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 Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills. and former Jayhawk and then-future husband Gary Louris. 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 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 canny pop song strategists and performance art doyens The KLF, featuring the First Lady of Country herself, Tammy Wynette. It’s “Justified & Ancient”, a tune that features on their 1991 album The White Room and on its own as a single version. After this song was released with notable chart showings all over the world, there were no more singles from the group at all. In fact, they deleted their own catalogue in the UK!
The KLF was a meta pop group more so than the real thing. The whole project seemed to be an active parody of the pop industry process, inventing a whole vocabulary and mythology around itself. The “band” was made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, both of whom were on the British music and theatre scenes at various levels since the mid-1970s. They started this project under the name JAMs (that’s Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu) by the late eighties.
By 1991, this single referenced their history and was something of a closed circle for them as their last ever single connected to the JAMs/KLF project. It certainly had a positive impact on Tammy Wynette in a very measurable way, while also being indicative of an approach to pop music as art where Drummond and Cauty were concerned all around. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.
But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.
Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us. Read more
Listen to this track by St. Catharines Ontario-born singer-songwriter and teller of tales Ron Sexsmith. It’s “The Idiot Boy”, a deep cut as taken from his 1999 album Whereabouts, his third record. The song traces the history of humankind itself through a distinctly Biblical lens, tongue firmly in cheek. In it, the titular central character is not so much a hero in his own story, but more like his own stumbling block. This is very much in keeping with the whole record.
Whereabouts is a pretty overcast album, full of self-doubt and struggle. On it, Sexsmith seems to live up to his (not ultimately accurate) reputation as a perpetually glum songwriter, with his rainy-day voice not entirely helping to dissuade the casual listener any differently. It was therefore hard for that same casual listener to see the humour in the lyrics, an angle that has also been a part of Sexsmith’s approach. There’s more to this song than what first might be perceived.
Even while “The Idiot Boy” reflects his views on human history, it’s also perhaps a reflection of the songwriter’s own state of being. Read more
Listen to this track by Bermuda-born, London-based singer-songwriter Heather Nova. It’s “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)”, a single as taken from her third album, 1998’s Siren. Even though the song is a paean to being home in London, it did much better in the US, possibly due to its inclusion in the soundtrack to an episode of nineties drama Dawson’s Creek.
Emerging in the early nineties, Heather Nova’s music fit into a certain paradigm of women singer-songwriters that proliferated at the time, underscoring the wealth of talent that existed under the still very male-centric music industry. Nova had a unique background from which she pulled her music and her approach to a career in a tough industry. As a child, she lived on a forty-foot boat with her family including a brother and sister plus her two parents, sailing the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea for most of the 1970s and into the 1980s, all the while making music for herself.
It was in this setting that she grew her love for music and for storytelling. But I think too that background may cast light on what makes this specific song such a vital example of what makes Heather Nova unique, along with how much it mirrors a pretty common thread in most people’s lives; a sense of home. Read more
Listen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.
Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.
But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more
Listen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.
“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.
“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general. Read more
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 Vancouver folk-pop institution Spirit Of The West. It’s “Home For A Rest”, their signature song and musical highlight as taken from their 1990 album Save This House. This record was their breakthrough, having been together since 1984, and finally signed to a major label in Warner Music Canada by 1989. It was practically a government issue release across our country, gracing the record collections of many in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Unlike many new bands signed onto a major, the band didn’t make too many changes to their initial sound; the skin of traditional Celtic folk music as fused upon the bones and muscle of pop/rock musical structure. In the early nineties and in scenes all across Canada, a lot of bands were attempting to strike this very same balance. But few of them had the same impact as this band, full as they are of punk energy and musicianly chops that place them into Pogues territory. There wasn’t any need for them to do anything other than what they had been doing all along, which was to write songs full of thematic gravity and wit, touching on issues of social justice, sure, but not forgetting to infuse their work with humour as well.
This song is a travelogue and drinking song all rolled into one, certainly a reflection of where the band were at during that time, touring with British pop band The Wonder Stuff. This took them to London, to the pubs, and presumably to the bottom of a lot of glasses. In an important and very Canadian way though, this song is less about over indulgence and more about a sense of identity, which if you know anything about our country, makes a whole lot of sense. Read more