Listen to this track by Indiana-born and bred heartland troubadour John Mellancamp, aka Johnny Cougar, aka John Cougar, aka John Cougar Mellencamp (whew!). It’s “Jack and Diane”, his enormous 1982 number one hit single as taken from the album American Fool, his fifth.
The song had enormous impact not only on the charts, but on pop culture during a time when music was becoming more and more stylistically ghettoized. As popular as it was, and is, there’s just something about this one that set it apart, seeming to have a cinematic quality that very few songs at the time contained. By 1982, “Jack and Diane” sounded like a progression for Mellencamp, who was then gathering momentum for a classic run of singles during the eighties and into the early nineties.
“Jack and Diane” concerns itself with two American kids growing up in the heartland and unsure of their places in the world. And yet, as with so many records that help define the times in which they’re released, there is an ocean of meaning underneath the scant story presented here. And ironically, much of it only comes to light as one gets older. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Elephant 6-affiliated power pop psych trio The Essex Green. It’s “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”, a crackling power pop tune as taken from the band’s third album, 2006’s Cannibal Sea. The group is connected to a web of many indie bands, most notably Guppyboy, once based in Burlington, Vermont. Upon the dissolution of that band, members Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter moved to New York to start anew and with a fresh moniker to define them; The Essex Green.
Their sound is clearly based in sixties and seventies jangle pop, power pop, and folk pop. That’s a lot of pop! On this third album and on this song, those influences are apparent, although much more integrated than they are on earlier releases. A big part of this is down to producer Britt Meyers and his more elaborate studio set up and mixing skills. Another part of course is a step up in the songwriting and performance department, as good as the previous album, The Long Goodbye, was. Perhaps this was because the band had recently come off of a big tour by then. It could also be that each member was concurrently involved in making music with other bands (Ladybug Transistor, The Sixth Great Lake) allowing new ideas to flow from one project to another.
Overall, The Essex Green provided an example of what it is to be indie in a post-major label era. In this new paradigm musicians have to be constantly on the move to cover their bases in various side projects, holding down day jobs while honing their craft, and knowing where to find their audience in the absence of big label budgets and in the light of fragmented media. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based folk-rock trio featuring ingenue singer Linda Ronstadt. It’s “Different Drum”, a 1967 single as taken from their second album, Evergreen, Vol. 2, which would turn out to be their most successful release.
The song was penned by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees of course, but written in 1965 before his profile was raised by the weekly TV show that made him famous. Even before Stone Poneys got a hold of it, it had been recorded by bluegrass outfit The Greenbriar Boys. Nesmith himself would record his own version of the song on his And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ album in 1972.
In the summer of 1967, this proved to be the first hit single (#13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that singer Linda Ronstadt would enjoy in a solo career that would yield several as the sixties turned into the seventies, and even beyond. Maybe the song’s subject matter inadvertently pointed to the fate of the group; that each member was ultimately headed in different directions to the others before the end of the decade.
Yet I think more interestingly, this take on Nesmith’s tune as re-interpreted by Ronstadt says a lot about its current era of the sixties and how things were changing especially when it came to the roles of men and women. Read more
Listen to this track by former blues-rock titans turned folk and pop-oriented concern featuring an evolving line up, Fleetwood Mac. It’s “Dust”, a song written by the band’s 21-year old guitarist and vocalist Danny Kirwan, and featured on the band’s 1972 album Bare Trees. The song features lines from a poem of the same name by Rupert Brooke, an Edwardian poet who died in 1915.
Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac when fellow guitarists and original members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were still both in the band. The Then Play On album would feature Kirwan’s dual lead vocals and his emerging talent on the guitar, which was a tall order when considering Green’s enormous stature as a player in particular. By the time the elder guitarist departed the group in 1970, Kirwan was well-established to take his place, or at least become the focus in Green’s absence.
This song is evident of Kirwan’s influence, which was the slow drift away from the blues, and into a more wistful, pastoral, and more radio-friendly direction during a time when folky singer songwriters were making headway when it came to selling records. This song in particular would reveal something else about Kirwan though, and would unfortunately foreshadow his fate at the same time. Read more
Listen to this track by Teutonic singer, actor, and model Nico. It’s “These Days”, a song as taken from her 1967 record Chelsea Girl, her solo debut. That album is noted by the extremely high quality of songwriting and instrumental talent behind it, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Tim Hardin.
This particular tune was penned by Jackson Browne, who was a teenager when he wrote the initial iteration of this song. It would evolve later on, and be recorded by several artists including Browne himself later on when he made a name for himself as one of the key figures in the singer-songwriter boom in the early to mid-seventies. Nico was the first to record it in a finished studio version. Browne plays the distinctive electric guitar picking part, accompanying Nico’s distinctively austere and icily distant vocal performance, delivered in her signature lower-register range. All of this is contrasted by a bittersweet wash of strings, added in post-sessions by producer Tom Wilson.
By now, this song has been covered by many, and is perhaps best associated by modern audiences with its use in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Nico’s recording of this song seems to connect with its active ingredients better than most versions do. And what are those ingredients, exactly? And what does Nico bring to it to make it what it is? Read more
Listen to this track by Montreal-based, Providence Rhode Island originated folk-rock fraternal outfit The Barr Brothers. It’s “Beggar In The Morning”, a single as taken from their 2011 self-titled record The Barr Brothers. The titular brothers Brad (guitar, voice) and Andrew (drums and percussion) had been a part of experimental rock band The Slip from the mid-nineties, but had been playing music in one form or another since 1983 when they were still children growing up in Rhode Island, with Chuck Berry and Miles Davis getting equal time on the record player as they learned their craft on their instruments.
The results of vocalist and guitarist Brad Barr’s songwriting output reflects a sense of emotional gravity and textural variety. His brother Andrew keeps the beat and add percussive accents and melodic accessory on drums and percussion. Classically-trained harpist Sara Page was added to their line-up after Brad heard her playing harp through the drywall, since she was his neighbour. with her addition to the brothers’s sound, the band was officially born. Multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial rounds out the membership, adding further nuance to the whole, which is a meditative and subtle approach to modern roots music that escapes easy comparison.
How did the brothers cover the distance between Boston, where they were based for a decade, and Montreal? It was a question of an odd and unexpected welcome they received in a city that was gaining in stature as a key cultural destination for innovative music.
Listen to this track by mercurial singer-songwriter who likes a good jam as much as the next guy, Bob Dylan. It’s “Jokerman” a cut that is featured on his 1983 record Infidels. On that album, the song is presented in a tasteful reggae-seasoned arrangement. But, Bob being Bob, when it came time to play it on David Letterman in March of 1984, he had other ideas.
Bob was living in Malibu around this time, and still very interested in exploring some musical alchemy with local musicians. I imagine the ride he’d been trying to get off since his early days as a would-be folk-rock messiah had a lot to do with that, trying to stretch himself as a player and a performer as the times were beginning to do some a-changin’ as the eighties began in earnest. Among some of the attendees at Bob’s house jams during this period was bassist Tony Marsico and drummer Charlie Quintana of the L.A punk band The Plugz, the first recognized Latino punk band active in a field of mostly white groups on that scene, and who in fact had gone indie during a time when that wasn’t really a thing yet, forming their own record label. The alchemy Bob sought must have become adequately manifest by their gumption, but also their playing.
In short order along with punkily-monikered guitarist Justin Jesting (aka J.J Holiday) , they were to be Dylan’s backing group on the Letterman appearance. The performance would be both a triumph and a tragedy in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by supposed melancholic singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Saint Bernard”, the lead single from his most recent record Carousel One, to be released next week in the United States and in Canada.
The new record is the follow up to 2013’s Forever Endeavour, which was kind of like the Sunday morning album from his Saturday night-before flirtation with a wider audience as depicted in the 2010 documentary Love Shines and the associated album Long Player, Late Bloomer. Both of those records helped to bring Sexsmith out of what he considered to be a career funk in terms of sales and exposure, although much of their content framed that sense of struggle that his career was getting away from him.
Often pegged as a melancholic songwriter (incorrectly, in my view), these albums seemed to confirm him as one who deals in the bigger questions in life, the weighty themes that humanity has always wrestled with; the nature of success, of happiness, and an ever-present sense of mortality that presides over our lives. I suppose it makes sense that critics have pigeonholed him in the sombre section of their inner record collections after hearing these two albums from him, even if the songs themselves never sound as weighty as the themes with which they deal.
But, this single cracks all of that open, and shows a side of Ron Sexsmith that isn’t quite as available on the F-keys of most rock journalists’ laptops. Read more
Listen to this track by three-part harmony supergroup CSN, or rather Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and epic length slab of prime ’60s folk rock as taken from the then newly formed band on their self-titled debut record released in the spring of 1969.
The group formed after the three principles David Crosby late of the Byrds, Stephen Stills formerly of Buffalo Springfield, and ex-member of British Invasion favourites The Hollies, Graham Nash met at a party. Crosby and Stills had performed a tune together, and Nash who had been a part of a band who specialized in harmony singing joined in. And the magic happened! I’m sure even they were astounded at the results which have since been celebrated for nearly fifty years.
And this song was their flag in the sand as a statement that would distinguish them even from their work in the bands from which they had come. And along with that, they would usher in a new era for popular music, too. And how would they do that? Read more
Listen to this track by politically motivated globetrotting singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call it Democracy”, a song as taken from his 1986 album World Of Wonders.
Cockburn had spent the 1980s making albums and writing songs while also making personal trips to points on the map where the negative effects of Western economic policy was making the most impact in that era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continued their “aid” to Third World countries, lending them the funds to manage their economies effectively (read: in line with Western corporate agendas) in exchange for turning over their right to self determination in support of private interests. This was, and is today, generally done by way of huge rates of interest on loans that are designed to never be paid off. Certain people might say this is nothing less than economic imperialism. People like me, say.
Heavy stuff, I know.
So, how does Cockburn make this into a compelling song, and not just an over-earnest polemic? Because when it comes to writing political songs, this is what separates the big dogs from the furry fashion accessories. Read more