Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.
That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.
Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more
Listen to this song by cut-and-paste irony merchant and heartfelt singer-songwriter all in one, Beck. It’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, a single as taken from his 2002 album Sea Change, his seventh. The album’s title can be taken in a few ways, with one being the impression that Beck had embraced a new level of candour in terms of subject matter and perspective. This may be due to the fact that the album was released during a period of upheaval for its creator.
This song is one of many that documents the break-up of a relationship, with a requirement for the narrator in each song to confront the associated emotional turbulence before moving beyond it and starting a new chapter for himself. Sea change indeed, then. Evidently, Beck was apprehensive about revealing the depths of his feelings around these kinds of themes, given that he’d personally broken up with his partner of nine years around the time this album was released. He wanted to avoid self-indulgence, and capturing his own misery in amber. Eventually though, it occurred to him that songs about break-ups are legion because the pain associated with the end of a relationship is universal to the human experience. Why not write about it?
As a result, this song goes beyond any one personal story and opens things up in the material for an audience. This resulted in some pretty solid reviews. And there are still some eyebrow-arching lines in there that are true to their writer’s M.O to boot.
Listen to this track by supremely gifted American pop song artisan and singer-songwriter in her own right Carole King. It’s “It’s Too Late”, a smash single coupled with another song, “I Feel The Earth Move”, as a double A-side, and featured on her classic 1971 record Tapestry. The song was co-written with lyricist Toni Stern, who penned the words after a break-up with a mutual friend of King’s, fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Carole King herself had written for many other artists from Bobby Vee, to The Chiffons, to The Monkees, a role that took up quite a bit of her time from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s after only a few solo singles under her own name by the beginning of that decade. By then, she’d evolved considerably as a writer and performer. “It’s Too Late” reflects a more mature perspective on the end of a relationship compared to many of the break-up songs she’d written in the previous decade. It adds a level of musical sophistication too, with jazz-inflected guitar and soprano sax adding additional voices to King’s resigned lead vocal and lush piano lines.
But very importantly, it’s also a key song that comes from a woman’s point of view during a time when certain social changes were only just beginning to make their way into the broader cultural conversation. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Hushdrops-honcho turned solo artist John San Juan. It’s”Someone’s Birthday”, a cut as taken from his new solo record, Smashed. The new record will be released on June 1, 2017.
That’s an historic date when it comes to album releases, of course; especially this year. Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was released fifty years from that date. Among the celebratory effusions that will no doubt follow the golden anniversary of that venerable musical offering, this release from San Juan is a token of allegiance to the spirit of that work. You’ll certainly find the same optimistic sheen on this new record, even if there are shadows to be found in the corners, too.
As much as there are hints to a summer of love now long past on songs featured on Smashed, the record represents a step forward into a new phase for its creator. Being a Hushdrops fan, it was a treat to chat with John and talk about this track, “Someone’s Birthday”, about the making of the record off of which it comes, and about what comes next for him. Here’s what he had to say. Read more
Listen to this track by self-professed old-school singer-songwriter and AM radio fan from way back Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Radio”, the first single off of his 2017 record The Last Rider.
The album was the first record cut with his long-time touring band playing all the parts in an expectedly musically simpatico manner. This includes drummer and singer Don Kerr, with whom Sexsmith also produced the record on the shores of Lake Ontario at The Bathhouse in Kingston, Ontario. This is a bona-fide homegrown album in many respects, then.
Maybe that’s why the album sounds so warm and contented with Bill Withers meets Gordon Lightfoot meets The Kinks textures a-plenty. Sexsmith is known for those kinds of textures and moods through out his incredibly consistent discography. Yet on many of his releases this decade, some of his disdain for recent industry trends and his frustrations with the increasingly complicated game of putting out music in the way he wants to has definitely seeped into his optimism-under-pressure songwriting worldview.
Representing some of that soft-spoken ire is this song, “Radio”. On the surface, this song really does seem of the “things just ain’t what they used to be” variety that finds the narrator scratching his head as the clowns take over the circus and as the show becomes run of the mill. Yet here beneath what seems to be a complaint about the state of the world, there’s greater dimension to be found. Read more
Listen to this track by former Everything But The Girl vocalist, singer-songwriter, and columnist Tracey Thorn. It’s “Oh! The Divorces”, the lead track off of her 2010 solo record Love And Its Opposite. That record was the second release of the century from Thorn, preceded by 2007’s Out Of The Woods, and representative of a new phase in her career as a singer and songwriter.
By this time, she’d spent a decade raising her kids with her partner Ben Watt, also formerly of EBTG and an active solo artist in his own right. She’d given up touring as a live performer by 2000, a part of her career that she’d never really enjoyed fully, and embraced a new avenue of expression through her regular column Off The Record in The New Statesman and as a writer of books. Yet her pursuits as a singer remained. And what a singer! For an artist known for her appealingly unadorned voice, I think a mistake that’s easily made with Thorn is to link her songwriting to that same approach, to assume that she’s always telling her own literal story when she sings.
This dynamic plays into an area that has forever fascinated and befuddled many a music writer, critic, and casual listener; the difference between what a singer expresses in song, and what that same singer really thinks, feels, and directly experiences in their private lives. With this tune, there are a number of elements to throw us off of the trail between the meaning of the song, and its effects on us as listeners.
Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Van Dyke Parks, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, and Jayhawks songwriter Gary Louris along with another member of that band, Mark Olson, who Williams would later marry. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk-rock-with-sophisti-pop leanings singer-songwriter Tom Robinson. It’s “War Baby”, a 1983 single which also appeared on his album Hope and Glory released by the next year. That full-length record is also known as War Baby: Hope and Glory in some quarters.
This single performed exceptionally well on the British charts, reaching number six and serving as a positive turn in Robinson’s fortunes. By 1982, Robinson had moved to Germany in a fit of low feelings in part brought about by debt and by the end of his former musical outfit Sector 27. It was a significant move. Relocating to a new country and social context shook up his worldview, bringing out certain geopolitical dynamics in his music. This was particularly when doing shows in Berlin, a place known for the infamous wall that bore its name; a physical metaphor for the cold war itself.
This political edge is very evident on this song, which is about war and about love at the same time. Maybe too, it reveals just how similar love and war are emotionally speaking, or at least how disturbingly interchangeable they can be. Read more
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