Listen to this track by Kelowna, British Columbia folk-and-psych-pop purveyors The Grapes of Wrath. It’s “All The Things I Wasn’t”, the lead single from their 1989 album Now and Again, their third and most commercially successful album to date. At barely two minutes and not exactly fitting in with the over-the-top production style which was rampant at the time, this tune was an unlikely top twenty hit in Canada. Even the band weren’t convinced that it would do the business for them after their label insisted it be a single. I guess sometimes “the money” is right. Stopped clocks and all that.
This was a big tune, seeming to channel a late-sixties folk rock vibe and full of images of isolation and loss. The warmth of the production which is marked by restraint and space that anticipated the very same that would be very common in the following decade of the 1990s, and reflecting what I consider to be a golden age in Canadian pop music from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties, with many bands putting out unique records that also garnered serious radio play. This tune certainly appealed to my post-teen sensibilities. There’s something about the onset of early adulthood that brings out the melancholy in a lot of people, I suppose. And this song has melancholy to spare.
I think if you’d asked me at the time what this song was literally about, I might have been hard-pressed to tell you. That would have been missing the point anyway. The fact is, this tune and the rest of this album represented something very personal, and at a crucial time in my own life. Read more
Listen to this track by former Everything But The Girl vocalist, singer-songwriter, and columnist Tracey Thorn. It’s “Oh! The Divorces”, the lead track off of her 2010 solo record Love And Its Opposite. That record was the second release of the century from Thorn, preceded by 2007’s Out Of The Woods, and representative of a new phase in her career as a singer and songwriter.
By this time, she’d spent a decade raising her kids with her partner Ben Watt, also formerly of EBTG and an active solo artist in his own right. She’d given up touring as a live performer by 2000, a part of her career that she’d never really enjoyed fully, and embraced a new avenue of expression through her regular column Off The Record in The New Statesman and as a writer of books. Yet her pursuits as a singer remained. And what a singer! For an artist known for her appealingly unadorned voice, I think a mistake that’s easily made with Thorn is to link her songwriting to that same approach, to assume that she’s always telling her own literal story when she sings.
This dynamic plays into an area that has forever fascinated and befuddled many a music writer, critic, and casual listener; the difference between what a singer expresses in song, and what that same singer really thinks, feels, and directly experiences in their private lives. With this tune, there are a number of elements to throw us off of the trail between the meaning of the song, and its effects on us as listeners.
Listen to this track by angelically voiced interpretive singer, actor, and one-time member of a world-beating folk-rock duo that bears his name in part, Art Garfunkel. It’s “99 Miles From L.A”, a cut from his 1975 album Breakaway, his second solo album. The song itself was recorded that same year by its writer, the singer-songwriter Albert Hammond (who also wrote “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer around this same time), complete with lyrics by none other than Hal David.
Garfunkel is wrongly thought by some to be a gooseberry in his own career, with Paul Simon looked upon as the significant talent in their partnership, mostly due to the fact that Simon was a writer and (up until very recently at least) Garfunkel was not. It is also thought that Garfunkel’s solo career is lightweight and a bit “wet”. But I would argue that very few singers reached the depths of melancholy that Garfunkel has in his singing, adding his unique vocal instrument to some of the greatest songs ever written and recorded, and being absolutely indispensable to how well those songs connect on an emotional level with listeners of multiple generations. So few singers in an English-speaking pop context are able to sing a line that is both gloriously optimistic and devastatingly sad at the same time with such precision. This is not to mention his pivotal role as producer and arranger on Simon & Garfunkel albums, of which not many people are aware.
How does Garfunkel bring his formidable vocal powers to this song? I think he does it by utilizing his voice around the very ambiguous story that this song is telling, where we as the listeners aren’t sure of what kind of story it is; happy or sad. 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 three-cornered supergroup with the accountancy firm-style name, case/lang/veirs. It’s “Atomic Number”, the first single from the upcoming self-titled album by three magnificantly talented singers and songwriters Neko Case, k.d lang, and Laura Veirs. The album is due out on June 17 from Anti-Records.
The formation of this band came initially from Lang as she sought to challenge herself within a band format. She contacted both Neko Case and Laura Veirs, both of whom reflexively said “yes!” at the prospect of working with her. Wouldn’t you? Well, maybe you wouldn’t given the calibre of talent that Lang represents by herself. She’s done duets with Roy Orbison and Tony Bennett, and held her own and then some. But, Neko Case is also a titan in the vocal department too, not to mention her capacity as a songwriter both as a solo artist and with The New Pornographers. Laura Veirs is the lesser known of the three, arguably. But, she’s been able to have a very maneuverable career, following her muse down various avenues just the same with results that make her one of the best in her field.
The question with a collaborative project like this is always the same, and that is this. Will the music survive the egos involved? After all, the word “supergroup” has been used, and rightly so. Luckily, it seems like this issue wasn’t exactly lost on the three principles. And the proof is in the pudding. So, what kind of dish are we looking at, exactly? Read more
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
Listen to this track by London-based orchestral retro-pop quintet Cousteau. It’s “The Last Good Day Of The Year”, probably their best-known track, and taken from their 1999 self-titled debut.
Some pop music is meant to be heard in the finest halls in the land, with the audience dressed to the nines, rather than in the standard t-shirt and jeans. If any band met this criteria, then in 1999 this band was surely one. Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, and Jimmy Webb are the clear bright points in the musical sky by which Cousteau guided their creative ship. This was an important course for bands to explore by the end of the 1990s, with lushly realized production and arrangements that are cinematic in their scope. Maybe this was a case of twentieth century fin de siè·cle, with musicians and songwriters looking backward into the ages of pop’s past to revisit the sound of the century that was about to end.
Maybe that’s the main source of melancholy in this song, a tune that seemed to allude to an end of an era, for good or ill. 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
Watch this clip featuring a track by Calgarian chamber-folk-art-rock practicioners, and one of my favourite Canadian bands Raleigh. It’s “It Will Rise”, the closing track to their 2013 record, Sun Grenades & Grenadine Skies, their second.
The band is comprised of Clea Anaïs on vocals, cello and keyboards, Brock Gieger on guitar and vocals, and Matt Doherty on drums. The music is nearly impossible to pin down in terms of a single genre, incorporating folk, chamber pop, ambient, and jazz. But, their sound is anchored by the intertwined voices of the two vocalists Anaïs and Gieger, and the polyrhythmic approach that Doherty takes behind the kit.
When they released their debut record New Times In Black And White in 2011, I got to talk to Brock and Clea. This was around the time they took to the road to tour Canada. Now, with the release of this album, they’re about to take another tour to Europe. And I got to speak to Brock Geiger again recently via email, about the new record, about the making of this track and video, and about taking to the road across the ocean, too. Here’s what he said.
Listen to this song by avant-folk harpist, singer, and orchestrally-minded songwriter Joanna Newsom. It’s “Sawdust and Diamonds”, a track as taken from the uniformly praised 2006 record Ys (that’s pronounced Eess, kids). The song was one of five that appeared on the album. Normally, five songs on a record equals an EP. Or, it means (eek!) prog.
But, this is neither.
Actually, at the time, it was hard for many to figure out what this was. It was, and is, kind of it’s own thing. This is most likely why it made so many end-of-year lists across the music journalism spectrum. In part, it’s singularity is what sells it.
But in what sense?