Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime. As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.
This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.
This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact. Read more
Listen to this song by cut-and-paste irony merchant and heartfelt singer-songwriter all in one, Beck. It’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, a single as taken from his 2002 album Sea Change, his seventh. The album’s title can be taken in a few ways, with one being the impression that Beck had embraced a new level of candour in terms of subject matter and perspective. This may be due to the fact that the album was released during a period of upheaval for its creator.
This song is one of many that documents the break-up of a relationship, with a requirement for the narrator in each song to confront the associated emotional turbulence before moving beyond it and starting a new chapter for himself. Sea change indeed, then. Evidently, Beck was apprehensive about revealing the depths of his feelings around these kinds of themes, given that he’d personally broken up with his partner of nine years around the time this album was released. He wanted to avoid self-indulgence, and capturing his own misery in amber. Eventually though, it occurred to him that songs about break-ups are legion because the pain associated with the end of a relationship is universal to the human experience. Why not write about it?
As a result, this song goes beyond any one personal story and opens things up in the material for an audience. This resulted in some pretty solid reviews. And there are still some eyebrow-arching lines in there that are true to their writer’s M.O to boot.
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 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 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 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 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.
Listen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.
Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.
When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based indie rock auteurs Rilo Kiley. It’s “Does He Love You?”, a cut as taken from their 2004 breakthrough album More Adventurous, their third. The record’s title reflected their approach, which was one that certainly paid off in terms of critical dividends and by the presence of many of its songs on soundtracks at the time.
The band featured singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lewis and guitarist and singer Blake Sennett, who also served as a writing duo from their formation of the group by the end of the 1990s. Both musicians came from acting backgrounds, with credits in film and television. Maybe that’s why they were able to craft such a sense of character and cinematic spirit into their songs. This one is surely one of their best on that front, and on many other fronts to boot.
This is a tale that starts off as a simple conversation between two friends who live long-distance, both ruminating on the state of their love lives. That is, until a shocking revelation is dropped into their laps, and into those of us who are the listeners, too. Read more
Listen to this track by first-tier neo-soul proponent Erykah Badu. It’s “Bag Lady”, a single as taken from her second album Mama’s Gun from 2000. The album scored critical praise across the map, continuing Badu’s synthesis of R&B with jazz overtones and all with a foot in hip hop sensibilities with the most minimal of brushstrokes. The most important fixture in place of course is her voice that evoked comparisons to Billie Holiday when her debut came out, which Badu somehow survived and went beyond.
A part of the effort to gain creative traction for this record was her close ties to her contemporaries, including D’Angelo and Questlove, both of whom joined her as members of the Soulquarians musical collective centering their activities around recordings made at Electric Lady studios in New York at the end of the nineties and into 2000. It was during this period that they were all intent on creating a contemporary sound fashioned from this same soul, jazz, and hip hop combination that would be featured on several releases by its members around this time. This song, which garnered two Grammy nominations in 2000, is a product of that creative outpouring and the last single to reach number one on the original Motown label before that label was sold to Universal music.
The song is multifaceted even if it seems to be pretty straightforward on every level at the same time. It certainly has something to say about relationships and the investments that women in particular put into them. But there is another aspect to this tune that goes even further beyond that still. Read more