Gordon Lightfoot Sings “Carefree Highway”

Gordon_Lightfoot_SundownListen to this track by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter and Orillia Ontario favourite son, Gordon Lightfoot. It’s “Carefree Highway”, an international hit as taken from his 1974 album Sundown. This song was one of several in his catalogue that scored a top ten placement on the US Billboard Hot 100. Otherwise, this song made the easy listening charts and the country charts in his home country of Canada, where he’d become rightly held as a national treasure.

Like Bob Dylan, Lightfoot was managed by Albert Grossman during the 1960s, and was on many of the same scenes. During that time his material was covered by many, including Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, among others. By the early 1970s and after defecting from United Artists to Warner Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot settled into a sound of his own that mixed acoustic folk-rock with a smooth country feel, along with a dash of sorrowful strings for good measure that gave his output a heavy shot of melancholy. The period between 1970 and 1978 is looked upon by many as his golden period that had him enjoying massive exposure on Canadian radio across the dial. For all of his ubiquity, it was easy to take him for granted.

On “Carefree Highway”, it was also easy to miss what lay beneath his gentle, made for radio play, and easy on the ears sound, to wit; an ocean of bittersweetness, much of that fueled by what seemed to be personal regret, not to mention the songwriting savvy it took to deliver it so poignantly to listeners.  Read more

Blondie Play “Maria”

Blondie_-_MariaListen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.

“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.

“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general. Read more

Kid Creole & The Coconuts Play “My Male Curiosity”

Kid Creole Coconuts My Male CuriosityListen to this track by genre-blending post-disco merry-makers Kid Creole & The Coconuts. It’s “My Male Curiosity”, a single that appeared on the 1984 soundtrack album for the Jeff Bridges, James Woods, Rachel Ward film Against All Odds.

“Kid Creole” is a persona of lead singer, bandleader, and creative head August Darnell, borrowing a look from 1930s zoot-suited jazz singers particularly Cab Calloway, pencil moustache and all. The band made a name for themselves as a live act in New York, a city that has a continuing tradition of jazz and Latin scenes that have endured since the 1920s onward. The sound of Kid Creole & The Coconuts is directly inspired by those older traditions, all the while utilizing the rhythms and the attitudes of the newer ones like art rock, disco, and punk. That’s what made them unique, along with Darnell’s theatrical stage presence as backed by a larger scale band and three colourful women backup singers which captured a visual dynamic as well as a musical one.

Otherwise, there’s more to their music than just a lead singer backed up by women singers. There’s a real musical dialogue going on here, particularly on this song. And I think too that it would be a mistake to take what’s being said in this song by its central character at face value. This tune has something to say about relationships, too. Read more

The Monkees Play “Sometime In The Morning”

MoreoftmListen to this track by enduring four-man multimedia phenomenon Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter; The Monkees. It’s “Sometime In The Morning”, a deep cut and favourite track off of their mega-selling second album More Of The Monkees, released in January of 1967. The album remained at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for a big 18 weeks. Meanwhile, this song would appear multiple times in their concurrent and very popular TV show The Monkees including in one of my favourite episodes “Monkee Mother”, guest starring Rose Marie.

Nineteen sixty-seven was a banner year for the group for a number of reasons. First, the TV show was an Emmy-winning hit. Second, their first live appearances as a group starting at tail-end of 1966 were going swimmingly during a time when they were taking heat for being just a pretend group who couldn’t play their own instruments. As far as the “pretend” part of that equation, this was true in one sense; the group they played on TV really was fictional, even though its members had the same names as the four principle cast. In real life though, they were as real as any other band playing shows in front of live audiences. The differences between their two identities, one fictional and one real, may explain the confusion around The Monkees’ authenticity. No one else was doing this sort of thing in quite this way at the time.

Further to that, this dynamic blurred the lines about who was responsible and who should be credited for the music people were hearing and buying. So, when More Of The Monkees hit the racks in January of 1967 to the surprise of The Monkees themselves who had no idea it was even coming out, things were about to get real ugly, real fast. Read more

Jill Sobule Sings “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”

monster protest jams vol 1Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.

The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.

So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners. Read more

A Year With The Beatles Podcast: Help!

HelpIn 1965, Beatlemania was still raging on, and the Beatles rose to the occasion with their fifth album, Help! Their songs further delved into some of the genres that they had explored previously, including folk rock, R&B, country, and probably most notably for the first time chamber pop with their game-changing song “Yesterday”. They even had room for one more cover song for the road in Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”.

Saying that, the band were growing up as both songwriters and as people, bringing more of their personalities to the fore as writers. This is certainly reflected in the songs on this album which is a continuation of the more sophisticated approach to subject matter hinted at earlier, including some of their most personal songwriting to date. And that personal side of things would only become more developed as the year went on.

Additionally, the Help! record would serve as a showcase for the songs that would appear in the movie of the same name, in which the band also appeared. Playing out like a sort of surrealist Marx Brothers affair, The Beatles solidified their image as happy (and also edgy) lads from Liverpool, although even by this time some of the cracks in the union, however small, were beginning to show.

My old friend Graeme Burk, and my newer friend Shannon Dohar talk about all of this and more in this fifth episode of our A Year With The Beatles Podcast.

Have a listen to it right here.


Art Garfunkel Sings “99 Miles From L.A”

Breakaway_(Art_Garfunkel_album)Listen to this track by angelically voiced interpretive singer, actor, and one-time member of a world-beating folk-rock duo that bears his name in part, Art Garfunkel. It’s “99 Miles From L.A”, a cut from his 1975 album Breakaway, his second solo album. The song itself was recorded that same year by its writer, the singer-songwriter Albert Hammond (who also wrote “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer around this same time), complete with lyrics by none other than Hal David.

Garfunkel is wrongly thought by some to be a gooseberry in his own career, with Paul Simon looked upon as the significant talent in their partnership, mostly due to the fact that Simon was a writer and (up until very recently at least) Garfunkel was not. It is also thought that Garfunkel’s solo career is lightweight and a bit “wet”. But I would argue that very few singers reached the depths of melancholy that Garfunkel has in his singing, adding his unique vocal instrument to some of the greatest songs ever written and recorded, and being absolutely indispensable to how well those songs connect on an emotional level with listeners of multiple generations. So few singers in an English-speaking pop context are able to sing a line that is both gloriously optimistic and devastatingly sad at the same time with such precision. This is not to mention his pivotal role as producer and arranger on Simon & Garfunkel albums, of which not many people are aware.

How does Garfunkel bring his formidable vocal powers to this song? I think he does it by utilizing his voice around the very ambiguous story that this song is telling, where we as the listeners aren’t sure of what kind of story it is; happy or sad. Read more

The Essex Green Play “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”

the Essex Green Cannibal SeaListen to this track by one-time Elephant 6-affiliated power pop psych trio The Essex Green. It’s “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”, a crackling power pop tune as taken from the band’s third album, 2006’s Cannibal Sea. The group is connected to a web of many indie bands, most notably Guppyboy, once based in Burlington, Vermont. Upon the dissolution of that band, members Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter moved to New York to start anew and with a fresh moniker to define them; The Essex Green.

Their sound is clearly based in sixties and seventies jangle pop, power pop, and folk pop. That’s a lot of pop! On this third album and on this song, those influences are apparent, although much more integrated than they are on earlier releases. A big part of this is down to producer Britt Meyers and his more elaborate studio set up and mixing skills. Another part of course is a step up in the songwriting and performance department, as good as the previous album, The Long Goodbye, was. Perhaps this was because the band had recently come off of a big tour by then. It could also be that each member was concurrently involved in making music with other bands (Ladybug Transistor, The Sixth Great Lake) allowing new ideas to flow from one project to another.

Overall, The Essex Green provided an example of what it is to be indie in a post-major label era. In this new paradigm musicians have to be constantly on the move to cover their bases in various side projects, holding down day jobs while honing their craft, and knowing where to find their audience in the absence of big label budgets and in the light of fragmented media. Read more

The Jeff Healey Band Play “See The Light”

See_the_LightListen to this track by fiery Torontonian guitarist, singer, and all around blues-rock titan Jeff Healey along with his two compatriots Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums; The Jeff Healey Band. It’s “See The Light”, the title cut and closing track on their 1988 debut record See The Light.

The notable point that critics and fans made about Healey on his debut beyond his blindness was his re-definition on how to play guitar. Playing the instrument more like a piano, he held the chords in an inverted manner, playing the instrument in his lap. That he was able to do this and still completely wail while doing so was akin to trying to figure out how bumblebees fly; that he shouldn’t be able to do it the way he did, but he somehow managed it anyway. This caused something of a sensation, and by the next year Healey and his bandmates would appear as a version of themselves in the 1989 movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, in which Healey’s every line seemed to start with the expositionary phrase “well, word on the street is …”. Otherwise, who but Healey could have played a blind white blues guitarist with such credibility?

Healey would of course carry that credibility over into his music career, during a period when the blues in the mainstream was just coming into its own after a period in the wilderness. This was not simply down to gimmickry, but rather down to something more vital; a consuming interest from the artist as to where the music he played originally came from. Read more

The Temptations Sing “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”

1971-tepts-skyListen to this track by five man Motown pop soul institution The Temptations. It’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, a smash hit single as taken from the group’s 1971 record The Sky’s The Limit. The song was a return to form for the group, hearkening back to their earlier Motown singles in the 1960s after a period of putting out records that featured a grittier and more updated sound. At the same time, this single was the end of an era, too.

A big part of this was the departure of lead singer Eddie Kendricks soon after this song was released, leaving the group to strike out on his own in the much the same way that his former colleague David Ruffin had done. This song was Kendricks’ swan song with the group, and he made it a doozy; a virtual solo performance with his fellow Temptations providing an empathetic Greek chorus behind a tragic narrative. Even his nemesis in the group at the time Otis Williams had to admit that Kendricks knocked it out of the park on this cut, one that would become one of their best-loved songs.

This tune would become a signature song for the Temps, and inspired a number of cover versions including one by the Rolling Stones that had that them covering a Motown hit well after their habit of doing so on one of their albums was long behind them. This song is notable for another reason, too; it’s emotional complexity as balanced with how relatable it is. Read more