Bon Iver Performs “Skinny Love” From the Album For Emma, Forever Ago

Here’s a clip of one-man act Bon Iver performing “Skinny Love” from the album For Emma, Forever Ago.

The one man is Justin Vernon, who sequestered himself in a cabin in the woods while suffering from a bout of glandular fever, which started on the 18-hour car trip back to Northwestern Wisconsin during the winter of 2006. He’d left behind a band, a relationship, and a life in North Carolina in order to heal, spiritually re-boot, and generally go into hibernation. As it turns out, part of that process involved making this record.

Bon IverCompletely alone for a quarter of a year in his Dad’s cabin in the woods, Vernon spent the time hunting deer (his staple food while there), chopping wood, and recording his album using the bits and bobs of well-aged equipment he had on hand. The result is a spare and soulful album, sung with a falsetto voice that suggests a multi-tracked Skip James in places. The record is currently impressing the members of the music press (MOJO magazine declares it to be one of their “MOJO Instant Classics”), and making everyone wonder how the guy is going to top it.

I love to hear about albums with interesting back stories, and I’ve recently added this one to my favourites. It’s like the Basement Tapes in solitary confinement!

Bon Iver is currently touring North America, and will be appearing in Europe too in the coming autumn.

For more music and tour dates, check out the Bon Iver MySpace page.

Emmylou Harris Interview

Here’s a link to an in-depth interview with Emmylou Harris, alt-country godmother, roots music interpreter, and sought-after musical collaborator. Thanks once again to Clash Magazine for such a great interview!

Emmylou HarrisDiscovered by the Byrds, inspired by the Band, and mentored by Gram Parsons, Harris struck out on her own by the mid-70s, cutting albums which are in a country vein. But she didn’t limit the possibilities of the genre by sticking to the rules. She included material from the folk, pop, and rock worlds as well, which brought her skills as an interpretive artist to light across the entire musical spectrum.

Along with her ensuing output as a solo artist through the 70s and into the 80s and 90s, her work on two albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt – Trio, and Trio II overtly bridged the gap between traditional country and Californian country rock, among many other pop influences that extended to a version of Phil Spectre’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, originally recorded by late 50s pop vocal group The Teddy Bears. And her landmark 1995 album Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois, showcased her take on songs from Steve Earle to Jimi Hendrix.

Today, she’s enjoying the attention of new audiences, has begun to put increased efforts into her own songwriting along with her continuing development as an interpreter. Harris has maintained an exemplary reputation in strong supporting roles as a backing vocalist, appearing on record and in concert with artists like Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and Ryan Adams, among many others.

Her newest album, All I Intended to Be, is out now.

Enjoy the interview!

UK Punk Pioneers Buzzcocks Perform “What Do I Get?”

Here’s a link to a song by the stars of UK punk’s first graduating class, Manchester’s Buzzcocks – “What Do I Get?” from 1978.

Buzzcocks Singles Going SteadyThere are a lot of misconceptions about punk. One is that punks didn’t care about melody or songwriting. Another is that they were uninterested in making pop music. Where a lot of bands may follow this approach, it can’t be said of the whole genre. It certainly can’t be said of early punk champions, Buzzcocks. This group put across just as much of both as they did the signature buzzsaw-guitar sound. If one thing can be said of early punk rock, it was that there was an importance placed on the basics. And this doesn’t mean that they were not competent musicians, which is another annoying misconception.

It does mean that the directness found in the singles of 60s girl groups and early beat group sides, and the equally direct communication to teenaged record buyers, was an important aspect of the punk modus operandi. Take a look at this song, “What Do I Get?” – full of energy, with a rhythm section that races to the next bar as if its tail is on fire, and a guitar which sounds like a drill through a wall. Add to that lead singer Pete Shelley’s almost feminine delivery. This is the voice of the frustrated would be lover that speaks for all frustrated would-be lovers everywhere. This band created a tune which is a shining example of what a pop single should be – direct, energetic, and speaking to an audience by being empathetic in its subject matter.

The group put out an impressive body of work which captured the spirit of the times, and did so independently starting with their landmark 1976 EP, Spiral Scratch. And most of what are now the clichés of punk are nowhere to be seen. These are not songs about anarchy and bodily fluids. OK. Maybe the band’s first single “Orgasm Addict” might be a bit of an exception to the rule. But, the point is that all of the songs from the band’s early period, collected on the excellent and essential Singles Going Steady compilation from 1979, were relevant to their teen fans. Love gone wrong, feelings of awkwardness, and the joys of infatuation all play into the mix in Buzzcocks’ songwriting output. In this, they weren’t really embarking on a revolutionary path that had never before been explored. This is not punk-year-zero stuff here (another misconception, in my opinion, that punks at the time tried to sell, and did sell to many a naïve fan…). This is classic pop writing in new packaging. For all of the bluster many bands at the time portrayed about punk being a new beginning, it was more like an old beginning.

Of course I mean this in the best sense. This is the reason I love punk; not because punk saved the world from Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin (yet another misconception…), but because it sticks to what rock music does best – it speaks to an audience in terms that the audience understands best. And Buzzcocks singles are a prime example of how viscerally explosive music hasn’t really changed in terms of approach since pop records were first made to speak directly to teenagers. The influence this band has had over current pop-punk is immeasurable, proving that the basics are still the basics.



Buzzcocks have broken up and re-grouped a few times, but the guys are currently active and touring. Check out the official Buzzcocks website for more news about dates and record releases.

Also, it might be worth your while to visit the Buzzcocks MySpace page to hear streamed music if you want to find out where Green Day cultivated its musical mojo.

Sting Performs “Valparaiso” from 1996’s Mercury Falling

Here’s a clip featuring Sting’s 1996 song “Valparaiso” from his album Mercury Falling.


Valparaiso is a city in Chile, known as its cultural center. In this song, we get a hint of the history of exploration in the region, where the New World was a mythical place, a dreamworld to which sailors would dare to escape from the mundanities of their seaport homes. Sting has famously told the story of growing up in the North East of England, where the British shipbuilding industry once thrived, building some of the largest ships in the world. When completed, the ships were launched into the sea, and into the unknown – away from the predictability of life in an industrial town. In this light, it makes this song a rather personal one. The metaphor is a pretty strong one as far as pop stardom in the life of a working-class boy from Newcastle. Gordon Sumner created Sting, and launched himself in a similar way, after all.

Sting’s wide musical interest is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it started him on a path where he could write anything in any style using any of his influences. “We Work the Black Seam” on his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles is a far cry from “Every Breath You Take”, for instance. But, by the early 90s, and after his last solidly consistent record, The Soul Cages, his eclecticism became his undoing for me. His writing became somewhat workmanlike, and Sting himself became less the personal artist and more the pop craftsman. Basically, a lot of what interested me in his writing – the contrasting psychological light and darkness to be found in his work with the Police, and on his first few solo albums – was gone.

Maybe this is why this song strikes me as one of his best in a period of his career when he lost me as a fan of his solo work. It is personal, not an obvious grab at a hit, and less the excursion down the middle of the road than many of the other tunes on the very same album. Sting would later make a return to his roots, re-connecting with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland for a much-anticipated 2007-08 tour as the Police. He would also continue to delve into various styles which interest him – folk tunes like “My Ain True Love”, written for the Cold Mountain soundtrack and performed with Alison Krauss, and Tudor classical music on the album Songs From the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland.

But, whichever way he goes next, I hope that he finds himself unburdened by the pressure to make safe music, and turns again toward the personal. Whatever the material, strong or weak, his voice is one of the most distinct in rock history, and certainly one of my favourites. I hope his next album is worthy of it.


Gordon Lightfoot Sings “Restless”

waiting_for_you_gordon_lightfoot_album_-_cover_artHere’s a clip featuring the song “Restless” from singer-songwriter and Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot. The song is taken from one of his more recent albums, Waiting for You, released in 1993.

It took me a while to really come to appreciate Lightfoot, being as he was a ubiquitous part of my childhood soundtrack on easy listening radio. But, what a lot of people didn’t know was that he was connected to the same folk scene as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary were. His “Early Morning Rain” was a hit for the latter in the 60s. And Dylan would be an admirer, with Lightfoot joining him for the Toronto Rolling Thunder Revue shows. By then, Lightfoot had amassed an incredible body of work, with hit albums and songs all over radio, and his name assured in the Canadian icon stakes. Heck, even Elvis recorded “Early Morning Rain” and another of his hits, “For Lovin’ Me”.

I’d heard “If You Could Read My Mind” thousands of times as a kid among his other songs thanks to Canadian content regulations assuring heavy rotation on Canadian radio. I placed him in the category of “grown-up music”; that is; not really for me. But, while living in England many years later, I’d heard it again used as a part of the soundtrack of some TV show. Hearing it out of cultural context seemed to make a difference somehow. All of the beauty and fragility in the lyrics, the gentle melodic lines of the tune, and the acoustic guitar with strings arrangement, all opened up for me. The feel of the song was not a million miles away from Fairport Convention or Nick Drake, British folk music which I had also discovered around that time, that seemed to have the same ineffable, mystical quality. Then, I knew that Lightfoot was a rare treasure from my own country, an artist to be celebrated.

This song “Restless” harkens back to his early-to-mid 1970s heyday, after a long trek in the musical wilderness in the 1980s. In that decade, Lightfoot battled bland production and a personal fight with alcoholism too. But, by the time this album was made in the early 90s, he was focused again. And this song is evidence of that.

The song hits a certain melancholic and contemplative chord which I’m always a sucker for. To me, it’s like the soundtrack to one of those nights when you wake up, turn on a single light, and reflect on thoughts that seem to seep partially from a dream, and partially from memories past. It contains hints of regret, yet I wouldn’t say it’s a dark song. This is a song which describes a basic need to draw the threads of one’s life together, and the moments when the need is so strong, your own brain wakes you up and makes you do the work.

Lightfoot’s influence on Canadian music, and on songwriters like Ron Sexsmith, K.D Lang, and the Rheostatics among many others is incalcuable. Take a look at this interview with Gordon Lightfoot from CBC’s the Hour. Lightfoot recently released an album after making a miraculous recovery from internal hemmoraging and a resulting coma in 2002, and the resulting album released in 2005 – Harmony – is of similar quality to the one off of which “Restless” comes. The interview touches on this, along with a brief career overview.

For more music, check out the official Gordon Lightfoot Facebook page, which features performances of some of his most popular songs, including “If You Could Read My Mind”, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, along with links to interviews and historical information.


Tales of Brit-pop 2: Suede Performs ‘Electricity’

Here’s a clip of Brit-pop darlings Suede (known on this side of the pond as The London Suede) doing their post-Brit pop era tune “Electricity” from the 1999 album Head Music.

Suede ElectricityI never did like this band much, it must be said. I like Bernard Butler’s guitar playing, but frontman Brett Anderson’s sub-Bowie/Bolan preening kind of put me off. I guess this is one of those examples of liking the wrong song, since this single and its album came out in 1999, which made these guys ancient as far as the hype of the Brit-pop era was concerned. But, this tune has a lot of balls, with a wall of guitar that sounds like lightning tearing its way through galvanized metal. This is rock music, albeit with the same Euro-pop glam overtones of their other material. I love that guitar, even if Butler isn’t playing it. The band got a new guy in for it – Richard Oakes.

I always found that Brit-pop never really had much in the way of guts. Most of its proponents only came into their own guts-wise after all the hype died down after 1996. Brit-pop classmates Supergrass and Blur, to name but two, branched out with In It For The Money, and Blur respectively, arguably their best albums. And Suede attempts a similar move here, with a decidedly rock approach, although with not quite as much cultural impact in the end. The group pretty much fizzled out after this in terms of being in the public and critical eye. How much life was left in this group by the end? One album it seems, before splitting in 2003.

Rumours abound that the group had been working on new material with Butler back in as guitarist. This is despite Anderson’s solo career – he released a record in 2007, some of which you can hear on the Brett Anderson MySpace page. Tell me what you think as always, good people.


The Apples in Stereo perform the song “Energy” from their album New Magnetic Wonder

Here’s a clip of bubblegum psych-pop outfit Apples in Stereo with “Energy”, off of their new album New Magnetic Wonder.

The Apples in Stereo The band carry the torch for sunshiny Californian pop, with 60s garage-rock overtones. My introduction to the band was their 2000 album Discovery of the World Inside the Moone, which plays to my tastes for fun guitar-pop influenced by 60s British Invasion/Beach Boys with a bit of lyrical weirdness thrown in for good measure. This new song is a continuation of these same 60s pop roots, with a bit of 70s George Harrison-styled slide guitar thrown in too.

There’s something very childlike about the group’s approach to songwriting, particularly on this track which captures the essence of the impetuous restlessness of youth. It sounds like the band put out this record because it was a fun thing to do, more so than to become rock stars (they’ve got the wrong look for that anyway…) or serious artistes. Maybe a lot of groups do things this way. But, with the Apples, the enthusiasm seems to be the glue which holds it all together more so than many others. This is not to say that the band is a slapdash bunch of amateurs – they’ve matched their enthusiasm with craft.

The band is associated with the Elephant 6 collective, along with Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and Neutral Milk Hotel, releasing their full-length debut Fun Trick Noisemaker on that label in 1995 . They recently put out this newest album on actor Elijah Wood’s label Simian records, which is associated with Yep Roc, current home to likeminded songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.

For more, you’d best check out the Apples in Stereo MySpace page.

And perhaps a read of an interview with Robert Schneider who is the frontman and writer for the Apples in Stereo wouldn’t go amiss either.


The Song In My Head Today: ‘Driving With Bert’ by Neil Halstead

Neil Halstead Sleeping On RoadsNeil Halstead’s song “Driving With Bert” is my favourite track on his Sleeping on Roads album released in 2002, with a sort of Nick Drake meets Ennio Morricone spaghetti western vibe to it.

Neil Halstead has been the prolific songwriter and frontman for shoegaze heroes Slowdive, and is currently fulfilling the same role with Mojave 3. As frontman, his solo album was somewhat of an unexpected move for many. Yet, it seems that Mojave 3 is a democracy, so maybe a solo record shouldn’t have been unexpected. Part of what drove the melancholy mood on the record was a break-up, a period of being in between places to stay, and a move, all being very tumultuous events in anyone’s life. To my ears, Halstead was gripped with a chronic case of Bryter Layter , since the same kind of gentle bittersweetness tends to hold the album together in terms of its atmosphere and emotional landscape.

Lyrically as well as musically, this is an autumnally-hued reflection on the efforts it takes to reach for happiness, and mismatching needs and solutions (‘love is for your pain/’drugs for when you’re lonely…’). In this tune, the narrator knows that the hope for such happiness is hanging by the thread of pure circumstance (‘So fine for a while/Soon I know you’ll have to leave again’). Yet in some ways, it’s a pretty life-affirming song, despite of how it could also be viewed as a study in transience – “Laughter in the morning/your time for love, your time for life”. In some ways, this is a celebration of the moment, if not for the future.

I wish I could find a full-length version of this tune somewhere on the Interwebby-thing, but otherwise you can preview a clip and download ‘Driving With Bert’ by Neil Halstead on eMusic, along with some of the other tracks from the album.

I always assumed that the Bert in question is Bert Janch, the British folk guitar pioneer. Here’s an interview with Neil Halstead, who addresses that assumption among others. For instance, he also denies the Nick Drake influence. You be the judge when you hear the tune.

Also, check out the Neil Halstead MySpace page . Here, you’ll be allowed to preview a few tracks from the Sleeping on Roads album in full, although not this one specifically (to date at least).



[UPDATE: August 26, 2016: You can listen to this song, which I still absolutely love, right here! Also, for more on Neil Halstead, consult]

Song Rendition Showdown: Fell in Love With A Girl/Boy – Joss Stone vs. The White Stripes

So, which version of the song is better, good people? That’s the game; it’s up to you to vote now, vote often, and decide who will reign supreme; nu-soul belter Stone, or minimalist indie-blues deities The White Stripes?

The original song itself can be found on the White Stripes’ breakthrough album White Blood Cells from 2001, an anthem to love which is out of reach, but without any trace of maudlin sentiment. This is no gushy love song. It’s a barrel-gutted stomp of a song, a behemoth of fury that pulls no punches, and doesn’t forget its balls. But, what kind of fury are we talking about exactly? It depends on the version, of course. The original is a wall of angry guitar and chaotic drums, while Joss Stone’s cover is all sweaty, soulful, and desperate. Which makes the most sense to you, good people? To get things into focus, let’s do what we always do: take it one version at a time.

The White Stripes

The White Stripes White Blood CellsWhite Blood Cells was the White Stripes’ third album, with very little out of place from their debut and its follow-up. But, this time, the songs seared through the initial novelty of the band’s guitar/drums/no bass structure to reveal some of the best tunes in rock songwriting for that year. And such a simple approach too – just a guitar, bombastic drums, and a petulant whine about a girl who’s “in love with the world” and not necessarily with the narrator. Sexual frustration, confusion, and heartbreak, all in one song. Rock n’ roll.

“Fell in Love with a Girl” was not just a catchy, primal slice of unadorned rock music. It eliminated the idea that rock songwriting was a dead form, a secondary consideration in a sea of banal rap-rock and dime-a-dozen indie music which typified the early 2000s. In effect, this song offered the rock fan hope that there was life in the old girl yet. It also reminded rock audiences that songs were the thing, that they had life of their own outside of the personas and egos of bands who put them on albums. It proved that rock music, song by song, was as malleable and open to interpretation as it ever was even in the new century.

Joss Stone

Joss Stone the Soul SessionsTwo years later in 2003, soul music was given an infusion of the Old School when a teenager from the West Country in England emerged as a perhaps unlikely candidate for new soul queen; Joss Stone. Stone’s apprenticeship under 70s soul star Betty Wright, who herself was a teen soul singer, brought it and did so in a Southern Soul style in an age where R&B had been redefined by smoothed-edges and lifeless production. Although Stone’s approach is influenced by her contemporaries, the feel she gets on her take of the Stripes’ tune is fired by the fuel of a bygone age. Her debut album was entitled, appropriately, The Soul Sessions

Stone’s take on the song goes beyond a simple gender shift. The anger and confusion found in the original version is replaced by what is unmistakably identified as something a bit more carnal. The tension found in Stone’s version is less to do with confusion and frustration in being involved with someone who isn’t taking her seriously, and more to do with the sheer frisson of that situation, the excitement that only comes out of doing something you know is going to be ecstatic in the short term, but ultimately too costly in the long. Where many of her contemporaries wouldn’t have seen that possibility in the material, Stone pulls it off brilliantly, while also re-building the bridge between the rock world, and the R&B world. We’re reminded in this version that the two solitudes of pop music have never been further apart, and yet are also as connected as they ever were.


So, here we are once again, good people. Two versions of a song, both great in their way, and relying on the listener’s ear to judge which will take the number one spot.

Cast your vote below!

Ann Peebles Sings “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”

Here’s a clip of soul singer Ann Peebles singing her hit “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” from 1974’s I Can’t Stand the Rain album.

At one time, soul singing or r&b singing was an excercise in restraint. It let the material do the work for you. There was no need to force it, because the emotion, the beating heart of it, would come out thanks to the strength of the writing, and not the number of notes the singer was able to string together. The poster girl for this approach is Ann Peebles, who made this song a soul classic to be covered by many including singer-songwriter Graham Parker, as well as blue-eyed soul 80s pin up Paul Young. She made delivering a classic seem effortless.

Ann Peebles I Can't Stand the RainPeebles is a lesser-known soul artist by the general populace, but this song and her signature hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” of the previous year are accepted classics. She had a winning stint at Hi Records at the end of the 1960s and into the mid 70s, which is a prime purple patch for southern soul. Along with labelmates Al Green and O.V Wright, Peebles cut a number of respected LPs and hits on the R&B charts although he missed out on crossover success when compared to others. Yet her winningly laid back, sensual vocal quality would have it’s effects on singers of generations to come like Erykah Badu, who employs similar control and delivery, and hip hop artist Missy Elliot who sampled Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” on her song “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” in 1997.

The thing I love about “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” is that Peebles’ voice is quietly menacing – you really believe that one day pretty soon, she’s going to do some tearing like it’s an accepted fact. There are no histrionics required. And of course I love that humid, sweaty soul sound – the horns, the funky rhythm guitar that shows brief flashes of George Benson-like jazz licks, and the contrast of the breezy strings, all of which make for a potent soul stew.

Peebles’ career would be short circuited by the sale of Hi Records and the rise of disco, which eclipsed the southern soul influence on R&B by the end of the 1970s. After taking time off to spend with her family for a good portion of the 80s, she would record and tour sporadically into the 90s. Her hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” would be featured in the 1991 film The Commitments by director Alan Parker, along with many other hits from the classic soul era.

For more about Ann Peebles and her newest release Brand New Classics, check out the Ann Peebles MySpace Page.