Listen to this track by stylistically slippery Los Feliz-based musical vehicle for songwriter Mark Oliver Everett, Eels. It’s “Saturday Morning”, the lead single as taken from 2003’s Shootenanny, the fifth release under the Eels moniker. The album followed relatively quickly on the heels of 2001’s Souljacker, and shares some of its harder, fuzzier edges.
By this time, Everett was in a particularly busy period with multiple projects on the go all at once. He was planning a magnum opus of a record that would eventually be released in 2005 as the thirty-three track album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. That project would feature some of the most intricate and delicate arrangements of his career. At the same time, he recorded this album which was done in a contrastingly short period of time in a matter of a couple of weeks, live off of the floor. Somewhere in there, he also wrote the score for the film Levity. Whew!
Knowing what was on his plate at the time, it would be easy to chalk this particular song up to Everett’s own driven work ethic. Yet, this song alluded a time in the past before his career as a professional songwriter and musician even began, and to a state of mind to which many of us can relate. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.
The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.
One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned. Read more
Listen to this track by powerhouse jazz-pop crooner Tony Bennett, and impressionistic ivory-tinkler Bill Evans. It’s “Waltz For Debby”, an original melody written by Evans that turned into something of a jazz standard from when it was first recorded in the mid-fifties.
This version appears on the pair’s 1975 collaborative effort, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, which was the first of two albums from them. It represents a high watermark in the catalogues of both men, which considering the calibre of talent at work here, is really saying something. In some ways, the likelihood of this record being as transcendent as it is seems unlikely on paper. As dextrous as Bennett has always been as a vocalist, by this time in his career he was a traditional pop singer, and not noted for a pure jazz style. In contrast to that, Evans was known for his complex and even cerebral approach to jazz. Although like Bennett, he’d traded in the interpretation of jazz standards for a good deal of his career by this time, Evans’ tendencies to deconstruct those melodies stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the vocalist.
With all that said, this album works anyway, and gloriously so. And this rendition of Evans’ tune, with lyrics written by Gene Lees is one of the most powerful. This is down to the strength of the song as interpreted by Evans for this duet. But, Bennett does more than his part to bring it to life, a story about childhood, adulthood, and the bittersweet process of seeing one fade to make room for the other. Read more
Listen to this track by flannel-wearing Seattle-based hard rock concern Pearl Jam. It’s “Alive”, the first single as taken from their now-classic record Ten, released in the summer of 1991. This song reached peak positions all over the world, and helped to add intensity to the spotlight on the Seattle scene in general at the time, when the mainstream press were beginning to whip themselves up into a frenzy over that which they themselves called grunge.
Nineteen-ninety-one was a pivotal year for many bands, particularly those based in Seattle. It was also a year that many of these bands were lumped together by the press, some having only tenuous common musical threads to unify them. But somehow, they were still a part of a sea change that let everyone know that the eighties were well and truly gone, and that the nineties had officially begun. For the first time in a long time by 1991, rock music was being talked about not only in musical terms, but in sociological ones, recasting rock music as the cultural phenomenon that it had been when it was first coined as a cultural trend. Pearl Jam’s Ten was a text to prove the thesis just as much as Nirvana’s Nevermind was by the early nineties, reinvigorating strains of rock music that had slipped away from the glare of the mainstream until then, casting down the idols of the previous decade as a side effect.
This song in particular was a burning light to a remarkable new take on hard rock, escaping the Spinal Tap-isms of late eighties poodle-glam world of cherry pies, spandex, and women writhing on the hoods of cars. Instead, it shot an arrow straight for the soul, with this song telling a whole novel’s worth, even including some autobiographical material from a 25 year old singer Eddie Vedder, who wasn’t even in the band when he originally wrote this three-verse tale of childhood, betrayal, and guilt.
Listen to this track by wise beyond his years Canadian singer-songwriter and eventual radio broadcaster Murray McLauchlan. It’s “Child’s Song” as taken from his 1971 record Song From The Street, his debut album. The song was famously covered by fellow folk performer Tom Rush the year before on Rush’s 1970 eponymous record, where it tends to be better known outside of Canada.
As for McLauchlan, he would be among the first signees to True North, a label based in Toronto that is loosely the equivalent of Asylum in that it was meant to be a place for singer-songwriters. In this case, it was the artists coming out of the Yorkville folk scene there in Toronto in the late 1960s, songwriters with emotive and introspective points of view and with roots-oriented sound and arrangements that would characterize the True North stable for many years afterwards. Murray McLauchlan was certainly among the finest early examples, along with fellow signee Bruce Cockburn who was the first artist on the True North roster before McLauchlan joined him.
By the time McLauchlan wrote and recorded this song, he was a tender 23 years old seemingly with something of an old-soul and keen sense lyrical detail and emotional undercurrents. It seems to tell a very personal story about outgrowing the place where one grew up. But this song distinguishes itself in a way that standard “I wanna be free” songs written around this time do not. Read more
Listen to this track by British ironicists and synth-pop fans from way back, Black Box Recorder. It’s “Andrew Ridgeley”, a paean to an ’80s icon and to an era too as taken from the band’s 2003 record Passionoia. For those of us who also were brought up to the sound of the synthesizer, and who learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums, this is an instant connection. The wrench in the works is the object of affection at the center of this song, possibly.
That’s what this band was always good at – undermining expectations, and making you wonder where they’re coming from. Is Andrew Ridgeley cooler than we thought? Is this a song coming from a sincere place? Is it just an exercise in subversion for the sake of it? Is it as black and white as all that? And is there more here than the lyrics may be telling us?
Well, of course. This is Black Box Recorder.
So, what is this song trying to say exactly? Well among other things, I think it’s a song about growing up. Read more
Here’s a clip of one of my favourite Peter Gabriel songs – “Family Snapshot”, taken from his excellent third album with the title Peter Gabriel (AKA ‘Melt’) from 1980.
The song contrasts two profiles of the same person. One is the obsessive, fame-hungry assassin, with a gun fixed on a man of achievement and means in order to gain fame himself. The other is a “lonely boy hiding behind the front door” who is in “need of some attention.” When I first heard the tune, I thought of Lee Harvey Oswald , seeing as this is the most logical cultural reference. But, lately it’s the other portrait of the neglected child that stands out most for me, calling out to his parents for some attention, while instead learning that “if you don’t get given, you learn to take”.
The violence in the song is two-fold; the assassination when the central character “lets the bullet fly”. But, also the violence done to the child who gets none of the attention he is begging for. For me, this song reinforces what a crucial time childhood is, and how important the role of the parent is. In this song, we’re shown how easy it is for a child to become lost, only to find himself as a man seeking to fulfill that which was denied him, and doing so through violent means. And it makes me wonder if this would be a less violent world if it was understood how this dynamic plays out in the lives of children.