rejecting the lust for fame and riches. This song is more complex than that and not without its cultural trip hazards, either. Read more

Weather Report Play “Birdland”

weather_report-heavy_weatherListen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.

In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.

Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation.  Read more

Victoria Williams Sings “Century Plant”

loose-victoria-williamsListen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills. and former Jayhawk and then-future husband Gary Louris. This record  was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.

“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more

A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Abbey Road

beatles_-_abbey_roadA recurring theme in my walk through The Beatles’ discography and therefore their history too, has been the mythic quality of their story. For me and for many fans, The Beatles are more than just a rock group. They were a generational ideal, or at least representatives of what talented people could do when they came together to form a common identity.

When we think of any band we love, this is often the common denominator; that in the making of art, mortality is subverted somehow. The Beatles went beyond the realm of the musical in this. They were cultural paragons, and collectively a symbol for that which can potentially change the world for the better. That’s a lot of pressure on four musicians in their twenties. It couldn’t last. Nor did it.

It’s been noted by both McCartney and Starr that when The Beatles recorded Abbey Road, they weren’t doing so with the idea that they’d never record together as a band again, as bad as things were getting by 1969. Maybe in retrospect it just seems like it. But there is something of the journey to Avalon about this record. Read more

The Clash Play “Guns Of Brixton”

theclashlondoncallingalbumcoverListen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.

By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character  actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.

Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more

Steve Earle Sings “Hard-Core Troubadour”

steve-earle-i-feel-alrightListen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.

This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.

Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more