Listen to this track by Los Angeles avant-pop and art rock paragon Julia Holter. It’s “Silhouette”, a track featured on her fourth full length record, Have You In My Wilderness.
Crafted in the same spirit as contemporaries Imogen Heap and Joanna Newsome, and certainly in the grand tradition of Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush, Holter’s approach is a balance between spare melodic lines and sweeping aural vistas. There is something decidedly European in this song, and in much of her other music as well, with that aforementioned balance being the common denominator. Maybe it’s because the narratives that the music suggests sound too ancient in their origins to be anything other than companions to folk tales from a much older culture.
In this case, the song is based on a story about two sisters awaiting a lover, whom they both unwittingly share, to return to each them. In this sense, “Silhouette” seems to have something to say about relationships that applies to mythical patterns as much as it does to modern times, catching us in the traps that love can often set for us. 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 recently departed musical envelope pusher and singularly iconic artist David Bowie. It’s “Lazarus”, the second single as taken from his excellent and final album ★, aka Blackstar.
With Bowie, you never knew what you were going to get in the best possible sense, so uniquely off-of-the-path was his route to creating some of the most innovative music in the twentieth century. Even now, the sheer magnitude of his cultural impact seems as immeasurable as it is glorious. As such, new albums from an artist of his stature always felt like something to look forward to and to dread all at the same time, post-1980. We held him in such high regard that our expectations of his work hung suspended in the stratosphere attached to a palpable fear of falling from such a great height, emotionally speaking.
Bowie’s output was not perfect. And he did let us down in varying degrees over the years, sometimes just because he followed his muse to places that made it hard for us to follow him. But with ★, he won our hearts again with a record that is both brave and innovative as well as hearkening back to tropes and themes that he’d spent his career exploring; identity, the nature of fame, isolation, displacement, and mortality. He was back! Little did any of us know upon release of the new album just how far he would go to communicate these ideas to us again, particularly in this song which turned out to be the last ever David Bowie single during his extraordinary life. Read more
Listen to this track by former BSc student, computer programmer, and current singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It’s “Close To Home”, a track as taken from her 2013 album Aims, her fifth.
Teng started her journey in becoming a musician at the age of five, born Cynthia Yih Shih in California to Chinese parents who’d immigrated from Taiwan. Raised on a diet of both Western and Asian pop music, along with a classical repertoire that included Beethoven and Dvorak, she distilled those influences into a sound of her own, springing from her piano, as well as from her a capella voice on some tracks. This song is something of a more band-integrated approach when it comes to the recording process. Career-wise it’s certainly an evolution from her days in balancing a school career in computer science with her efforts to write, record, and distribute her early music initially on campus. By the early two-thousands, her appearances on NPR, Letterman, CNN, and as an opening act for artists ranging from Joan Baez to India.Arie allowed her to concentrate on her music career full-time.
Yet by the end of the decade, Teng had decided to continue her studies — in Sustainablity at The Erb Institute at the University of Michigan — during the time this song and the Aims album was being conceived and recorded. Ultimately, what is actually revealed is that the split between making music and pursuing education in a new town isn’t much of a split after all. Read more
Listen to this track by Bexleyheath-born singer-songwriter and art rock innovator Kate Bush. It’s “Cloudbusting”, a top twenty single as taken from her 1985 masterpiece The Hounds Of Love. The song was inspired by the story of psychoanalyst, inventor, physics theorist, and (some would say) kook Wilhelm Reich and his relationship with his son Peter, the story of which Bush read about in the younger Reich’s book A Book of Dreams.
An immigrant from Austria to America, Reich the elder was personally acquainted to and worked directly with both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, arguably bridging their two disciplines of psychoanalysis and particle physics. Reich was a contributor to both fields, interested in how human sexuality and particle energy converged. Particularly in his later years, he sought ways of finding the Life Force as linked to the human libido as an observable physical phenomenon, leading up to his theories of orgone energy, his invention of orgone “accumulators” that would collect and harness that energy, and even ways to use it to manipulate the environment with the invention of “cloudbusters”. This device was, effectively, a weather control machine that was meant to excite the orgone energy particles in cloud formations in order to make it rain — literally.
That seems like an unlikely subject for a top twenty UK hit, right? And yet, Bush found herself drawn into Reich’s story, and that of his son. Even the video (starring Donald Sutherland as Reich!) reflects the drama that unfolded surrounding Reich, his life in rural Maine at his home Orgonon (named after orgone energy, of course), and his unpleasant encounters with the establishment, who eventually jailed him in part for his theories connected to sexuality. What were some of the common threads that tie it all together in this song? Well, amid all the sex and science, I think what this song is really about is perception, specifically from the point of view of a child to his parent. Read more
Listen to this track by Oklahoman new-psych art rock trio The Flaming Lips. It’s “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”, the second track off of their 1999 magnum opus The Soft Bulletin. That album was not only a landmark album in their career, being their ninth. It also became a landmark album for the times as well, a sumptuous and artfully realized goodbye to the twentieth century.
This song is one of many that laid out a new template for the ‘Lips for which they continue to be associated today. On it, they decided to cut back on the guitars a bit, and focus more on varied textures. Part of this was an embrace of electronics, which was a natural progression for rock bands in the nineties. The walls between rock music and electronic music were very thin indeed then, and certainly musically permeable without the artists being self-conscious about it. Another was a more expansive approach to production (handled here in part by the band themselves) and to arrangements that included orchestral instruments, including harp, strings, and gong, the latter played (whacked?) by lead singer and head writer Wayne Coyne when they toured the record that summer. Seeing him wail on the gong live on stage was a musical highlight for me that year.
But, getting back to the idea that this album and this song seemed to be a marker of the late twentieth century, there are certainly threads to follow that tie it to pop music of several decades earlier. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this song, and about The Soft Bulletin in general is that it captures something that is quintessentially twentieth century; optimism and idealism when it comes to the future. Read more
Listen to this track by Anglo-Scot folktronica collagists The Beta Band. It’s “Human Being”, the second single from their second album, Hot Shots II, released in the summer of 2001.
This record was the follow-up to their first full-length and self-titled debut, a record that felt like a false start to the band themselves, who called it “shit” in interviews. That’s a little strong. But, it is an unfocused work, albeit with some great tracks on it (my favourite: “It’s Not Too Beautiful”, with its kind of a wonky nu-psych quality).
I personally think that the lukewarm reaction to their debut was because the compilation Three EPs had done so well, featuring a bona fide hit in “Dry The Rain”, a song that would go in my own top 100 of songs I could play over and over and never get tired of. Needless to say, expectations for their first album were very high when it came down to full-length records.
So how did they do one better with this one, after the lacklustre results of the first? Well, they revealed something about themselves as a band which had been a little lost on that debut record that is noted for its ecleticism, and not much for focus. I’m talking about songwriting. Read more
Listen to this track by former pop synthesists turned minimalist orchestral art rock concern Talk Talk. It’s “Ascension Day”, the second track from the band’s last (to date, although I wouldn’t hold your breath, kids) album Laughing Stock released in the autumn of 1991.
The record was the final gasp from a band who were on a unique artistic parabola thanks to their critically acclaimed (well, eventually) but not-well-purchased 1988 masterpiece Spirit Of Eden. That album was a work that was a dramatic departure from their pop music origins, led by singer Mark Hollis and collaborator Tim Friese-Green. Since its creation and in the aftermath of its release, they lost bass player Paul Webb and their contract with EMI with whom they were in some conflict over the “not well purchased” point regarding said masterppiece.
So after pursuing their art and following the muse against the slings and arrows of outrageous record companies, you’d think they would make a more mainstream-friendly record to reset the balance, right? Well, no.
But, what they did do is create yet another masterpiece, well represented by this track. But, it was a harrowing ride. Read more
Listen to this track by former Roxy Music member, producer, and ambient art rock forseer Brian Eno. It’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, a song as featured on his landmark 1975 album Another Green World.
When not playing the songs on the album completely by himself, he is joined by some luminary musicians from the prog and art rock camp, including Robert Fripp (who plays the squiggly guitar break on this tune), John Cale, and Phil Collins of Genesis, one of the many bands to which Eno would lend his sought-after production skills.
Eno’s feel for texture in the producer’s seat would also inform this record, which was looked upon as a crossroads album away from rock songs, albeit ones with unexpected angles, and into a more experimental space where minimalist mood pieces were more central. This song is one of five out of fourteen that contains lyrics, for instance.
There is a lot of talk about experimentation when artists put out records that diverge from the pop song plot. But, the question in this case is, was the experiment a success? Read more