Listen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.
But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.
Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us. Read more
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 Pacific Northwest rainy day indie-rock heroes Death Cab For Cutie. It’s “Title And Registration”, a single as taken from their 2003 landmark record Transatlanticism, their fourth LP released toward the latter half of that year. This tune was released in early 2004, initially as an Internet-only offering, and represented their third and final single from the record.
At the time, this record was almost universally praised. Perhaps one reason this song and the record off of which it comes had such impact is because for all of its freshness at the time, it deals with a very pressing issue that has been a part of pop music for over a century and longer; the bad, old-fashioned break up. Head writer Ben Gibbard demonstrates his a knack for positioning this well-trodden thematic path in an interesting and unassuming way that makes it a song that’s more relatable than most in the “breaking up is hard to do” stakes.
And how does he do that? He starts this song with an everyday task. Looking to find the titular documents, the song’s narrator takes a trip to the car and to the humble glove box, which turns out to hold a whole Pandora’s worth of trouble for him.
Listen to this track by soft-spoken singer-songwriter from Louisiana and then Memphis, Tennessee who made Montréal his home for many years, Jesse Winchester. It’s “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding”, a track taken off of his latter day album Love Filling Station in 2009.
The reasons for his stay in Canada from 1967 onward were less than ideal. The Vietnam war was ramping up, and Winchester was a pacifist. This meant taking refuge in Canada to avoid the draft like so many of his generation. But what it also meant was meeting with The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who would produce his self-titled first album in 1970, complete with the sepia-toned cover shot that made Winchester look like an outlaw on the lam, which in some respects I guess he actually was before President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1977, along with all other American conscientious objectors, after which he could finally tour the States. He stayed in Canada anyway until 2002.
Since that period, he recorded his own albums and penned songs for other artists as well. By 2009, he was not exactly a household name, and his output had slowed considerably. But this tune demonstrates the depths of his talent that remained undiminished, and reveals something about the passage of time and the ways we perceive things as we get older. Read more
Listen to this track by Chicago-born singer, dancer, author, actor, poet, activist, educator, and hip hop seed planter Camille Yarborough. It’s “But It Comes Out Mad”, the opening track to her 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker. On this release, she mixes spoken word narratives mixed in with funk-soul grooves and impassioned singing, often cited as an influence to hip hop and to future R&B releases, mainly because it frames important aspects of the black experience in such an unflinching way.
Yarborough’s voice in the mainstream is possibly most recognized by the jubilant “Take Yo’ Praise”, famously sampled by Norman Cook under his Fatboy Slim moniker, and his monster dance hit “Praise You” from 1998, one of the most empowering dance tracks of that decade, with Yarborough’s voice being central. That original song of Yarborough’s is also full of victory and joy, a love song to one person, maybe, but also to be applied to an entire culture who had seen terrible adversity and had survived it; slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights.
To contrast that, “But It Comes Out Mad” is something of a balance to “Take Yo’ Praise” in that respect, starting off the album and setting a stark tone that goes more in depth about that same struggle on a more granular level. Read more
Listen to this track by New York chamber pop ensemble led by arch-songwriter Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields. It’s “I Don’t Want To Get Over You”, a love song (sorta) as taken from the 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs, on which there are in fact 69 love songs.
That record might be looked upon as being the result of a dare were it not looked upon as one of the best albums released that year. This is despite its vast scope or perhaps even because of it. What it established, if there was any doubt, was Stephin Merritt’s seemingly bottomless creative well for creating compact, thoughtful, well-constructed pop songs that draw from many genres and eras. And this was just one of his musical projects during that period! The lowest common denominator here is that they are all ostensibly love songs.
Although that’s another thing with this album. When all 69 songs have been listened to, we’re no further along in understanding love than when we began, and that’s kind of the point. Love is an elusive animal, even in song. But, what is the status of love on this particular song, which is a break up tale that perhaps more of us can relate to than we’d like to admit? Read more
Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, poet, essayist, and all-around musical genre defier Labi Siffre. It’s “Watch Me”, a single on the Polydor label released onto the UK charts with a top thirty placement in 1972. That year, he would also release his third album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying.
Before his recording career as a solo artist began in the 1970, Labi Siffre was a jobbing musician in the jazz clubs of Soho in London in the 1960s. His music would be delivered in two separate stages. First, he would put out six albums from 1970 to 1975. Later, he would retire as a recording artist, only to return in the mid-eighties, and make four more records by the end of the nineties. His work would be covered by acts ranging from Madness, who had a top ten hit with Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”, to Rod Stewart who would record “Crying Laughing Loving Lying”. His music has since been sampled by Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z, and Primal Scream.
In this early part of his career, he would become known in England as a writer of great depth and dimension to be compared to many of his contemporaries who had come out of similar scenes including Joan Armatrading, Cat Stevens, and Al Stewart. This song is a prime example of what he was able to do; write towering love songs full of beaming optimism without any hint of soppiness or hackneyed sentiment of any kind. He would also make a point of breaking down all kinds of barriers, both of a musical and of a personal nature. Read more
Listen to this track by Australian post-new wave ambassadors Hunters And Collectors. It’s “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, a hit single off of their high-profile 1986 record Human Frailty, and released earlier as a stand-alone two years earlier.
This song is considered to be a national treasure, being highly regarded as one of the best singles recorded by any band in Australia. It has scored top ten placements in poles for decades after it was re-recorded on the album and put out again as a single. Maybe a part of its appeal is that it’s a love song, although one that adds some lyrical angles that isn’t typical in love songs. Another aspect is that it’s nothing short of an anthem, designed to be sung for and with a live crowd. Listening to it, you can hear the space set apart in the arrangement for the heaving throngs singing along while swaying out in front of stages.
It also hints at something that is certainly resonant to human experience; our ephemeral existence and our call to seize the day. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time clubhousing musical pioneers and last waltzing quintet mostly from Canada, The Band. It’s “It Makes No Difference”, a classic deep-cut from their 1975 album Northern Lights, Southern Cross, their sixth.
This track features the vocals of bassist Rick Danko, known these many years later as one of his defining moments as a performer. It’s hard to deny. The song itself is heartbreaking, coming from the point of view of a man bereft of joy having lost his love with no hope of regaining it, and when sung by Danko, his very soul along with it. This is all bolstered by writer Robbie Robertson’s lyrical guitar voicings, and Garth Hudson’s mournful lines on the saxophone.
Robbie Robertson wrote the song specifically with Danko in mind, knowing what the possibilities would be. After all, this song is probably one of the most direct and personal songs he ever wrote. So, what is it about Danko’s voice that brings it to life so effectively to the point where all other vocalists covering this song over the years haven’t come near to capturing?
Listen to this track by autumnally inclined indie folk concern from Melbourne Australia, The Paper Kites. It’s “Bloom”, a single that would later appear on their initial EP, also called Bloom released in 2010.
The band started the year before that, slowly building up an audience through old-fashioned word of mouth. In the meantime, the band made the EPs themselves making them very limited editions. But this was not before band members Sam Bentley and Christina Lacy met during high school, playing as a duo initially at local venues, weddings, and festival shows in and around Melbourne.
The band have since filled out into a quintet with Bentley and Lacy each singing and playing guitar, bolstered by, Josh Bentley on drums, Sam Rasmussen on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Powys playing guitars, banjo, and lap steel.
Actually, this “make your own EP by hand” gambit was tried and true for this band on a number of occasions since their birth as a band. They eschewed the making of a full length record at one point, opting for another EP and more touring before putting out 2013’s States. So with all of this local word of mouth traction in Australia, how did they move the needle to being heard on CBC Radio One by me recently? Read more