Listen to this track by stylistically slippery Los Feliz-based musical vehicle for songwriter Mark Oliver Everett, Eels. It’s “Saturday Morning”, the lead single as taken from 2003’s Shootenanny, the fifth release under the Eels moniker. The album followed relatively quickly on the heels of 2001’s Souljacker, and shares some of its harder, fuzzier edges.
By this time, Everett was in a particularly busy period with multiple projects on the go all at once. He was planning a magnum opus of a record that would eventually be released in 2005 as the thirty-three track album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. That project would feature some of the most intricate and delicate arrangements of his career. At the same time, he recorded this album which was done in a contrastingly short period of time in a matter of a couple of weeks, live off of the floor. Somewhere in there, he also wrote the score for the film Levity. Whew!
Knowing what was on his plate at the time, it would be easy to chalk this particular song up to Everett’s own driven work ethic. Yet, this song alluded a time in the past before his career as a professional songwriter and musician even began, and to a state of mind to which many of us can relate. Read more
Listen to this track by serial hit single pure pop vocalist and future Solid Gold/Psychic Friends Network TV personality Dionne Warwick. It’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, her ginormous 1968 hit song as written by herculean songwriting team Burt Bacharach and Hal David with whom Warwick famously collaborated during the 1960s and into the early seventies. The song appears on her LP Dionne Warwick in the Valley of the Dolls.
Lyricist David penned the words to this song after Bacharach wrote the melody. He decided to write about the town of San Jose, California where he’d once been stationed in the navy, having good memories of his time there. Warwick was initially unconvinced of the song’s hit potential. After all, she was following up “I Say A Little Prayer”, yet another huge smash hit, so the pressure was on. Bacharach and David convinced her to record it anyway, and it scored her a third consecutive number one song on the Billboard charts.
Even after decades of performing it, and despite the success it represented for her, Warwick never really warmed to it. She considered it to be fluff. Yet, this song isn’t all that it seems. It’s one of those songs that sounds happy, but isn’t, full of all kinds of pain and heartache under its supremely breezy exterior. Read more
Listen to this track by rotating cast of musical characters in orbit around one-time Rotten singer John Lydon; Public Image, Ltd. It’s “Rise”, a single and top twenty record as taken from the imaginatively titled 1986 LP, Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on format…). The album was the fifth released under the name Public Image, Ltd. since forming in 1978. By this period, it was more like a John Lydon solo record with some very notable, and very unexpected players featured on it.
The musicians on this song alone are a fair distance away from the musical world with which Lydon was generally associated. Stylistically, they’re even pretty far from each other in terms of genre, coming in from parallel stylistic universes to make a (perhaps) surprisingly complementary set of noises together while still retaining their own signature styles. This internal cohesion is largely down to the involvement of producer, bassist, musical director, and co-writer of this song Bill Laswell, well known for his knack for finding common threads between genres and musician’s styles to create something seamless out of them.
What does singer John Lydon himself bring to this song in the middle of all of that, a charting hit that reached #11 on the UK pop charts? Well, perhaps unexpectedly from the guy who wailed “no future for you!” at one point in his career, I think this song is about hope for the future itself. But, it’s hope with a cost. Read more
Listen to this track by languid Santa Monica lo-fi outfit Mazzy Star. It’s “Fade Into You”, their hit single that features on their 1994 breakthrough album So Tonight That I Might See . This song remains to be their signature tune, noted for the sleepy, soporific vocal performance by singer Hope Sandoval.
After a decade in the eighties of big glossy production-driven records, a song like this that seems to evoke the spirit of desolate early seventies folk-rock seems like an unlikely formula for success. This approach fit pretty well to the new decade, with a lot of bands then freed up to reference older musical streams after the eighties’ emphasis on hyper-newness and burying the past was over. Even if that’s true, Mazzy Star came by those influences pretty honestly before it was fashionable anyway.
Joining Sandoval in the band was guitarist David Roback, late of Paisley Underground band The Rain Parade and follow-up band Opal, the latter of which Sandoval was also a part. That scene largely ignored (and was ignored by) the mainstream in the eighties, with references to the warm tones of sixties and early seventies psych and folk arenas more so than to the jittery new wave, sparkly dance pop, or bombastic arena rock of the time. So what helped to make this song a sleeper (and sleepy!) hit by the following decade? Just this, I think; everyone loves a mystery.
Listen to this track by Deptford punk rock inheritors and comic geeks Art Brut. It’s “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes” an anthemic cut off of their self-referential 2009 LP Art Brut vs Satan, their third.
By the time the band came to record this album, they had hit their stride and were free enough financially in their personal lives to all take the time to record while in the same studio together. On previous records, they’d had to stagger the sessions to make room for their straight jobs, with each member coming to lay down parts at different times. With Art Brut vs Satan, they could play like the punk band they were; in a room at the same time bashing out the tunes. It helped that Frank Black, himself no stranger to recording his own bands live off of the floor, was steering the ship as producer.
And what of this song, a tale of a twenty-eight-year-old boy who still reads comics and drinks milkshakes? Well, the arrested development angle plays somewhat into what it means to be in a rock n’ roll group where staying forever young, or at least with a teenage mindset, is actively encouraged. Even if there is a more than a whiff of self-deprecation to be found here, I think this song has a few things to say about age and our perceptions of maturity that actually shows wisdom beyond its years. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Hushdrops-honcho turned solo artist John San Juan. It’s”Someone’s Birthday”, a cut as taken from his new solo record, Smashed. The new record will be released on June 1, 2017.
That’s an historic date when it comes to album releases, of course; especially this year. Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was released fifty years from that date. Among the celebratory effusions that will no doubt follow the golden anniversary of that venerable musical offering, this release from San Juan is a token of allegiance to the spirit of that work. You’ll certainly find the same optimistic sheen on this new record, even if there are shadows to be found in the corners, too.
As much as there are hints to a summer of love now long past on songs featured on Smashed, the record represents a step forward into a new phase for its creator. Being a Hushdrops fan, it was a treat to chat with John and talk about this track, “Someone’s Birthday”, about the making of the record off of which it comes, and about what comes next for him. Here’s what he had to say. Read more
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
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.