Cousteau Play “The Last Good Day Of The Year”

Cousteau_Album_Cover_(Palm_2000)Listen to this track by London-based orchestral retro-pop quintet Cousteau. It’s “The Last Good Day Of The Year”, probably their best-known track, and taken from their 1999 self-titled debut.

Some pop music is meant to be heard in the finest halls in the land, with the audience dressed to the nines, rather than in the standard t-shirt and jeans. If any band met this criteria, then in 1999 this band was surely one. Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, and Jimmy Webb are the clear bright points in the musical sky by which Cousteau guided their creative ship. This was an important course for bands to explore by the end of the 1990s, with lushly realized production and arrangements that are cinematic in their scope. Maybe this was a case of twentieth century fin de siè·cle, with musicians and songwriters looking backward into the ages of pop’s past to revisit the sound of the century that was about to end.

Maybe that’s the main source of melancholy in this song, a tune that seemed to allude to an end of an era, for good or ill.  Read more

Harry Nilsson Sings “Turn On Your Radio”

Harry_Nilsson_Son_of_SchmilssonListen to this track by golden-throated singer-songwriter and soon-to-be Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Harry Nilsson. It’s “Turn On Your Radio”, a deep-cut from his 1972 album Son of Schmilsson. The record is a self-consciously-titled follow-up to his Nilsson Schmilsson album, which is his biggest selling record to date.

By 1972, Nilsson had scored a number of successes, with seven records behind him, songs on mainstream movie soundtracks, and songs of his covered by other artists. Also, Nilsson had made a lot of friends by then, and had won a number of celebrity fans too, some of whom helped him realize his musical goals during the sessions. This included two Beatles — Ringo Starr (credited as “Ritchie Snare”) on drums, and George Harrison playing his signature slide guitar. Later on of course, he’d have another Beatle in his inner circle; John Lennon, who helped Nilsson drink a lot of Brandy Alexanders at the Troubadour Club. But, that’s another story!

Beyond that, this song illustrates the magnitude of Nilsson’s talent by then. He was able to strike a balance that few songwriters were able to do, between sumptuousness and simplicity. Lyrically too, this song seems to hit two chords at the same time. Read more

The Sea & Cake Play “The Colony Room”

Oui The Sea and CakeListen to this track by pop and jazz-inflected concern from Chicago The Sea & Cake. It’s “The Colony Room” as taken from their fifth record Oui released in 2000.

The Sea & Cake is something of a supergroup of sorts with each member stemming from local bands on the Chicago scene, including Archer Prewitt of the Coctails (guitar, vocals), Sam Prekop (vocals, guitar) and Eric Claridge (bass and synths) of Shrimp Boat, and John McIntire (drums) from Tortoise. The album was something of a comeback for the band, since all of the members had side projects to pursue after their last one from 1997, The Fawn. 

But, what did all of those projects bring to this song once The Sea & Cake reconvened?
Read more

Judee Sill Sings “Lopin’ Along Through The Cosmos”

Judee SillHere’s a clip of L.A-based  orchestral pop meets the hymn book singer-songwriter Judee Sill. It’s “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” a deep-cut featured on her 1971 self-titled record Judee Sill. It would be only one of two records that would be released during her lifetime.

Like many of her songs, this one just bursts with spiritual longing carried by a melody that flows like honey, while also falling between the cracks of  standard musical pigeonholes. Luckily for Sill, a boom in contemplative singer-songwriters was happening around the time she was writing songs. So she was the first to be signed to David Geffen’s now-famous Asylum label, home to many now associated with the era of classic confessional songwriting centered around Los Angeles.

Of course, Judee Sill took a less than conventional path to being signed to a successful record label. She pursued her career after a teenaged period of getting into trouble, landing herself in reform schools, and using hard drugs. Songwriting was her way out.

And with that in mind, it’s a wonder that her music doesn’t sound more jaded. In fact, it sounds completely the opposite. As evidenced by “Lopin’ Along Through The Cosmos”,  this is the voice of an idealist, a dreamer who perhaps doesn’t expect the best, but hopes for it anyway. And Judee Sill certainly had reason to doubt it. Read more

Plush Sings “Save The People”

Listen to this track by Chicagoan singer-songwriter and orchestral pop, and in this case without the orchestra, piano man Liam Hayes recording under the moniker Plush. It’s “Save The People”, the closing track to his 1998 debut record More You Becomes You. 

This is the sound of an ambitious arrangement built up, and then stripped back again to just voice and piano. This is an after-hours sound, a sound of being solitary and indisposed due to a quiet struggle with life’s larger questions. It sounds like a prayer as uttered from the Holy Parish of Bacharach, yet with a vulnerable, and imperfect waver in the voice which reveals the human fragility at its core.

The sparse nature of whole arrangement, false start and all, is a big part of its charm.  And, there’s something about the chords that ties it to something of that late ’60s vibe, with a dash of jazz, and then mixed with a shot of melancholy that works against it all – but in a good way.

Apart from being tied to an earlier pop tradition, could this tune have come out in any other decade besides the 1990s? Well, here’s the thing. Read more

Kris Orlowski Sings “All My People Go”

Listen to this track by Seattle-based, half-Canadian (on his dad’s side) indie folk-pop with orchestral flourishes singer-songwriter Kris Orlowski. It’s “All My People Go”, the opening track to 2012’s Pieces We Are EP, which is co-credited to Andrew Joslyn.

This song is all Orlowski’s, albeit backed by a 17-piece orchestra (with a conductor and everything in Kim Roy). It’s the orchestral arrangement which is a big part of where Andrew Joslyn comes in, bringing the song to a new level.  But, the song can also be appreciated on the smaller scale as well without the orchestral element, which certainly indicates something of Orlowski’s skill as a songwriter.

Kris OrlowskiBesides the durability of the song in terms of how its able to support such a sumptuous treatment, and endure without one too, it’s the  poignancy of the song that makes it so compelling. This is a song about travel, exploration, and loneliness, which are perhaps common themes among musicians. Yet, ultimately nearly everyone can connect with those themes. It helps of course that Orlowski’s voice is a warm, and yearning instrument that pulls you right into the center of it, and what a quietly tempestuous musical storm it is.

The atmospheric quality of this song is a key strength that connects with modern singer-songwriter indie traditions. But, there is something of the jazz singer to be found here too, if not in style, then certainly in spirit. Maybe it’s the way Orlowski’s vocal phrasing helps to establish the mood, or something about the emotional investment he’s made in his own work to bring it to life not only as a writer, but as a performer too. He comes off as a dramatic player in a song that feels like play being staged in the imaginations of listeners.

Supported by a dedicated group of musicians who serve as his band, Kris Orlowski is a active and enthusiastic live performer. I caught him live in Vancouver at the Biltmore Cabaret (my favourite venue in town), and it was a clear case of one for all and all for one.

While on stage, he entreated us to join his mailing list. And now, I encourage you to do the same by visiting

Being as he is a Twitter-ite, you can follow Kris Orlowski on Twitter at @krisorlowskiband.


The High Llamas Play “Checking In Checking Out”

gideon-gaye high llamasListen to this track by London-based orchestral pop experimentalists the High Llamas. It’s “Checking In, Checking Out”, a favourite track off of 1994’s Gideon Gaye. The band is led by one Sean O’Hagan, formerly of ’80s concern Microdisney, forming the High Llamas in the early ’90s, when most record companies were tripping over themselves trying to find other acts that sounded like Nirvana.

In reaction to that, and with an interest in genres of other eras, and other countries too, the High Llamas went up another path. They pursued a bouncy, bright, cinematic, and lushly arranged sound, with this one being a great example.

O’Hagan’s interest in The Beach Boys, Bacharach/David, Love, and Jimmy Webb certainly played into the sound of this track, and the band’s sound in general, providing a pretty strong stylistic tie to sunny Californian landscapes as filtered through their experiences living in often less than sunny London.

But what led this Anglo-Irish group in this direction in the first place? And, how did a sound like this make it onto a major label? Read more

Ben Wilkins Plays “Through To You”

Here’s a clip of Burt-Bacharach-Brian-Wilson-Carole-King-Todd-Rundgren classic pop inheritor, and singer-songwriter from Montreal Ben Wilkins. It’s the video for his new single “Through To You” a tune featured on last year’s Back Of My Head EP , and now a shining gem on a full-length debut record of gems, 2011’s Ben Wilkins.

Formally trained in music at Montreal’s McGill University, and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Wilkins built up his skills in playing music for the sheer fun of it by developing a solid base of composition, singing, harmonic theory, and some arranger’s chops into the mix. A love of AM radio singles of decades past endured all the while.

As a result, his approach to arranging and recording involves a seriously sumptuous and lushly-realized sound that pulls from orchestral pop traditions which gelled and became immortal at the end of the ’60s. But, here we’re reminded that just because a sound is closely associated with an era, it doesn’t mean it’s stuck there. As such, what we’ve got here is the kind of thoroughly enjoyable contemporary pop record that we’re always complaining never gets made anymore. The decade in which it was made doesn’t really matter.

This is classic pop.

After receiving a preview copy of the record, I spoke with Ben via email about the making of this song,  the video ,the album, about the spirit of classic pop, and the elusive idea that music may or may not be the universal language. Read more

Richard Hawley Sings “Coles Corner”

Richard Hawley Coles CornerListen to this track by Sheffieldian musical journeyman, neo-balladeer, ex-Longpigs member, sought-after session guitarist (Nancy Sinatra, Elbow, All Saints, Robbie Williams, and many others), and latter-day Pulp member Richard Hawley. It’s “Coles Corner”, the title track from his acclaimed 2005 solo album of the same name, Coles Corner.

The record, his fourth as a solo artist, was nominated  in 2006 for the coveted Mercury Prize, hooking into chamber pop, orchestral pop, and classic pop balladry.  As you can tell, the word ‘pop’ plays in pretty solidly, although the sunshiny late-60s vibe hides some pretty stormy rainclouds.

This particular song evokes some of the singers Hawley admires from the past, and in their prime – Scott Walker,  Charlie Rich, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, In the Wee Small Hours-era Frank Sinatra, and others. Yet at the same time, it’s Hawley’s economy and attention to detail as a songwriter which makes his work shine.

But, what about this song? What’s it really about? Read more

Kishi Bashi Performs “Manchester”

Kishi Bashi
Photo: Brandee Nichols

Listen to this track by Seattle-born, New York-based singer, violinist, loop technician, Of Montreal string-arranger and touring member, and songwriter K Ishibashi, aka Kishi Bashi. It’s the sumptous-yet-spacious “Manchester”, an impressionistic and post-modern narrative about a narrative as taken from the EP Room For Dream.

The song is the opening track on the EP, an ever-expanding soundscape that is, at once, airy, organic, and with a touch of hopefulness balanced against melancholy. Musically, the song is an amalgam of pan-cultural textures, from sparse Far-East flavouring, to western classical aesthetics, and delivered in the similar kind of cinematic orchestral pop packaging as a Mercury Rev, or Flaming Lips.

After seeing Kishi Bashi perform as an opening act for Sondre Lerche (and then join Lerche’s ensemble as a backing musician on violin, guitar, and keyboards) at the Biltmore Theatre here in Vancouver, I had a chat with him via email about the business of cultural crossover, about the importance of location in the songwriting process, and about what Beethoven would have made of loop technology.

*** Read more