Listen to this track by post-rocking, cinematically inclined Oxfordian quintet Radiohead. It’s “Daydreaming”, a single as taken from the band’s ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, released digitally a little over one month ago. The new record will be available in CD and in vinyl form by June 17, which is coming up fast. A special edition with two more tracks is to follow in September.
The accompanying video, starring singer Thom Yorke walking through corridors and opening doors that lead into disconnected locations was directed by none other than P.T Anderson, known for films like Magnolia and Boogie Nights. The director had previously worked with Radiohead orchestral linchpin and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, whose soundtrack work is featured in several of Anderson’s films.
In a similar fashion, the video for this song was approached as a bona fide film project, submitted to selected theatres directly as 35mm prints. I think this song as it is portrayed in the film is very much in line with what Radiohead have explored previously, namely the nature of existence and where we seem to be going as a civilization. Read more
Listen to this track by former Royal Academy of Music student and jazz/pop/Latin mixologist Joe Jackson. It’s “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”, a smash hit single as taken from the 1984 album Body and Soul.
That album was the follow up to 1982’s Night & Day, a record on which Joe Jackson scored a number of hits along with critical acclaim as he was getting himself off of the new wave merry-go-round. But if that previous record was a cellar club date played by a small group of pop-oriented jazzheads with Latin percussion leanings, then Body and Soul is the Broadway show of the same kind of sound.
The crucial thing that made this song notable is just how up and positive it is, even if Jackson was known up until this point for his sardonic tone. That theme of empowerment runs right through the record, almost like it’s a soundtrack to a musical that was never produced. As the years have gone by and with all of that sparkly optimism found in this tune even now, I’ve wondered about who this song was really directed towards; us the audience, or Jackson himself? Read more
Listen to this song by widely acknowledged gospel-blues pioneer and Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll herself Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s “Didn’t It Rain”, a gospel standard in this case delivered live in Manchester, England in 1964. This peformance is featured on the DVD The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours.
This 1964 version of the tour featured some of the pioneers of urban and rural blues at the time, including Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and others. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s segment was filmed by Granada Television at disused Wilbraham Road station, fixed up to look like an American sharecropper’s porch in the American South. Two-hundred onlookers in the audience sat opposite the station platform that served as a stage. In typical British tradition, it rained during the performance. But, after it rained, Sister Rosetta performed this tune, a tale of Noah and his ark, of redemption, and condemnation.
Among other things, this performance reminded audiences of what they’d come to know as rhythm & blues and even rock ‘n’ roll in their purest forms. But even then, not many people at the time were fully aware of her role in creating a sound that served as a pillar for those musical movements, set in place when Elvis was still potty training. Read more
Listen to this track by golden anniversary-celebrating TV and pop music institution The Monkees. It’s “Me and Magdalena”, a cut from their latest album Good Times!. The record was released this past May, and features the work of several top shelf songwriters, some of whom helped the band to create their earliest hits (Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Harry Nilsson), and some who grew up with The Monkees and became songwriters themselves (Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller). Adam Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne produced the album and wrote or co-wrote a couple of tracks of his own. That’s quite a line-up!
This particular tune was written by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, known for the unique brand of sombre and melancholic Americana on his own records. Where does that fit in with the happy-go-lucky Monkees? Well, that would be the contributions of Michael Nesmith, who helped to fashion that same moody and rootsy sound from his work with the band to his solo career in the 1970s with the First National Band. Micky Dolenz and Nesmith harmonize on this track in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever heard them do. It is a wonderful surprise just how well they sing together.
That’s the thing with The Monkees. Fifty years later, the band that many people thought weren’t even real had dimension and range to spare all along. That’s why this song works so well, and why it reminds us what this band has always been about since our childhoods. And therein lies the secret ingredient to this song, and to others on the album, too. Read more
In the second episode of A Year With The Beatles podcast that I am co-chairing with my good friend Graeme Burk (author, podcaster, bon vivant), we talk about the business of following up a smash debut. Even The Beatles had to do that at one time, right? And how difficult was it for them? Is there a progression to be found here? How is this manifest? Have the Beatles grown as recording artists? What are the tracks that blow us away? What about the cover versions? Do they work just as well on this release as they did on Please Please Me?
Joining Graeme and me is master music mix maker Andrew Flint, a guy who’s followed the band almost from the very beginning. We also examine an historic event in the life of the band, the history of television, and the signs of a growing culture unified by a single event: The February 9, 1964 appearance the band made on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Listen to the episode right here.
Listen to this track by Iron & Wine lead Sam Beam and experimental pop singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop. It’s “Valley Clouds”, a track as taken off of their joint album Love Letter For Fire. That album was released just this past April, making many a music fan’s eyes widen by the possibilities initially, and by now how well Beam and Hoop’s voices intertwine to create something new out of a well-traveled approach to the making of pop music of a certain vintage and spirit.
The intent of the album was to take an established form, the duet, and to import a modern take on it as well as create a songwriting partnership out of that process. This album was the result, with this song being a lead single to establish its tone, which is a sort of quietly intense atmosphere of a campfire singalong.
As one might expect, this record of duets centers around the subject of love. But, what it also explores something that this established form has always intended, and that is how writing songs for two voices expands thematic possibilities, creates tension, and adds a sophisticated emotional dynamic that can only exist when two points of view are expressed in the same song.
Listen to this track by Scottish folk-rock proponent and former Stealers Wheel frontman Gerry Rafferty. It’s “Baker Street”, a huge international hit and probably his most recognized song as taken from his second solo album, 1978’s City To City.
The song and the album off of which it came was something of a comeback for Rafferty, who had been hampered from releasing any new work until the legal barbed wire he was wrapped up in with the dissolution of Stealers Wheel was concluded. In order to see to resolving this, he found himself making frequent trips by train between his home in Glasgow and his lawyer’s offices in London; city to city indeed, then. While in London, he stayed at a friend’s flat on the titular Baker Street. As such, this song captures the atmosphere and sets of feelings associated with a tempestuous period for Rafferty, ending well enough to allow him to record his next record, with this song being the biggest of three singles taken from it.
The song is probably best known for its distinct saxophone riff, one that launched a thousand sax parts well into the 1980s. But it’s the song underneath the riff that’s always stood out for me, and certainly a vivid portrait of an artist who walked a razor’s edge between pursuing a creative life, and having to face the pressures of the music industry. Read more
Listen to this track by Chicagoan progressive pop-rock sextet Wilco. It’s “Deeper Down”, a gem of a song as it appeared on their 2009 album Wilco (The Album), their sixth LP.
At this point in their arc, the band as led by frontman and head writer Jeff Tweedy had drifted away from the more abrasive and experimental textures they had established at the beginning of that decade. In their place, they added more vintage AM/FM radio textures and more accessible song structures. But at the same time, the proficiency in the playing and in the arrangements were on another level from their past output. Thematically speaking, there was certainly a lot going on that was not traditional for rock songwriting.
In “Deeper Down”, and using various strains of rock music, particularly progressive rock, Tweedy takes on a subject that writers of all stripes have taken on for thousands of years; the mystery of life itself. Of course in this song, he goes one better. He doesn’t try to solve it. Read more
Listen to this track by glam-pop new wave dandies and top ten selling merry-makers Adam & The Ants. It’s “Antmusic”, a smash hit single as taken from their second LP Kings Of The Wild Frontier.
This iteration of the band is actually the second of its life. The first version that was formed in 1977 had Adam Ant (nee Stuart Leslie Goddard) backed by a group who would later back away from him entirely at the behest of then-manager Malcolm McLaren. They would go on to form Bow Wow Wow without Adam, with many of the same musical textures guiding their approach. And what was that approach? Well, it was a classic move in post-punk strategy, which was to skip the blues and go right back to Africa. For Adam’s part, and Bow Wow Wow notwithstanding, it worked out very well for him indeed. He formed another version of Adam & The Ants around himself, including guitarist Marco Pirroni who would serve as his co-writer. They would craft a catalogue of hits that became staples on the pop charts in Britain in the early eighties.
This was one of them, and one that crossed the ocean as a herald of their arrival. “Antmusic” is an anthem to their sound, with a streak of rock star arrogance running through it that made it pretty compelling as pure pop music. Besides its echoey guitar, call-to-arms vocals, and insistant two-kit beat, another of the things that gave it such impact was an important understanding of a particular aspect when it came to pop music by the early eighties; tribalism. Read more
Listen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.
This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.
With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other. Read more