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.
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.
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
Listen to this track by Stockholm-based indie trio with a self-explanatory and comma-free name, Peter (Morén) Bjorn (Yttling) and John (Eriksson). It’s “Young Folks”, a single as taken from their 2006 record Writer’s Block, a record that served as something of a breakthrough for the band after forming in 1999.
The album title is not in reference to the lack of ideas that often plagues writers.
Rather, it’s a nod to the neighbourhood, Hornstull, in which the band was based at the time, known for a high concentration of writers and artists and for being a hip part of Stockholm. As a result, the sound they reached for on this song and on the whole record was a cooler and slightly detached approach to production and arrangement that brought forward a few more sonic idiosyncrasies than most, like whistling the key hook on this song. That’s a sound a listener might make reproducing it on their way to work. That approach helped to distinguish them, with this song being a standout in various forms on radio, streaming sites, TV shows, movie soundtracks, and beyond.
The song features the guest vocals of Victoria Bergsman of fellow Stockholmers The Concretes playing the role of the would-be lover to which the forthright narrator asks a very direct question. Read more
Listen to this song by precocious Kiwi singer-songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by pop radio fans as Lorde. It’s “Royals”, her smash single as taken from 2013’s Pure Heroine, her debut full-length record. “Royals” released in the summer of 2013 as the forerunner to the album.
When “Royals” hit the airwaves, it defied the very rigid format of commercial radio on a number of fronts; it was not traditionally arranged to the exact specifications of a hit song in 2013, and it enjoyed radio play on pure pop stations as well as alternative stations. It remains to be a singular musical statement that stands out among the great sea of commercial pop music that continues to play things safe when it comes to the way the music is made, how it’s presented, and even its subject matter.
To that last point, this song reveals itself to be something of a generational anthem that calls the assumptions of pop culture into question directly. But it isn’t as simple as being a song about rejecting the lust for fame and riches. This song is more complex than that and not without its cultural trip hazards, either. Read more
Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Van Dyke Parks, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, and Jayhawks songwriter Gary Louris along with another member of that band, Mark Olson, who Williams would later marry. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more
Listen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.
By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.
Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more
Listen to this track by jam-oriented power trio supergroup Oysterhead. It’s “Oz Is Ever Floating”, a cut off of their sole (to date!) album The Grand Pecking Order from 2001. The song was a highlight on their associated tour around that time, having played it on their Late Night with Conan O’Brien appearance, among other musical locales.
The band was comprised of some very heavy hitters, instrumentally speaking. On guitar and other (sometimes very bizarre) stringed instruments was Phish head boy Trey Anastasio. On bass was Primus main mover Les Claypool. On drums was Stewart Copeland, sticksman for The Police and well-known film and soundtrack composer by the beginning of the century. His film and TV work was his day job, involving very meticulous processes and meetings with directors in order to satisfy its demands. Not very rock ‘n’ roll.
It would take a brash proposal to get Copeland out of film-and-TV-score land, and to get him behind the kit again, a role he’d virtually ignored for almost a decade.