Victoria Williams Sings “Century Plant”

loose-victoria-williamsListen 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 Van Dyke Parks, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, and Jayhawks songwriter Gary Louris along with another member of that band, Mark Olson, who Williams would later marry. 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

Steve Earle Sings “Hard-Core Troubadour”

steve-earle-i-feel-alrightListen 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

A Camp Performs ‘I Can Buy You’

a_camp_-_a_campHere’s a clip from The Cardigans’ Nina Persson, Atomic Swing’s Nicholas Frisk,  and Sparklehorse‘s Mark Linkous, AKA A Camp with their 2001 radio-friendly country rock throwback track ‘I Can Buy You’ as featured on their self-titled debut album.

When it came out, this track reminded me of 1970s radio, specifically country rock as inspired by Neil Young, America, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and Seals and Crofts, among others. Whether or not this is what they were going for might be arguable.  But, the use of the harmonica and lap steel works very strongly in my favour, I think.

One thing which I think our current decade has done is to allow artists to throw anything into the pot, with almost half a century of rock traditions from which to choose.  I think too that the choice to change direction even within the running time of a single album is also pretty much the norm now too, which is also a big checkmark in the A column when it comes to music made in recent years.  And this is certainly true here with this band, made up of 90s bands which can be found on differing points on the pop/rock scale, yet still interested in what makes good pop music no matter what the pool of influences are .

The Cardigans, for instance, were firmly in the realm of indie-pop, with a monster hit in 1996 in ‘Lovefool’ as featured on the Romeo + Juliet (10th Anniversary Edition).  Sparklehorse tend to be a little less recognized as a pop group, with a bit more emphasis on lo-fi texture rather than pop hooks.  Yet Persson and Linkous have created something entirely other from their primary bands, mostly due to how much emphasis they’ve placed on pop songwriting.

Collaborations in rock music tend to be one-offs, counted as side projects, and sometimes not given much artistic credence.  Yet to me, this song was one of my favourites of 2001, which was a storming year for music.

Be sure too to check out the band’s newest record, Colonia, now featuring new member and Persson’s husband Nathan Larson of Shudder to Think.


Ryan Adams sings “Everybody Knows”

Here’s a clip of Americana whirlwind songwriter and former Whiskeytown linchpin Ryan Adams with his 2007 track “Everybody Knows”.  The song is taken from his record Easy Tiger, his ninth solo album in seven years.

Ryan Adams is a songwriting dynamo, ramping up an incredible output since the dissolution of his band Whiskeytown and his critically-acclaimed debut Heartbreaker in 2000.  The follow-up to that album, 2001’s Gold, cemented his reputation as a songwriter who bears the torch of classic rock, 70s singer-songwriter, and country rock, namely the Stones, The Band, Neil Young, and even Billy Joel (Adams’ “Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard” featured on Gold is classic pre-Stranger Joel…).

In recording and touring like a man possessed, Adams became known as a somewhat unpredictable live act.  It has been purported that at one time his on-stage behaviour was influenced by bouts of heavy drinking. His famous on stage hissy fit when a heckler called out a mock request for the Summer of 69 is the stuff of live music legend.
In recording and touring like a man possessed, Adams became known as a somewhat unpredictable live act. Purportedly at one time his erratic on-stage behaviour was influenced by bouts of heavy drinking. His famous on stage hissy fit when a heckler called out a mock request for "the Summer of '69" is the stuff of live music legend.

But his output in more recent years has suffered mixed reviews, possibly due to a glut of product released in too quick a succession.  Releasing two or three albums was pretty standard for many acts  in 1963.  The Beach Boys released three records that year, for instance, and kept up the pace every year until the creation of their masterpiece Pet Sounds in 1966.   But, those days are gone.   When Adams released three records in 2005 (two solo records, and one with his band, the Cardinals) it placed him as something of a curiosity rather than an artist vying for a lasting body of work.

Easy Tiger changes all of that, drawing together his strengths as a writer, and as an artist who is able to boil down his influences into something that transcends pastiche.  This record is the proof needed  to show that he is in the same league with those artists from whom he draws strength, simply because he comes the closest to finding his own voice on it, a goal which had eluded him on some of his previous releases.  It helps too that the Cardinals join him on this one, and give this song, and many others on it the added push that they deserve.  It also helps that Adams shows great maturity and self-awareness as a writer.

I think this is what I like about this song.  The narrator is in a state of confusion and sorrow within his relationship where he describes “you and I together/but only one of us in love”.  Yet, this is not a victim’s lament.  He knows he is at least partially to blame when he sings

“I’m always in need and it’s hard to be reciprocating/The fabric of our life gets torn/And everything’s changing so how i am to know/How i’m going to hold on to you when i’m spinning out of control”

In many ways this song is one of many on the record which are songs about confronting one’s own shortcomings, which is an excercise many of us avoid.  This is an album by a flawed man which is a perfect soundtrack for other flawed men, and for the people who love them.

For more information about Ryan Adams and more music, check out the Ryan Adams MySpace page.


Golden Smog Perform ‘Looking Forward to Seeing You’

Here’s a clip of Mid-West Americana supergroup Golden Smog, made up of members from the Jayhawks, Wilco, Soul Asylum, Big Star, The Replacements, and other bands from the Minneapolis area, with a track originally appearing on their 1998 third album Weird Tales“Looking Forward to Seeing You”.  On this particular ocasion, the band are performing at a Barack Obama rally in February of this year.

The word ‘Supergroup’ tends to be a bit of a tricky term.  It’s a term which can often imply a war of egos that produces something of a novel listening experience, but ultimately not a very deep one.  Or, it can mean that the members of said supergroup are so self-conscious about their not sounding like a war of egos that the music doesn’t end up with any kind of personality.

With this band, neither case applies.  What does come across is the sound of a few guys playing music just for the hell of it, even if the guys in question are extremely good songwriters. On the Weird Tales album and on this song “Looking Forward to Seeing You”, there’s a loose atmosphere and an earthy approach to the production that gives the record loads of personality, and imbue the performances with a refreshing, casual feel.  The album has a real ‘recorded it in the front room after dinner and a few glasses of red wine’ vibe, with the Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Neil Young being some of the main musical reference points.

The connections between the musician stem from their involvement in the mid-Western Americana scene, with the respective full-time bands and the pressures of success in the background of this, their hobby band, their fun band.  Members of Golden Smog (named after Fred Flintstone’s on stage jazz singer moniker in the Flintstones TV show, while he sings with jazz musician Hotlips Hannigan‘s band…) are many, as the group tends to be a bit of a revolving door in terms of personnel, although Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks are two frequent contributors.

The band started off in 1989 as a covers band, playing entire sets dedicated to the Eagles, or to top forty radio hits. From here, the group became a vehicle for songwriting of members who came and went, some of those writers being secondary writers in their full-time groups. Since ’89, five albums and a ‘greatest hits’ has been recorded under the Golden Smog name, with an active band website and frequent live appearances.

For more information, check out the Golden Smog MySpace page.

Also, check out the Golden Smog artist page on their label, Lost Highway.


Blue Rodeo Perform ‘Trust Yourself’

Here’s a clip of Canadian alt-country pioneers and songwriting giants Blue Rodeo with their 1990 hit “Trust Yourself”, taken from their album Casino.

Blue Rodeo Casino
Blue Rodeo started on the club scene on Queen Street West in Toronto, building on 60s folk rock and developing their own niche as superlative original songwriters intially during a time of synth-oriented pop in the mid-1980s.

To many, alt-country was a beast born much later than 1990, when bands like Wilco, the Handsome Family, and The Jayhawks began to ignite scenes all over the States, particularly as evidenced in the No Depression sound.  But, Blue Rodeo were quietly making albums from the mid-to-late 80s in Canada, with singer-songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor musically navigating between classicist country-rock crooning, and acidic rootsy bile respectively. Early gigs with k.d lang opened some doors for the group, and soon they had a loyal following of their own.

There were a lot of early critical parallels between Blue Rodeo and the Band, especially when keyboardist Bob Wiseman was in the group. But, to me their early sound was more stylistically akin to the Byrds, with twelve-string guitars and hazy, 60s-influenced folk-rock sounds infused into their songs.  A high point in their career for me was 1993’s Five Days in May album, when the band retreated to the Muskoka region, just north of Toronto – known to Ontarians as ‘cottage country’ – to jam, and to record. If there is a parallel with the Band, then maybe this album is the best example; a bunch of Canadians in the woods making music in a clubhouse, a la Big Pink. Otherwise, I think these guys have designed their own template.

I heard a snippet from the sessions while I was going to University, living in North York in a shared house with no TV.  Radio, particularly the CBC, was a regular thing for us.  Their song “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream” from that record grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and demanded I seek it out, which I dutifully did.  It remains to be one of my favourite albums.  And ‘Trust Yourself’ really made me think about how great country music could be even earlier on, even if it’s arguable that this tune isn’t exactly a country song per se.

I sometimes marvel at the level of talent in our country here, with our modest little population.  And I equally wonder why more of our artists aren’t world-renowned, particularly when songs like “Lost Together”, “Till I’m Myself Again”, “Diamond Mine”, and so many others are such tremendous songs.  Blue Rodeo are certainly a band I think everyone needs to have heard.

For more music, check out the Blue Rodeo official site.


Former Monkees Guitarist Michael Nesmith Performs ‘Joanne’

Michael Nesmith Magnetic SouthHere’s a clip of former pre-fab four guitarist and country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith performing his 1970 solo tune ‘Joanne’ as taken from his critically-acclaimed, if not world-renowned Magnetic South album.

The idea to jump headlong into country music wasn’t necessarily a new idea for Nesmith, even when he was one of the Monkees.  Many of the songs he contributed to that group – “You Just May Be the One”, “Listen to the Band”, and others – gave away his love of country music pretty blatantly.  And he wasn’t the first guy to add country to a pop group’s repertoire either.  The Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (who later formed the Flying Burrito Brothers), had established a precedent for country rock by recording what is, to my ears, a straight-ahead country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Yet, it started a number of artists down the path of rootsy, country rock.

But,  country rock wasn’t yet a radio staple when this song was recorded.  Nesmith’s  album was released before the age of the Eagles allowed rock and pop musicians to explore country forms and enjoy crossover success too.   Also, there was the stigma of the Monkees to contend with, saddled as they were with the public perception that they were just a TV band, with no real songwriting or musical talent of their own, despite the fact that this wasn’t actually the case.  In some ways, Nesmith deciding to follow a solo career by 1970, and do it while writing in a nascent genre, might have been looked upon by many as a foolhardy move.   The artistic integrity of this decision alone is admirable, but Nesmith’s exemplary songwriting talent makes it only a curiosity.  I personally think that he was just pursuing his natural interest in roots music, which I think is why he succeeds.

Mike Nesmith: my favourite Monkee, and not just because of the hat.

Nesmith seemed to have an instinct for writing interesting lyrics that reflected his times, while at the same time making his songs sound like early country classics, or even old-timey folk-tunes from the mountain.  And his arrangements are both lush, and unobtrusive at the same time, which is certainly showcased well here in this tune.  And I think that this song shows off his vocal talents too, with a high yodel that reflects a classic approach true to the genre, and augments the subject matter of the song; remembrance of a love long gone.

Mike Nesmith continued his solo career through the 1970s, taking time off in the 80s to explore filmmaking and TV production with his company Pacific Arts including the movie Elephant Parts,  which was a pop-experimental film of comedic and musical vignettes which carried on the traditions of the movie he’d made in the 60s with the Monkees, Head. Both of those films are often cited as major influences on the development of music videos during the 80s and onward.  He continues to record today, with sporadic revisits to the Monkees camp, yet still on the same path he took at the end of the 60s, when the shackles of a TV pop image were traded in for his role as proto-alt country innovator.