Listen to this track by politically minded singer-songwriter with an eye for the ironic Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call Me Rose”, the second song as taken from his 2011 album Small Source Of Comfort. Being known mainly for a song about reflecting on what would happen to sons of bitches should Cockburn ever procure a rocket launcher, he’s not generally known for writing songs with a sense of levity. Yet, even that is a misconception. This is the guy who covered Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” remember, arguably in reaction to his (unearned) reputation for being a bit too earnest. An opening line like “My name was Richard Nixon, only now I’m a girl” might be a bit jarring for many in any case.
On this song, Cockburn really hasn’t strayed from his main songwriting patch which has been about commenting on socio-economic inequity in the world. On this song though, there is a unique shift in perspective that has Cockburn voicing a character, rather than a usual narrative in his own voice. Instead of tales of Nicaraguan villagers making the best of things during a period of political upheaval, or ones about fleeing Guatemalan refugees at the mercy of machine gunners in helicopters (the sons of bitches referred to earlier), we meet a mother called Rose with two little kids living in the projects. The twist is that in a previous life, she had been the aforementioned former President of the United States. How’s that for socio-economic inequity?
But what is Cockburn trying to say here, other than “karma’s a bitch”? Well, I think it has to do with how we as a culture view the idea of power and how it relates to empathy. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindonian pop perfectionists and Little England observers XTC. It’s “No Thugs In Our House”, a single as taken from their 1982 double album English Settlement. On that record, writers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding explore the English identity as could, and perhaps still can, be found in small towns all over the country.
“No Thugs In Our House” appeared in an historic context, with racially motivated violence and the rise of British national parties characterizing the social landscape in Britain in the early 1980s. The National Front in particular was a high profile group that ignited racially motivated incidents and hate speech at the time that began to seep into the public consciousness, poisoning the political viewpoints of many including the young. They framed incoming immigrants as scapegoats. These “foreigners” were supposedly taking all the good jobs, somehow soaking up a disproportionate percentage of social benefits at the same time, and generally encroaching upon traditional (read: white) British culture. In 2016, this brand of propaganda as it covers up austerity measures of sitting governments, and as it provides traction for fringe single-issue groups still sounds pretty familiar.
But, having said all that, I don’t think that white supremacist groups are the target in this song at all. In many ways, the criticism here in this song has more sinister and wider-reaching implications. 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 American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day. Read more
Listen to this track by experimental rock noise makers from New York City Sonic Youth. It’s “Teen Age Riot”, a breakthrough song from an equally breakthrough record in 1988’s Daydream Nation. This was the release that put the band on the map after having formed a full seven years before.
The band that included singer and guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist and singer Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Renaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley built their sound on their experiments with distortion, re-thinking the traditional structures of rock music and distilling them into their component parts. Then, they added their own elements to those structures true to the American underground DIY approach that was growing steadily by the early eighties. They added in spoken word elements, and tying it all together with a ferocious guitar sound that opened up the possibilities for rock guitar into the 1990s.
But, in the meantime, they had their own reputations to build with alternative radio, pulling from influences that ranged from The Beatles, to Neil Young, to The Minutemen. As experimental as they continued to be by 1988, they also understood that traditional rock structures in a song were traditional for a reason; they resonate with listeners. But, this song goes beyond an embrace of standard structure still.
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 laptop-totin’ Oxfordian rock quintet and era-defining post-rock flirters Radiohead. It’s “The National Anthem”, a deep cut off of their 2000 album that confounded many a music reviewer, Kid A.
That album was the follow up to their 1997 album OK Computer, a work that stirred up the stagnant waters of the rock scene in Britain as Brit-Pop was beginning to become somewhat bent with age. But as it turned out, Radiohead had not arrived with that record in terms of their ambition as a musical unit. They were on their way upward and inward to the degree that when this new album Kid A emerged, it was not just in the public eye because it was so long-awaited. It was a bona fide news story.
Before its release, it was rumoured that there were no guitars to be found on the new record! It was an electronic record full of bleeps and blips instead! Judas! Even today, 15 years (!) later, there continues to be a misconception that Radiohead abandoned six-stringed noisemakers completely on this record. They hadn’t. There’s plenty of guitar on this album. There just aren’t any solos or prominent riffs. There are other textures that simply took precedence on some tracks. With this one, it was beats and synthesized washes of sound, plus brass, of all things. Radiohead had changed their gameplan.
But, what they hadn’t changed was their interest in the direction culture was headed, especially on a newly dawning century. If we listeners were all distracted by how different the sound of the album was compared to what they’d come up with before, then on first listen, we may have missed what had stayed the same, coded into the music; a mistrust and fear of where the future was taking us, and the tenuous threads on which civilization itself hangs. Read more
Listen to this track by message music maven and one-time Staple Singer Mavis Staples. It’s “Fight” a brand new single as taken from her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune. The EP was produced by none other than Anti-Records labelmate Son Little, also an artist with a feel for music with a message. This song is a kind of artistic mobius strip, with one artist who followed in the footsteps of another making footsteps of his own for her to follow. Saying that, there is more than just a turnaround between two artists with a similar set of motivations.
“Fight” seems to capture the anger related to any number of systemic aggressions against black people specifically and poor people in general as perpetrated by those who’s job it is to protect them. These events have alerted us to a social crisis that is not isolated to a few areas in our society. Songs about struggle and rage are appropriate in 2015 to say the least. I think essential may be the more precise word.
Listen to this track by Woking Surrey all mod cons power trio The Jam. It’s “Town Called Malice”, a smash single taken from 1982’s The Gift, their last record together. The song would be their third number one in Britain, and their first charting single in the United States. It would go on to grace soundtracks of movies for many years, including Billy Elliot, a story that is partly about life in a British town beset by economic woes.
The song is indeed a slice of life story of a town. In this case, it’s the hometown of the band, which is about forty minutes on the train outside of London. This is the suburbs, the same place in which another song, 1980’s “That’s Entertainment”, is set. But, instead of the youthful restlessness we saw in that tune, “Town Called Malice” reveals something more sinister underneath its similar scenes of suburban life, with something more at stake than youthful boredom and the need to break away.
Listen to this track by documented Grammy-magnet and Texan country-jazz-indie-whatever singer-songwriter Norah Jones. It’s “Sinkin’ Soon”, a Tom Waitsean political parable as taken from 2007’s Not Too Late, her third album.
This song was released as a second single from that album, which overall was something of a departure from the meticulously wrought jazz and country hybrid she’d perfected on her first two albums, both of which sold a boatload, and made her a household name. For one thing, this time Norah Jones herself along with bassist and songwriter Lee Harris helmed the controls in place of legendary Arif Mardin who had produced those first two albums, making it looser and with more unfastened edges.
The result was still a debut at number one on Billboard’s top 200, three for three where top spot showings were concerned for Norah Jones. Another big change was an emphasis on original songs. Instead of songs sourced from various external sources to fill out the running time, Jones had a hand in writing all of them, either alone, or with band members. She worked many of these out on guitar rather than from her expected place at the piano.
Lee Harris also co-wrote this one with Jones, a story about an ill-fated journey by sea that reflected a certain political point of view during a time when the destiny of a nation seemed to be very much in doubt. Read more