Listen to this track by scene-solidifying Bristolian trip-hop trio Portishead. It’s “Glory Box”, the closing track to their Mercury Prize-winning 1994 album Dummy. That release set the music press alight with praise even before the band cinched the prize, of course. Part of what it achieved was to shed light on the scene in Bristol which had been brewing for some time by 1994, and before the term “trip-hop” was widely used.
That “Bristol sound” as it was known focused on an amalgam of musical ingredients that certainly included hip hop, but also sixties soundtrack music, dub, soul, jazz, and the blues, among others. The magic to be found in Portishead’s music, with “Glory Box” being a fine example, was that it was very difficult to tell which texture was laid down by the band live in the studio, and which textures they’d sampled from vintage vinyl. There are no seams here on that front, just pure atmosphere.
In this, Portishead were the spearhead for a trend that would become de rigueur for many acts for the rest of the decade and beyond, which was to tie disparate musical landscapes together with a flair for the cinematic. And it proved too that sampled music could do what many traditional genres of music could do, which was to evoke a unified sense of narrative that connects with the human experience in some way. Read more
Listen to this track by pure pop singer from Victoria BC with diverse musical interests Nelly Furtado. It’s “Powerless”, a hit single as taken from her 2003 record Folklore. This was the follow up to her 2000 debut Whoa! Nelly , and Furtado had quite a job to do to follow up her ubiquitous “I’m Like A Bird” single, which was an international hit. Like that song, “Powerless (Say What You Want)” was a personal statement to frame the identity of the artist, this time in an even more overt way.
This song was one of three hit singles on Folklore that offers a pan-cultural smorgasbord of sound, matching breakbeats with a sterling contribution by famed banjoist Béla Fleck. This emphasis on diversity and tonal variation on multiple levels was a mandate from the artist who viewed a lot of the pop music on her level at the time as becoming too synthesized and culturally homogeneous.
This isn’t just about the music and how it was made, though. It’s about the subject of identity and about how the mainstream (mis)treats the concept of cultural diversity. Read more
Listen to this track by traditional song enthusiast, singer, and guitarist Nic Jones. It’s “Canadee – I – O”, the lead track as taken from his acclaimed 1980 album Penguin Eggs, a work that is commonly cited as a touchstone that would inspire a whole new generation of traditional folk singers, particularly in Britain. This is to be expected considering how emotionally connected the performances are to the traditional material found on it, rendered not as a scholarly exercise but rather as a labour of love. This is not even mentioning the sound of Jones’ guitar work, which is delicately virtuosic and vital, but also warmly rendered as a recorded element to match his authoritative vocals.
With all of that behind it, this song in particular is lent quite a backdrop for the tale of a maiden at sea with her wayward sailor lover, kept in the hold of a ship so that she can sail away with him. As it may be assumed of an English folk song that takes place at sea, all does not go according to plan, at least not in the way the poor maiden initially hoped.
As it happened, this very same sense of things not going according to plan would run in parallel to the career path of Nic Jones only a few years after this song was recorded. Read more
Nineteen sixty-four was a busy, busy year for The Beatles. They expanded their songwriting capacity and output, made a movie, cut a record, went on tour that took them all over the world, and cut yet another record; this one, Beatles For Sale. Historically speaking, this album never got the love it deserved, wedged between two movie-oriented titles that generally get more props. Also, the record features a lot of covers of old rock ‘n’ roll numbers after having established themselves as independent and very skilled songwriters in their own right.
Is this record a step backward in that respect? Is it a stop-gap album to capture the potential market for being on the Christmas lists of teenagers during that busy year with its title “Beatles For Sale” containing no irony? Or does this album contain more obvious traces of the band they would become even more so than ever before, which was one that was truly revolutionary? Is this a goodbye to their early career, or a hello to the next phase? Is it both somehow?
My friend Graeme and I address these very questions in this fourth episode of our podcast A Year With The Beatles. We are joined by Joanna Ashwanden who is a writer, blogger, and former high-school English teacher. More specifically, she was our high school English (and drama) teacher, now living in England. So, that’s why we are particularly well-behaved on this episode! For our extra credit homework, we discuss the Beatles fan club Christmas messages recordings the band did between 1963 and 1969 (so that you don’t have to!), and ponder how those recordings can be understood in parallel to their career as a whole.
Listen to the episode right here.
Listen to this track by Pacific Northwest rainy day indie-rock heroes Death Cab For Cutie. It’s “Title And Registration”, a single as taken from their 2003 landmark record Transatlanticism, their fourth LP released toward the latter half of that year. This tune was released in early 2004, initially as an Internet-only offering, and represented their third and final single from the record.
At the time, this record was almost universally praised. Perhaps one reason this song and the record off of which it comes had such impact is because for all of its freshness at the time, it deals with a very pressing issue that has been a part of pop music for over a century and longer; the bad, old-fashioned break up. Head writer Ben Gibbard demonstrates his a knack for positioning this well-trodden thematic path in an interesting and unassuming way that makes it a song that’s more relatable than most in the “breaking up is hard to do” stakes.
And how does he do that? He starts this song with an everyday task. Looking to find the titular documents, the song’s narrator takes a trip to the car and to the humble glove box, which turns out to hold a whole Pandora’s worth of trouble for him.
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