Peter Bjorn and John Play “Young Folks”

pbjyoung_folksListen to this track by Stockholm-based indie trio with a self-explanatory and comma-free name, Peter (Morén) Bjorn (Yttling) and John (Eriksson). It’s “Young Folks”, a single as taken from their 2006 record Writer’s Block, a record that served as something of a breakthrough for the band after forming in 1999.

The album title is not in reference to the lack of ideas that often plagues writers.
Rather, it’s a nod to the neighbourhood, Hornstull, in which the band was based at the time, known for a high concentration of writers and artists and for being a hip part of Stockholm. As a result, the sound they reached for on this song and on the whole record was a cooler and slightly detached approach to production and arrangement that brought forward a few more sonic idiosyncrasies than most, like whistling the key hook on this song. That’s a sound a listener might make reproducing it on their way to work. That approach helped to distinguish them, with this song being a standout in various forms on radio, streaming sites, TV shows, movie soundtracks, and beyond.

The song features the guest vocals of Victoria Bergsman of fellow Stockholmers The Concretes playing the role of the would-be lover to which the forthright narrator asks a very direct question.  Read more

Sam Beam And Jesca Hoop Sing “Valley Clouds”

uploads-1455064757010-SamBeamJescaHoop_LoveLetterForFire_cover_600_72Listen to this track by Iron & Wine lead Sam Beam and experimental pop singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop. It’s “Valley Clouds”, a track as taken off of their joint album Love Letter For Fire. That album was released just this past April, making many a music fan’s eyes widen by the possibilities initially, and by now how well Beam and Hoop’s voices intertwine to create something new out of a well-traveled approach to the making of pop music of a certain vintage and spirit.

The intent of the album was to take an established form, the duet, and to import a modern take on it as well as create a songwriting partnership out of that process. This album was the result, with this song being a lead single to establish its tone, which is a sort of quietly intense atmosphere of a campfire singalong.

As one might expect, this record of duets centers around the subject of love. But, what it also explores something that this established form has always intended, and that is how writing songs for two voices expands thematic possibilities, creates tension, and adds a sophisticated emotional dynamic that can only exist when two points of view are expressed in the same song.

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Tony Bennett And Bill Evans Play “Waltz For Debby”

Tony_Bennett_-_The_Tony_Bennett_Bill_Evans_AlbumListen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.

This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.

With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other.  Read more

Queen and David Bowie Play “Under Pressure”

Queen and David Bowie - Under PressureListen to this track by operatic rock band with an R&B slant Queen, alongside musical firestarter and conceptual rock template setter David Bowie. It’s “Under Pressure”, a huge number one single from late 1981, eventually to appear Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space.

The song was the result of a loose studio-bound jam session, working up ideas for a completely different song called “Feel Like”. David Bowie was at the sessions to lay down a backing vocal track for another song that would appear on the album, “Cool Cat”. That backing vocal part wouldn’t appear on the completed album. Instead, this one would; a duet between Bowie and lead singer Freddie Mercury, marked by a bassline that would be something of a third lead voice in the song as conceived and laid down by bassist John Deacon.

This song represents something of the zeitgeist from the early ’80s, which was a time of great fear, political pendulum swings, and a slowly thawing Cold War. It certainly performed well on the charts, with a number one showing in Britain and with significant impact in Canada, and the United States. But, on paper, I wouldn’t have bet on it being so successful, personally. And there are several reasons why I think that.  Here they are. Read more

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell Sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell UnitedListen to this track by Motown titan and smooth as silk soul-pop provider Marvin Gaye, along with his vocal counterbalance, and no slouch in the soaring vocal department herself, Tammi Terrell. It’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, a  single from writing partnership and real-life couple Ashford & Simpson. The song was a top twenty hit  single in 1967, released on the Tamla label, a sister label of Motown, eventually appearing on the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell joint album United.

The song was thought of by its writers as being their golden ticket into the Motown stable, even turning down Dusty Springfield who wanted to record it herself. Ashford and Simpson held it back , and it was eventually offered as a duet to Marvin Gaye, and to Tammi Terrell who made it one of the most prominent songs of the Motown catalogue, and an important record of the whole decade. Later on, Diana Ross would record it when she split with the Supremes and went solo in 1970. It would be a number one hit, and become a signature tune for her.Yet, it’s the alchemy that the Gaye-Terrell version offers that makes this the definitive version of the song.

Terrell had signed with Motown at the tender age of twenty, after a short career of minor hits, and even a time at the University of Pennsylvania as a pre-med student. But despite the run of singles and albums she would have with Marvin Gaye as her singing partner, Terrell would face greater challenges of a more personal nature.

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The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl Play “Fairytale of New York”

Listen to this track by Anglo-Irish folk-punk posse, featuring guest vocalist, and songwriter in her own right Kirsty MacColl. It’s the 1987 Christmas classic single, “Fairytale of New York”, a story of dreams, drama, dissolution, and drunk tanks all taking place during, or in the context of, the Christmas season. The song appears on the band’s high watermark album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, produced by Steve Lillywhite (Psychedelic Furs, U2, Simple Minds) released in January 1988.

Lillywhite was married to Kirsty MacColl, and when the song needed a guide vocal, Steve asked Kirsty to provide one. Originally, the song had been written with former bassist and vocalist Cait O’Riordon in mind. But, O’Riordan had left the band by the time singer Shane MacGowan and banjoist Jem Finer had finished it. When the band heard Kirsty’s vocal, they knew they were onto something.

The song would be an enduring one, forever associated with Christmas, and narrowly missing the coveted Christmas #1 that year (25 years ago!). But, what is it about this song that resonates so well with audiences? Read more

10 Unexpected Musical Collaborations To Confuse, Delight, and Repulse

There have been combinations of artists that have delighted and confounded in equal measure. I’m talking about the kinds of combinations that make you go “huh? Where did that come from?”. The best of them pleasantly surprise. But others keep you wondering. So, in honour of the collaborations which confound, the mixtures which mystify, the blends that baffle, here are ten unlikely musical combinations. Some seem like punchlines, and others are famous for providing a basis for the old adage that opposites attract.

There are two distinct strains of unexpected collaborations: the pleasant surprise through contrast, and the downright weird, from the Bizzaro World variety. Let’s ease into it to start off with.



Shane McGowanKirsty MacCollShane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl

There is something about Christmas perhaps that make the coming together of completely disparate musical figures more possible than for any other occasion. Look at Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. Who saw that coming? But another favourite is the Christmas standard that isn’t exactly about Christmas yet is firmly associated with it is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues, with legendary frontman Shane McGowan. Perhaps the addition of Kirsty MacColl on this track as Shane’s foil isn’t such a stretch – both were clearly interested in folk tales of common people struggling through hard times. MacColl had quite a pedigree, being the daughter of British folk legend Ewan MacColl. But the two voices – one clear and strong, the other more slovenly yet distinct created a contrast, and a compelling dramatic and comedic element, that make the song a classic at any time of year. Despite Kirsty MacColl’s own impressive output, its this song with which she is most associated for many, proving it to be a centrepiece of the late singer’s legacy.


Ella FitzgeraldLouis ArmstrongElla Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

This may be the least surprising combination on this list, just because these two artists are giants in the same field; jazz interpretation. Yet like the above example, it’s the contrast which is created which makes their two albums together – Ella & Louis, and Ella & Louis Again – so compelling. Before these albums were recorded, I’m sure no one could have thought of two more different singers in terms of texture. Yet it’s the rough and the smooth which set these recordings apart from so manty others, including those within the respective solo works of each. Of course, the songs and the band help too. One of my favourite interpretations of one of my favourite tin pan alley songs is Ella and Louis’ take on ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, which is the one of the most bittersweet songs ever written. And the recently late Oscar Peterson‘s piano on the date is a marvel.


Michael BoltonBob DylanMichael Bolton and Bob Dylan

Now we’re entering weird country, folks. One is a legend in popular music, changing the role of songwriting, of singing, and the perception of pop music as an art form forever. And the other is Michael Bolton. Although they didn’t exactly duet, they certainly wrote a song together, which gained some radio play – ‘Steel Bars’, which appeared on Bolton’s 1991 disc Time, Love, and Tenderness. I often struggle to figure out how this unholy union came about, and why someone somewhere couldn’t have stopped it. But, I suppose it must have been a thrill for Bolton. And a nice little earner for Dylan who was in a career slump (and how!) at the time. Eventually, the universe would settle again. Dylan would enjoy an artistic rebirth starting with his supremely sombre and eloquent Time Out of Mind album in 1997. And Bolton would be sued by the Isley Brothers. Everything worked out fine.


Pat BooneHeavy MetalPat Boone and the Heavy Metal Genre

Further into the country of weird is Pat Boone’s exploration of the heavy metal form, culminating in his 1997 album In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. For younger readers who may not be familiar with Mr. Boone’s oeuvre, Boone was a crooner who began his career in the mid-1950s, at the same time rock n’ roll was entering on the scene as a cultural phenomenon. He was known for his ballads, like ‘Love Letters in the Sand’ and the like. But another dubious aspect of his career was his role in singing on unlikely cover versions of R&B standards in order for record companies to sell popular songs by black artists to white audiences without causing so much social upheaval. His take on Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ has to be heard to be believed. So, a precedent had been set for weird covers from way back. But despite his past role as rock n’ roll tofu, no listener can be fully prepared for the depths of weirdness to be found in his cover of Metalica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ done as it is in a uber-white bread stylee. Paul Anka would follow suit even more successfulyl with his recent album, Rock Swings.


Joni MitchellCharles MingusJoni Mitchell and Charles Mingus

Joni Mitchell was not exactly a stranger to the world of jazz, evident by the run of albums in the mid-70s she made including Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira, all of which betrayed a love for jazz structures. She was also no stranger to odd tunings and intricate arrangements, which may or may not have been the reason that legendary bassist and arranger Charles Mingus insisted that they work together, initially on a musical version of T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets of all things. When Mitchell balked, Mingus wrote six pieces, all entitled Joni numbers one through six. This initiated a full-blown collaboration, even though Mingus was stricken with the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). The resulting album was the soulful and celebratory Mingus, recorded just before the jazz giant’s death in 1979. Even though Mitchell and Mingus couldn’t continue together, Mitchell made a friend in contributing saxophonist, and legend in his own right, Wayne Shorter, who would become a frequent sideman on her subsequent albums.


Crystal GayleTom WaitsCrystal Gayle and Tom Waits

Crystal Gayle was the Shania Twain or Carrie Underwood of her day, with crossover country-pop hits like “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “Just You and I”. Tom Waits was a throwback to the sounds of 50s cool jazz and beat poetry, a grizzled, gin-soaked storyteller of late night diners and second-rate strip clubs, as evidenced by albums like Small Change and Nighthawks at the Diner, among others. Who knew that Francis Ford Coppola would think to bring their two voices together for his movie One From the Heart? Much like MacColl and McGowan, the real beauty of their collaboration is in the contrast between their two voices infused with the sounds of both innocence as well as hard-earned experience. It’s almost as if their contribution was a part of the emotional landscape of the film which featured the music. Or something.


Chet AtkinsMark KnopflerChet Atkins, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits

This is one which might be best filed under ‘kinda weird, but not if you think about it’. Chet Atkins had made a name for himself in Nashville as a shit-hot guitar player, gracing records by other artists as well as his own instrumental work. In fact, it was Atkins who helped to define what became known as the Nashville sound; smooth, slick, and pristine country that removed itself from the backwoods and made it a more modern, and city-oriented affair. Knopfler was a fan. The North East of England, where Knopfler grew up, is where country music in many ways has its roots, along with Scotland and Ireland, and where it has always enjoyed popularity. And when you really listen, the music of Knopler’s band Dire Straits draws very heavily on country sounds; intricate guitar picking and on-the-beat drive. Even though many wouldn’t have predicted it, the two guitar heroes were fans of each other’s work. So a collaboration made sense. The resulting album is a relaxed and self-referential album called Neck and Neck. Note Knofpler’s beaming grin on the cover, like a kid meeting Santa Claus.


Ol' Dirty BastardPhil Collins No Jacket RequiredO.D.B and Phil Collins

Where it’s not exactly a direct collaboration, the late ODB’s cover of Collins’ 1985 hit ‘Sussudio’ is as bizarre as it is uncalled for. There are many mysteries to be unraveled in the world; where is Jimmy Hoffa? Who built the Pyramids and Stonehenge? What killed the Dinosaurs? Surely Collins’ street cred among the hip-hop community is another of these.


Burt BacharachDr. DreBurt Bacharach and Dr. Dre

Burt Bacharach is a collaboration veteran, not only when referring to his incredibly fruitful work with lyricist Hal David in the 1960s, but also with artists ranging from Dionne Warwick to Elvis Costello as well. Bacharach is known for smooth pop songs, sophistication, and lush, organic arrangements, often featuring full orchestras. His compositions are some of the most famous songs in the world of classic pop – ‘Walk on By’, ‘Always Something There to Remind Me’, ‘Say A Little Prayer’, and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ only among a few. But if you think his musical interest doesn’t include hip-hop, you’d be wrong. If anything else, Bacharach knows how to spot experts in their field which is most likely why Bacharach met Dr. Dre in LA, interested in utilizing Dre’s skills in creating beats and bass lines. The results can be found on Bacharach’s recent At This Time album.


Robert PlantAlison KraussRobert Plant & Alison Krauss

This is a collaboration which has blossomed in the shadow of a larger event – the Led Zeppelin reunion show, with the inevitable rumours of a full tour. In many ways, this is a testament to the quality of the material that makes up the record Raising Sand. Also, it is a prime example of just how few barriers there really are between musical styles. Sure, Robert Plant fronted a pioneering hard rock band in the mighty Led Zeppelin, with wailing blues-soaked vocals which would inspire a number of, in my opinon, lesser followers. And true that Alison Krauss is a bluegrass musician, making her own brand of accessible, rootsy country music which seems very far removed from the bluster and licentious strains of ‘Lemon Song’ or ‘Custard Pie’. But Zeppelin had as much a foot in the world of folk music as it did in the blues. ‘The Battle of Evermore‘ is not a million miles away from bluegrass. And Plant himself in recent years has shown a tendency to explore the folk musics of the world with his outfit the Strange Sensation. As a result, Raising Sand sounds like he’s returning home to the American South, stylistically anyway. Yet, not many people would have called this collaboration. Perhaps fewer would have called Plant to avoid the obvious Zeppelin tour for a tour with Krauss.


There are so many other examples I could have cited here: Jack White & Loretta Lynn, Ben Folds and William Shatner, Elvis Costello and, well, just name them and he’s collaborated with them – Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet, Sofie Von Otter, to name a few. What remains when all is said and done is this. Music is as mysterious as it is vital. Perhaps it is because of its mystery to some degree that it is so vital. The right combinations of notes on a page, instruments played, voices blended, and lyrics sung is like alchemy – or refuse. Why is this? No one knows. It’s a mystery.