John San Juan Sings “Someone’s Birthday”

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

Art Garfunkel Sings “99 Miles From L.A”

Breakaway_(Art_Garfunkel_album)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

Sting Sings “The Lazarus Heart”

Listen to this song by flaxen-haired Novocastrian singer-songwriter and former Police vocalist and bassist most popularly known as Sting. It’s “The Lazarus Heart” as taken from the 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo record and his biggest-selling to date. Perhaps ironically, the record is less commercial than many of his albums in terms of content, with many extremely personal reflections about the nature of history, political upheaval and injustice in the modern day, and the loss of loved ones.

Sting 1988It is with the latter that this song deals; Sting’s mother Doris Sumner died the year this record was being made. In part, this has been identified as one of Sting’s motivating forces in writing it, with a dedication of the record to his mum and “all those who loved her”. But in addition to this, Sting himself had just become a father again the year previous to this tragic life event.

It’s pretty easy to conclude that when this song was recorded, the identity of ‘parent’ would have been pretty strong in the life of the songwriter behind this song on both fronts; as a father, and as a son. Yet, the song contains other elements that make it more universal, and as such, it’s less about Sting, and more about humanity and human experience in general.
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Crosby, Stills & Nash Perform “Just A Song Before I Go”

Here’s a clip of 60s and 70s supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash with a live rendition of the Graham Nash-penned “Just a Song Before I Go” as taken from the group’s 1977 album CSN.  It was an AM radio hit for them, scoring #7 on the Billboard charts that year.

This song is about having to leave for the road, a  pretty big rock sub genre.  Yet this one is less self-pitying than most, and focuses not so much on the rock star who leaves, but rather on the loved ones who are left to wait for them.  As such, there’s a boatload of pathos to be found here.  This is  the expression of someone who is driven to hit the road, yet is tied to home too, with the opposing forces of both stretching his relationships and his sense of identity too to the breaking point.  Travelling twice the speed of sound, it’s easy to get burned.  Nash wasn’t talking about the Concorde here.

By 1977, these guys had been touring for over ten years with this band, and in many others too.  Nash was an original member of the Hollies.  Crosby had been a member of the Byrds.  And Stills, most busily of all had been a founding member of Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, a solo artists, and a member of the short lived band Manassas.

CSN (and sometimes Y) was only one stop on their busy schedules, with this record following up 1970’s Deja Vu, arguably their biggest record.  Yet, they were active in between those years too, with solo albums, tours, duos, and other side projects.  You could say that their careers had made them something of itinerant troubadours, rootless, and by the time the decade had passed, perhaps wondering what it all meant.  It is of no surprise to me at all that this song was a top ten hit for them.  They lived every word by the time CSN came out.

Yet, 1977 was late in the day for these guys who were so much a part of the cultural framework of the 60s.  This would be a bold move to release a record in this transitional period of popular music history, with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors vying for the attention of the mainstream pop-rock fan, and with disco, new wave, and punk making inroads as well.  Yet this was the last wholly successful record these guys would put out that didn’t mine the retro vein.  It would be their last gasp as a mainstream commercial band.

Their follow-up in 1982 in Daylight Again would make up the numbers, but it didn’t rely strictly on the principle three members.  It was a record which relied on session players and guests to bolster it.  In this sense, the title of “Just a Song Before I Go” on the album which preceded it has a number of levels of meaning to recommend it.  In some ways, much like the Band’s The Last Waltz, this song was a poignant goodbye to 60s idealism with which each member is forever associated.

For more information, be sure to check out this  Crosby, Stills & Nash MySpace page.

And for tour dates and other related goodies, visit http://www.crosbystillsnash.com/

George Harrison Sings ‘Blow Away’ from 1979

Here’s a clip of movie producer, racing enthusiast, gardener, songwriter, and guitarist George Harrison with his poptastic 1979 song ‘Blow Away’. Oh, he was in the Beatles too.

The cover of George Harrisons self-titled album in 1979
The cover of George Harrison's self-titled album in 1979

George was an exceptional songwriter, not in the least because he had the tough job of attempting to put across material while in the same band as Lennon and McCartney. And of course he managed to match their ‘A’ material quite well with ‘Taxman’, ‘If I Needed Someone’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, and others. Although Harrison’s solo material is notoriously patchy, arguably no different than that of all of the other Beatles, the high points during his career as a solo artist often matched his Beatles output.

For instance, I’ve always loved ‘Blow Away’, a sparkling gem from Harrison’s low-key 1979 self-titled album, George Harrison. All Things Must Pass may be his towering magnum opus as a solo artist – and rightly so. But, this tune is as good as anything on ATMP. I think this is in part to do with his approach to finding his own sound, while still resting in what he’d learned while honing his songwriting craft in competition with John and Paul. Part of what helped him to do that was his way of integrating a signature guitar sound into the best of his work. And he certainly uses his mournful, melancholic slide guitar to full effect here on this tune.

Sometime in the 1970s, Harrison seemed to change his approach to the guitar, leaving his Carl Perkins-like jangle and twang behind, and taking to the slide. It’s arguable perhaps that he wasn’t interested in meeting his friend Eric Clapton on the top of guitar-Mount Olympus by trying to play like him. In this, the slide might have worked out as a way through for him, given Clapton’s disuse of it. But that’s just me speculating. Harrison was never that kind of guitarist anyway. He was a proponent of the ‘simple is best’ school, and George Harrison’s contributions to the Beatles in terms of guitar are often missed by those who aren’t paying attention. The point is, on this track George seems to make a mournful guitar part sound exactly right in one of the most optimistic songs in his catalogue, a happy tune with just a hint of melancholy. Despite a change in style, George still made a point of proving that simple was still best.

The thing I like about this song, besides the guitar, is that it seems to be drawn from a place of comfort. There’s no ‘uptightness’ in this song, which can’t be said of a lot of his material a couple of years before. This is a guy who remains to be unselfconscious about writing a straight-ahead Beatle-George pop song during a time when pop music was in the middle of an overhaul with the upcoming 1980s looming. There’s something in it which kind of suggests an autumn day after a fantastic summer. What with this tune being one of the last of the Beatles solo singles to be released before the end of the ‘will they or won’t they’ era of hoped-for Beatles reunions, perhaps that’s just what it is.

Check out the George Harrison official website for more information about Harrison’s legacy as guitarist and songwriter.

Enjoy!