Listen to this track by sisterly New Jersey vocal folk trio The Roches. It’s “Runs In The Family”, a cut off of their 1979 eponymous debut album The Roches. The group was made up of the three Roche sisters, those being Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy, hailing from Park Ridge New Jersey from a solidly Irish-American background.
The Roches’ sound isn’t the genteel and polite one that we might expect from folk-singing sisters. There is a distinct edge to it, with three singers who don’t stay in their lanes even as they mesh their voices, and with those voices marked by idiosyncrasies instead of by standard purity of tone. And talk about unexpected musical combinations. King Crimson-honcho and prog-rock prime mover Robert Fripp not only played guitar on the record, he also produced it.
Even the material undercuts what we expect of a folk tune. This is no fey tale that tells a story of times past. This is decidedly contemporary, concerning itself with an important question that very few of us can honestly answer; why do we make the choices we make and in some cases, do we even have a choice at all? Read more
Listen to this track by St. Catharines Ontario-born singer-songwriter and teller of tales Ron Sexsmith. It’s “The Idiot Boy”, a deep cut as taken from his 1999 album Whereabouts, his third record. The song traces the history of humankind itself through a distinctly Biblical lens, tongue firmly in cheek. In it, the titular central character is not so much a hero in his own story, but more like his own stumbling block. This is very much in keeping with the whole record.
Whereabouts is a pretty overcast album, full of self-doubt and struggle. On it, Sexsmith seems to live up to his (not ultimately accurate) reputation as a perpetually glum songwriter, with his rainy-day voice not entirely helping to dissuade the casual listener any differently. It was therefore hard for that same casual listener to see the humour in the lyrics, an angle that has also been a part of Sexsmith’s approach. There’s more to this song than what first might be perceived.
Even while “The Idiot Boy” reflects his views on human history, it’s also perhaps a reflection of the songwriter’s own state of being. Read more
Listen to this track by first-tier neo-soul proponent Erykah Badu. It’s “Bag Lady”, a single as taken from her second album Mama’s Gun from 2000. The album scored critical praise across the map, continuing Badu’s synthesis of R&B with jazz overtones and all with a foot in hip hop sensibilities with the most minimal of brushstrokes. The most important fixture in place of course is her voice that evoked comparisons to Billie Holiday when her debut came out, which Badu somehow survived and went beyond.
A part of the effort to gain creative traction for this record was her close ties to her contemporaries, including D’Angelo and Questlove, both of whom joined her as members of the Soulquarians musical collective centering their activities around recordings made at Electric Lady studios in New York at the end of the nineties and into 2000. It was during this period that they were all intent on creating a contemporary sound fashioned from this same soul, jazz, and hip hop combination that would be featured on several releases by its members around this time. This song, which garnered two Grammy nominations in 2000, is a product of that creative outpouring and the last single to reach number one on the original Motown label before that label was sold to Universal music.
The song is multifaceted even if it seems to be pretty straightforward on every level at the same time. It certainly has something to say about relationships and the investments that women in particular put into them. But there is another aspect to this tune that goes even further beyond that still. Read more
Listen to this track by former mod representatives turned classic rock institution The Who. It’s “Who Are You”, the concluding song that served as the title track to their 1978 album Who Are You. That record would represent the end of an era for the band when drummer Keith Moon passed away a month after it was released. The attached rendition of the song here is featured in the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright.
In some ways, this song and its album marked the end of an era for rock music, too. By the end of the seventies, popular music was exponentially dividing into multiple streams including punk, new wave, and disco. Certain tracks on this album make direct reference to that. Meanwhile, the band itself was struggling along after a three-year recording hiatus with Moon’s health in visible decline. The dynamics between musicians and in turn between the band and the production team that included Glyn Johns and Jon Astley were beginning to fray at the ends as well. These were not easy sessions. Perhaps this was the result of a shot of self-awareness at being among the second generation of rock musicians beginning to sense the end of their prime period.
As usual on this particular song, guitarist and head songwriter Pete Townshend’s well-trodden themes of image, identity, and truth are firmly in place. This time, they come with a bona fide autobiographical component to the story that perhaps goes against expectations when it comes to old rockers versus new punks. Read more
Listen to this track by Akron Ohio-bred cult heroes Devo. It’s “Beautiful World”, a single as taken from their 1981 album New Traditionalists. That release followed up what many consider to be their breakthrough in 1980’s Freedom of Choice which featured their ginormous hit “Whip It”.
This song follows the template set by that release in that it’s full of synthesizer and vocoder textures matched with twangy surf-guitar. Along with that, this song reflects a more pop-oriented approach and a much toned-down experimental side. The lyrics don’t reflect the high-mindedness of some of their earlier work either, full as it was of theories about the devolution of society from which the band get their name.
Even if this is true, this song is no ball of pop cotton candy. As accessible as this song is, and as in line as it is with the new wave sound that was very marketable by 1981, it still has an edge to it that works against its cheery title. Read more
Listen to this track by Bermuda-born, London-based singer-songwriter Heather Nova. It’s “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)”, a single as taken from her third album, 1998’s Siren. Even though the song is a paean to being home in London, it did much better in the US, possibly due to its inclusion in the soundtrack to an episode of nineties drama Dawson’s Creek.
Emerging in the early nineties, Heather Nova’s music fit into a certain paradigm of women singer-songwriters that proliferated at the time, underscoring the wealth of talent that existed under the still very male-centric music industry. Nova had a unique background from which she pulled her music and her approach to a career in a tough industry. As a child, she lived on a forty-foot boat with her family including a brother and sister plus her two parents, sailing the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea for most of the 1970s and into the 1980s, all the while making music for herself.
It was in this setting that she grew her love for music and for storytelling. But I think too that background may cast light on what makes this specific song such a vital example of what makes Heather Nova unique, along with how much it mirrors a pretty common thread in most people’s lives; a sense of home. Read more
Listen to this track by art movement-inspired goth-rock forefathers from Northampton, Bauhaus. It’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, their first and most influential song released as a 12″ single in August of 1979. At over nine minutes long, it still managed to make a cultural impact, even if it failed to chart in the UK.
The single is thought to be the first goth-rock song in much the same way as “Rocket 88” is thought of as the first rock ‘n’ roll tune. It’s initial impact on the listener might be mostly centered around waiting for the vocals to kick in, which they eventually do a full third of the way through. It’s not exactly in line with the received wisdom about the immediacy of pop music, then. But once the approach of this song is established, the listener begins to get that immediacy doesn’t really suit this tune anyway.
The song isn’t even about hooks or musical events as most pop and rock music generally is about. But what this song does feature is very specifically designed psychological mechanisms we trip up as we make our way through it that may be as important to our psychology as any love song is. Read more
With the significant maturity spike as shown in Rubber Soul, it is almost inconceivable that The Beatles were only on their way up when it came to making sophisticated music and recording it in a revolutionary way in time for their seventh album, Revolver. They had a number of factors that helped them do this beyond their own burgeoning interest in the album format during a time when their touring days were grinding to a halt.
First, by 1966 they had a number of peers doing similarly revolutionary and left of centre work from the Stones’ “Paint It Black”, to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, to the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”, along with so many other examples. Second, they had new fangled studio technology that helped them get what they wanted more easily, with automatic double tracking, tape varispeed, and improvements in amplification and microphone technology. Third and finally, they had producer George Martin, and a young engineer named Geoff Emerick to take their creative ideas and turn them into practical sonic realities to create what was their most sophisticated and varied album to date, a work that still has impact on recordings today fifty years after its creation. The amazing part is, as groundbreaking as Revolver was, The Beatles were only getting started as to where they would take the album format, not only for them but for their peers, too.
During this month’s episode of A Year With The Beatles podcast, my co-host Graeme Burk and I are joined by writer, musician, songwriter, and seasoned podcaster in his own right Alex Kennard. In addition to talking about the record and our favourite moments as taken from it, we also talk about Howard Goodall’s documentary on how The Beatles were exemplars of western composition by the 1960s. That decade was a time when a movement of modernist and post-modernist composers had largely given up on the conventions of classical composition in order to explore new territories, often leaving general audiences behind. The Beatles re-positioned those conventions in pop music to breathe new life into them. There is some argument as to the validity of this interpretation of history, and also some thoughts on what most surprises us on a compositional level when it comes to The Beatles.
To listen to this month’s episode, make with the clicking right here.
Listen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.
Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.
There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song. Read more
Listen to this track by jangly Wolverhampton post-punk guitar pop representatives The Mighty Lemon Drops. It’s “Inside Out”, a bona fide alternative pop hit as taken from their 1988 album World Without End. The song scored placements on UK and North American charts, mostly championed on this side of the Atlantic by college radio.
The words “Bunnymen” and “Echo and the” were commonly used to describe this band in any given write up about them, now including this one. There are many sonic similarities to help justify their use, maybe. But that’s not the whole story with this band as you listen, particularly with this song which share some of the same musical ties to sixties influences as matched with post-punk ones melodically speaking. Yet they seem to escape the dourness (and Doors references) that I personally associate with Ian McCullouch and his lagomorphic fellows.
These guys made an impact outside of that comparison anyway. After forming in Wolverhampton in 1985, The Mighty Lemon Drops managed to make their mark early on with their inclusion on the C86 compilation, an important document of the era for indie-pop in Britain by the mid-eighties. They had another advantage that carried them past all that, of course; a way with an empathetic anthem. Read more