Listen to this track by politically minded singer-songwriter with an eye for the ironic Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call Me Rose”, the second song as taken from his 2011 album Small Source Of Comfort. Being known mainly for a song about reflecting on what would happen to sons of bitches should Cockburn ever procure a rocket launcher, he’s not generally known for writing songs with a sense of levity. Yet, even that is a misconception. This is the guy who covered Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” remember, arguably in reaction to his (unearned) reputation for being a bit too earnest. An opening line like “My name was Richard Nixon, only now I’m a girl” might be a bit jarring for many in any case.
On this song, Cockburn really hasn’t strayed from his main songwriting patch which has been about commenting on socio-economic inequity in the world. On this song though, there is a unique shift in perspective that has Cockburn voicing a character, rather than a usual narrative in his own voice. Instead of tales of Nicaraguan villagers making the best of things during a period of political upheaval, or ones about fleeing Guatemalan refugees at the mercy of machine gunners in helicopters (the sons of bitches referred to earlier), we meet a mother called Rose with two little kids living in the projects. The twist is that in a previous life, she had been the aforementioned former President of the United States. How’s that for socio-economic inequity?
But what is Cockburn trying to say here, other than “karma’s a bitch”? Well, I think it has to do with how we as a culture view the idea of power and how it relates to empathy. Read more
Listen to this track by top-charting London folk-pop purveyors The Dream Academy. It’s “Life In A Northern Town”, a top ten hit in the US and top twenty in the UK that scored placement on the international pop charts. It’s taken from their 1985 album The Dream Academy, co-produced by singer and guitarist Nick Laird-Clowes and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
The band released three albums. But this song is the one by which they are most widely known, with a gauzy and nostalgic atmosphere that is supported by an undeniable wordless vocal hook that makes it instantly recognizable. They were noted at the time through that song of bucking the pop music system somewhat in terms of arrangements, eschewing the standard synth and drum machine approach popular during the time, and relying on acoustic guitars, tympanies, and Cor Anglais instead. That’s a far cry from the DX7.
Another notable thing about this song was how contrary it seemed to the times in terms of its themes, providing a narrative that stretched wistfully into an idealized past during a period when the world was embroiled in some very present problems. Read more
Listen to this track by London R&B quintet you wouldn’t let your daughter go out with, The Rolling Stones. It’s “Paint It Black”, a number one record released as a stand-alone single in the UK in May of 1966 as the harbinger to their landmark LP Aftermath. In North America, it was added to a modified version of the record as the opening track.
This song by the Stones remains to be one of the most sonically varied and innovative tracks in their now very extensive catalogue. Sure, there’s that undeniable sitar part. But there’s so much more happening around it so as to make that part just one of many important aspects of this song, which seemed to foresee post-punk even before the word “punk” was applied as a musical term.
Of course, this song also caught the band at a crucial point in their career, reaching new compositional heights. It also was a time when the dynamics within the band were shifting greatly, and not completely comfortably, either. Read more
Listen to this track by soft-spoken singer-songwriter from Louisiana and then Memphis, Tennessee who made Montréal his home for many years, Jesse Winchester. It’s “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding”, a track taken off of his latter day album Love Filling Station in 2009.
The reasons for his stay in Canada from 1967 onward were less than ideal. The Vietnam war was ramping up, and Winchester was a pacifist. This meant taking refuge in Canada to avoid the draft like so many of his generation. But what it also meant was meeting with The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who would produce his self-titled first album in 1970, complete with the sepia-toned cover shot that made Winchester look like an outlaw on the lam, which in some respects I guess he actually was before President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1977, along with all other American conscientious objectors, after which he could finally tour the States. He stayed in Canada anyway until 2002.
Since that period, he recorded his own albums and penned songs for other artists as well. By 2009, he was not exactly a household name, and his output had slowed considerably. But this tune demonstrates the depths of his talent that remained undiminished, and reveals something about the passage of time and the ways we perceive things as we get older. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindonian pop perfectionists and Little England observers XTC. It’s “No Thugs In Our House”, a single as taken from their 1982 double album English Settlement. On that record, writers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding explore the English identity as could, and perhaps still can, be found in small towns all over the country.
“No Thugs In Our House” appeared in an historic context, with racially motivated violence and the rise of British national parties characterizing the social landscape in Britain in the early 1980s. The National Front in particular was a high profile group that ignited racially motivated incidents and hate speech at the time that began to seep into the public consciousness, poisoning the political viewpoints of many including the young. They framed incoming immigrants as scapegoats. These “foreigners” were supposedly taking all the good jobs, somehow soaking up a disproportionate percentage of social benefits at the same time, and generally encroaching upon traditional (read: white) British culture. In 2016, this brand of propaganda as it covers up austerity measures of sitting governments, and as it provides traction for fringe single-issue groups still sounds pretty familiar.
But, having said all that, I don’t think that white supremacist groups are the target in this song at all. In many ways, the criticism here in this song has more sinister and wider-reaching implications. Read more
Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.
This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.
Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express. Read more
The Beatles had a lot on their plate when the time came to write their third album, A Hard Day’s Night. It would be the first and last album in their catalogue that would feature an all Lennon-McCartney line-up of original compositions. Plus, they had a movie to star in, featuring said songs on the record. And they went on tour to promote both the film and the new record. It would be the year of very tight schedules.
This album would be one of two released that year, with accompanying tours and other personal appearances that would make having days off a rarity. Here we find the Beatles at the height of the earliest phase in their career that would introduce them to the world as four smiling boys in suits playing jangly music, and expanding Beatlemania all over the world while they were at it. But, what lay under the surface of their waggling heads, cheeky smiles, and clever quips? As it turns out, quite a lot when one listens closely to the songs.
Discussing these very issues with my old friend Graeme Burk and me is Shannon Dohar, who’s favourite film as a child was, you guessed it, A Hard Day’s Night. Speaking of that film, we talk about what it meant for the band, and what it means as a film on its own. We also talk about ways that the movie, as great as it is, penned them in as narrowly defined versions of themselves for years after its release, with breaking out of that mould becoming a desparate neccessity by the end of the decade.
Take a listen to the episode right here.
Listen to this track by Chicago-born singer, dancer, author, actor, poet, activist, educator, and hip hop seed planter Camille Yarborough. It’s “But It Comes Out Mad”, the opening track to her 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker. On this release, she mixes spoken word narratives mixed in with funk-soul grooves and impassioned singing, often cited as an influence to hip hop and to future R&B releases, mainly because it frames important aspects of the black experience in such an unflinching way.
Yarborough’s voice in the mainstream is possibly most recognized by the jubilant “Take Yo’ Praise”, famously sampled by Norman Cook under his Fatboy Slim moniker, and his monster dance hit “Praise You” from 1998, one of the most empowering dance tracks of that decade, with Yarborough’s voice being central. That original song of Yarborough’s is also full of victory and joy, a love song to one person, maybe, but also to be applied to an entire culture who had seen terrible adversity and had survived it; slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights.
To contrast that, “But It Comes Out Mad” is something of a balance to “Take Yo’ Praise” in that respect, starting off the album and setting a stark tone that goes more in depth about that same struggle on a more granular level. Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouver folk-pop institution Spirit Of The West. It’s “Home For A Rest”, their signature song and musical highlight as taken from their 1990 album Save This House. This record was their breakthrough, having been together since 1984, and finally signed to a major label in Warner Music Canada by 1989. It was practically a government issue release across our country, gracing the record collections of many in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Unlike many new bands signed onto a major, the band didn’t make too many changes to their initial sound; the skin of traditional Celtic folk music as fused upon the bones and muscle of pop/rock musical structure. In the early nineties and in scenes all across Canada, a lot of bands were attempting to strike this very same balance. But few of them had the same impact as this band, full as they are of punk energy and musicianly chops that place them into Pogues territory. There wasn’t any need for them to do anything other than what they had been doing all along, which was to write songs full of thematic gravity and wit, touching on issues of social justice, sure, but not forgetting to infuse their work with humour as well.
This song is a travelogue and drinking song all rolled into one, certainly a reflection of where the band were at during that time, touring with British pop band The Wonder Stuff. This took them to London, to the pubs, and presumably to the bottom of a lot of glasses. In an important and very Canadian way though, this song is less about over indulgence and more about a sense of identity, which if you know anything about our country, makes a whole lot of sense. Read more
It’s summertime, summertime, and if you will, sum-sum-summertime. Perhaps weatherwise it’s been that for a while for you as it has been here on the (normally) Wet Coast of British Columbia. Around here it’s actually not been very wet at all due to a particularly dry spring. That’s meant that wildfire season has started early. I’m hoping this will not be the new normal that I suspect it is (thanks, climate change). That aside, and during a year that is turning out to be personally challenging on many levels, a reliable balm to life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is always going to be new music. If you’re here with me on this page today, I can only assume that I am not alone in that conviction.
To effect a change for the better as 2016 rolls on, here is a new list of summer tune-age for your consideration. As always, consider it to be my personal mix-tape to you, which should always be considered as an act of love when rendered by a music fan. Some of these tunes are fit for top-down rolling down the road in the sunshine. Some will offer an interesting contrast to that. Either way, open your ears to the new sounds of summer below with this year’s edition of June Tunes Digest. Please proceed! Read more