Listen to this track by one-time werewolf spotter and L.A based singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. It’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up”, a straight to the point track as taken from his 2000 album, the also straight-forwardly titled Life’ll Kill Ya. The song is one of many that takes on the themes of age, illness, and working things out in the midst of all of that.
Perhaps those themes had particular significance for Zevon, who would come face to face with some intimidating odds healthwise not too long after this record was released. Given its title, it’s almost like he expected it to be his last, even if 2003’s The Wind would cover that nicely, and manages to be pretty poignant rather than bitter. But, that was just the thing with Zevon, who can be counted in a school of L.A based songwriters springing from Randy Newman and later to E from Eels that deals in gallows humour, irony, self-deprecation, and a sort of rumpled vulnerability. Bitterness and anger were not to be separated from the poignancy or the chuckles to be had from this approach to songwriting.
Even if this song does get pretty in your face about the dark side of what it’s like to get older, when you really break it down, it’s this very connection between humour and fear that makes this song work so well. And I think it provides some pretty valuable perspective on something that popular music has always dealt with to varying degrees of success; mortality. Read more
One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works.
But, two days later, he died.
I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed were touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.
That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.
Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.
Listen to this track by Icelandic former Sugarcubes frontwoman turned electronica art pop maven Björk. It’s “Hidden Place”, the first single as taken from her highly acclaimed 2001 album Vespertine, released in the summer of that year. The album would go onto many a best-of-the-decade list, and stand as a significant change in artistic direction for its author.
The record was created while Björk was engaged in the creation of the soundtrack for the movie she starred in at the time, that being Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. The movie was screened at the Cannes film festival in 2000, where Björk won an award for Best Actress. Along with the critical accolades however,her experience on the shoot was purportedly tense. Von Trier’s tight control of the project rankled against her own creative impulses in the lead role. As a result, Vespertine could be looked upon as an equal and opposite reaction to the action of starring in her first (and possibly last) feature film with another artist in Von Trier at the helm.
This wasn’t just about control. It was also about tone. In the movie, Björk’s character Selma after whom the companion album Selmasongs is named is an extroverted and driven character who becomes the tragic victim of circumstance. If this song has a character at the center of it, then she could be considered Selma’s opposite; a langourously relaxed, insular, and contented person. This is due to another force in Björk’s life at the time; new love. Read more
Listen to this track by actual rock ‘n’ roll rebels from the sahara region of northern Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen. It’s “Matadjem Yinmixan”, a key track as taken from their 2007 album, directly translated as “water is life” from the Tuareg language tamasheq native to the band . This title is perhaps of no surprise given the band’s origins, and even their name, which in English means “deserts”.
I say that they are actual rebels because the Tuareg people were involved in a war of independence in the early sixties and again in Libya in the mid-eighties, spending the ensuing years in between as a scattered people living their nomadic lives in various countries that make up northern Africa, including Mali. This is also a region known for being host to a source of the blues. In a region of the world where the desert is encrouching into farmlands every year, it’s easy to believe that the blues in several respects is alive and well on the edge of the Sahara.
But, in this case, it would be a mistake to think that Tinariwen’s music flows from this one source alone. In fact, the music they make is much like many other things in the Tuareg culture; it wanders, and picks up useful elements on its travels. Read more
Listen to this track by musical pilgrim and singer-songwriter Jim White, along with his guest in fellow pop scribe Aimee Mann. It’s “Static On The Radio”, a cut as taken from White’s 2004 record, Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See.
Before he became a professional songwriter, Jim White was known by his birth name: Michael Davis Pratt. He had had a storied career in non-musical fields such as film school student, pro-surfer, preacher (he’d been in the Pentecostal church as a teen), and cabbie. He learned his instrument and his craft while laid up with a broken leg, watching game shows, and learning chord shapes. All the while, his gift for narrative was waiting to blossom, which eventually it certainly did in his songs, and in his prose fiction, too.
I think that mixture of writing disciplines on White’s part is what primarily feeds this song, which a series of vignettes that are decidedly nocturnal in nature and in execution. It’s almost a literal dark night of the soul kind of song. From where does it spring, and what does it say about White’s own experience, and maybe ours, too? Read more
Listen to this track by Australian thrift shop denizens and razor-sharp sampling jesters The Avalanches. It’s their 2000 hit “Frontier Psychiatrist”, as taken from their (to date) sole full length record Since I Left You. The song would place on UK and US charts by 2001, providing critical and commercial success.
It’s difficult to broadly apply the term “songwriting” to this track in the traditional sense, just because it is made up entirely of found recordings from across a variety of recorded music streams. This includes comedy recordings, with the central one being Canadian comedy team Wayne & Shuster’s titular sketch which is heavily quoted, along with sound effects records, instructional recordings, Mariachi music, film scores, movie dialogue (John Waters’ Polyester to be exact), and sixties Enoch Light Orchestra flourishes all mixed in to make a glorious whole. How this was not a complete mess is a tribute to how deftly arranged the samples actually are. Sampling nay-sayers take note: not everyone can do this well.
I think another aspect of this song that is worth noting is that it helpfully undercuts what electronica and dance music had come to mean by the beginning of the century. A big part of that has to do with its varied and often unexpected source material, of course. But, another aspect of what makes this tune stand out is simply this: it’s hilarious! Read more
Listen to this track by former Dambuilders/Black Beetle/Antony & The Johnsons violinist and solo singer-songwriter Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Police Woman. It’s “To Be Loved”, the first single from her 2008 album To Survive, her second release under the Joan As Policewoman name.
Launching her solo career with a self-referential moniker is very telling when ruminating on the subject of survival. The “police woman” reference is to Angie Dickinson, and the 1970s TV series Police Woman that was on when Wasser was a child. The show was about a tough and sexy police officer who happened to be a woman in a man’s traditional field. Parallels can be drawn to the music industry, even today.
This song reveals Wasser’s feel for classic soul and her langourous jazz influence that has provoked vocal comparisons to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. What it also reveals of course is the highly personal nature of her songwriting, particularly around the subjects of love and its relationship to loss. The challenge with personal songwriting in the end is to find universal threads that connect artist to audience. So, how does Wasser manage that balance between the personal and the universal here? Read more
Listen to this track by gothically-inclined and supremely literate songwriter Nick Cave and his stalwart backing band The Bad Seeds. It’s “Breathless”, a single as taken from one-half of the 2004 double LP, or really a two albums in one package, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
The two records were designed to be separate listening experiences, even if they were packaged as a unit. Abattoir Blues is the crunchy rock record, full of snarling fire and brimstone, and relying on Cave’s well-known and unique ability to deliver his story-songs with the intensity of a nineteenth century traveling preacher with the devil at his heels. The Lyre of Orpheus is the kinder, gentler statement of the two, characterized by a kind of ecstatic poetic vision rooted in the English Romantic tradition. This song, a single released as a double A-side with “There She Goes My Beautiful World” in November of 2004, is a sterling representation of that latter approach.
Yet, Cave’s common thread that blurs the lines between the erotic and the sacred is well in place on Lyre of Orpheus, just as it is on Abattoir Blues. This song covers these themes pretty soundly, too. Read more
Listen to this track by gothic Americana proponents The Handsome Family. It’s “So Much Wine”, a cut as taken off of their 2000 record, In The Air. On this record, the band that is made up of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks along with collaborators, continue their artistic path that evokes the darker corners of old-time and country music which had helped to lend perspective in the nineties, when glossy country-pop ruled the airwaves.
Country music and the folk musics out of which it came always had this darker edge to it, concerning itself with loss and loneliness, and not in a way that was so easily lampooned by outsiders and non-fans of the genre over the decades. Like the blues, country music was always about being at ground level, and very often a lot lower than that spiritually speaking. It dealt in being pulled in two directions; up into the light of divinely inspired well-being, and down into the depths of despair and hell.
That’s where The Handsome Family staked their territory when they began in the early nineties, and very much continue to do so on this tune. Read more
Listen to this track by tri-colour schemed indie-blues-rock twosome from Detroit The White Stripes. It’s “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, a cut as taken from their breakthrough 2001 album White Blood Cells. It served as the third single from that record scoring a top twenty showing on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
The impact The White Stripes had on rock music by the beginning of the two-thousands was hefty. Their music challenged many of the conventions of the time, while also reinforcing many of the same that fans had perhaps forgotten about. It was brand new, and yet somehow dusty and old at the same time. The band’s approach certainly undercut the idea that to make new music, one had to leave the past behind. But is also undercut the idea that one couldn’t take a left turn when it came to presenting it in a new context.
That what this song illustrates so well, and perfectly frames why The White Stripes were able to make such an impact on the mainstream. Read more