Listen to this track by red-tracksuited Norwegian dance-rock boundary crossers Datarock. It’s “Fa Fa Fa”, their multimedia cult hit song as featured on their 2005 debut full-length, Datarock Datarock. The record was released in two forms; one in Europe, and another that featured a different track listing in North America in 2007. Further, this song appeared all over the place in commercials, video games, and movie soundtracks, perfectly in line with a typical indie-rock post-radio strategy. It was a part of how barriers between media were becoming more permeable by this time.
This permeability took on other forms, too. By the early years of the 21st century, a lot of work had been done by pop bands to tear down the walls between genres and to undercut listener expectations to create something new. The effect was often a case of taking disparate textures and musical elements sourced from various styles and eras and smashing them together just to see what would happen.
Because there were alternate channels to market beyond commercial radio, and through niche scenes forming that would support all of this, some great music came out of it. This included this eminently danceable track that turns out to be more than the sum of its parts beyond what we hear on its surface.
Listen to this track by neo-psychedelic musical vector and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. It’s “I Want To Tell You About What I Want”, the crunchy, lysergically-oriented lead single off of his latest record, the imaginatively titled Robyn Hitchcock.
The record mines the songwriter’s continuing love for mid-sixties psych and absurdist imagery. He’s backed by a full-band that’s very plugged in, emphasizing the pop-jangle and fizz that characterizes a lot of Hitchcock’s mid-to-late-eighties and early nineties material. This is in part down to the sympathetic ear of producer Brendan Benson, a jangly pop musician in his own right. Helping to fill out the profile on other tracks is singer-songwriter Grant Lee Phillips, and pedal steel player Russ Pahl, who add some unexpectedly essential textures to bring everything into focus, and with extra 1966-67 psychedelic contours.
With all of that in place, the record sounds and feels like Hitchcock is perfectly at home, and yet still manages to avoid complacency. Maybe this is because there are many places on the record that sound very personal in a way that Hitchcock’s music has never really been before, taking those absurdities in which he usually deals into a very palpable social arena. Read more
Listen to this track by self-professed old-school singer-songwriter and AM radio fan from way back Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Radio”, the first single off of his 2017 record The Last Rider.
The album was the first record cut with his long-time touring band playing all the parts in an expectedly musically simpatico manner. This includes drummer and singer Don Kerr, with whom Sexsmith also produced the record on the shores of Lake Ontario at The Bathhouse in Kingston, Ontario. This is a bona-fide homegrown album in many respects, then.
Maybe that’s why the album sounds so warm and contented with Bill Withers meets Gordon Lightfoot meets The Kinks textures a-plenty. Sexsmith is known for those kinds of textures and moods through out his incredibly consistent discography. Yet on many of his releases this decade, some of his disdain for recent industry trends and his frustrations with the increasingly complicated game of putting out music in the way he wants to has definitely seeped into his optimism-under-pressure songwriting worldview.
Representing some of that soft-spoken ire is this song, “Radio”. On the surface, this song really does seem of the “things just ain’t what they used to be” variety that finds the narrator scratching his head as the clowns take over the circus and as the show becomes run of the mill. Yet here beneath what seems to be a complaint about the state of the world, there’s greater dimension to be found. Read more
I published a post about the last episode of our humble A Year With The Beatles podcast at the end of last month, for those of you keeping up. The show was a limited series of podcasts that explored one studio album by The Beatles each month as hosted by my oldest and best friend Graeme Burk and co-hosted by me, along with many other fine people as guests.
But what I didn’t tell you here on The Delete Bin was that during the course of our project, we recorded a number of supplementary episodes in the series beyond just those 12 albums.
For those of you who are completists, here is a list of those episodes for your amusement and edification that you may have missed, and with links to each!
Listen to this track by former Everything But The Girl vocalist, singer-songwriter, and columnist Tracey Thorn. It’s “Oh! The Divorces”, the lead track off of her 2010 solo record Love And Its Opposite. That record was the second release of the century from Thorn, preceded by 2007’s Out Of The Woods, and representative of a new phase in her career as a singer and songwriter.
By this time, she’d spent a decade raising her kids with her partner Ben Watt, also formerly of EBTG and an active solo artist in his own right. She’d given up touring as a live performer by 2000, a part of her career that she’d never really enjoyed fully, and embraced a new avenue of expression through her regular column Off The Record in The New Statesman and as a writer of books. Yet her pursuits as a singer remained. And what a singer! For an artist known for her appealingly unadorned voice, I think a mistake that’s easily made with Thorn is to link her songwriting to that same approach, to assume that she’s always telling her own literal story when she sings.
This dynamic plays into an area that has forever fascinated and befuddled many a music writer, critic, and casual listener; the difference between what a singer expresses in song, and what that same singer really thinks, feels, and directly experiences in their private lives. With this tune, there are a number of elements to throw us off of the trail between the meaning of the song, and its effects on us as listeners.
Listen to this track by Canadian institution and alt-country pioneers Blue Rodeo. It’s “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”, the closing section made up of two connected songs as taken from their 1993 record Five Days In July.
Blue Rodeo are celebrated on a grand scale here in Canada, having initially built their reputation on Toronto’s Queen Street scene from their first gig in 1985 at the famous Rivoli. They became a stalwart live act from there, reaching stratospheric heights by the end of the decade and into the nineties. By the time they recorded Five Days In July, they were widely regarded as one of the biggest acts in the country, having long since distinguished themselves via the work premier-level songwriters and band principals Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.
With that history in place, the band were still interested in progressing their sound beyond their influences as they’d always sought to do, those influences being that Cosmic American sound popularized by The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Harvest-era Neil Young. To do so, they did what another Band once had done; they retreated to the countryside for a while. Read more
Listen to this track by experimental pop collective and repositioners of classic R&B songs The Flying Lizards. It’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a cover of the much-beloved 1959 Barrett Strong original. As often as it was covered, by both The Beatles and by The Rolling Stones among many others, The Flying Lizards made this one their own. After its release as a single, it eventually appeared on their self-titled 1979 debut album and became an (perhaps unlikely) hit single; number 5 in the UK, and number 22 on the dance charts in the States.
In some ways, it sounds as though this take on the song is trying to throw its own fight in the appealing pop music stakes. And yet somehow, the opposite effect knocked listeners out during the height of new wave when weirdly cool records were able to thrive as record companies, perhaps, were still trying to figure out the paradigm shift. Even in 1979, this sounded pretty weird coming out of the radio; a true novelty hit.
But beyond the novelty aspect of things, I think there is something underneath this version of a classic and well-covered R&B song that does more than just amuse us by being such a curiosity as a hit single.
When George Harrison returned from visiting Bob Dylan and The Band, who were happily holed up in Upstate New York and busy inventing Americana by the end of 1968, he described the situation to which he was returning as “the winter of discontent that was The Beatles”. That’s pretty harsh. But things really were that bad, with relations between the principals having deteriorated over the course of the year. Nineteen-sixty-nine didn’t promise to be very much more bearable for The Beatles. And it wasn’t!
No one could say they weren’t busy, though. They’d made a film and had a lousy time of it. They’d recorded hours and hours of material for a new record but no one wanted to do the necessary with the tapes in order to turn it into an album. Internally, the whole Beatles thing was a giant pain in everyone’s ass by early 1969. This isn’t even counting the money-hemorrhaging business pursuits of their company Apple Corps, or the fact that discussions around future management of the band and its catalogue were becoming more and more heated and unproductive.
In the middle of all this, they really were trying to get back to where they once belonged. They wanted to kick all the psychic crap they’d accumulated just from being Beatles to the curb and make a stark, honest, and liberating rock n’ roll record without any studio trickery just like they’d done in their early career. The result is the only Beatles album I don’t love; Let It Be. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta Georgia R&B pop proponents TLC. It’s “Waterfalls”, a smash hit single and signature track featured on their second record Crazy Sexy Cool which went an incredible eleven-times platinum. The song made monumental waves on the charts, and was also notable for becoming the number one video on MTV, holding that position for a full month. TLC was the first African-American group to hold that position by 1995.
“Waterfalls” is notable for many other reasons besides this, of course. For one thing, it was the best song that Prince never wrote, complete with a full-on Sly & The Family Stone-style vibe matched with hip-hop aesthetics a-plenty. Group member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes can be thanked for writing it, with a co-write credit to Marqueze Etheridge of Organized Noize who also produced it. Another notable trait about this song is its subject matter, dealing in the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, very vividly represented in the aforementioned video.
Maybe a third aspect of this song in the light of that is that it should really sound more preachy and judgmental than it does. It certainly seems to have a political edge to it, being among the first to deal head on with the AIDS epidemic. Maybe too, it reflects something of its writer’s inner voice as well.
Listen 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