Listen to this track by tri-cornered melancholically optimistic pop concern XTC. It’s “Wrapped In Grey”, a should-have-been hit single as taken from the band’s 1992 double-LP Nonsuch.
The song displays writer/singer/guitarist Andy Partridge’s affinity for Brian Wilsonesque pop confectionary, and also (for those in the know) the influence of Judee Sill, which slowly came to the fore as XTC put out more and more bucolic and elegantly arranged albums. This mix of influences creates a sort of partly-sunny effect, with the Brian Wilson influence providing the endless summery vibe to contrast with Judee Sill’s influence that suggests hopefulness in the presence of gathering gloom. But, like the work of both, it’s Partridge’s own penchant for the childlike and the innocent that really brings this song to life, parrots and lemurs and all.
For all of this song’s defiant optimism, which is yet another selling point, there is a certain level of irony to be appreciated when comparing the tone and tenor of this song to the situation in which it was recorded and released. By the time the record came out, the band were in the throes of a conflict with their record company, Virgin, who cancelled this very song as a single against Partridge’s wishes. This led the band as a whole to take some out of the ordinary, and even drastic, steps in response. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Feliz-based musical concern Eels as led by E, AKA Mark Oliver Everett. It’s “Parallels”, a single as taken from 2014’s blatantly self-referential The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett. The song would also appear on the excellent 2015 double live album Eels Royal Albert Hall.
Coalescing in the mid-1990s, Eels music covers a gamut of styles from sixties-influenced indie-rock, to roots-rock, to chamber pop, to a brand of Americanized trip hop, scoring E modest cult status enough to make a career as a professional musician known for brutally honest Lennonesque confessional songs. “Parallels” is one of them, springing from flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and accompanied by a keening lap steel, a foil for E’s charmingly rumpled and weary lead vocal.
Before his professional music career began, E had been a part of a household with another well-known name in limited circles; his father’s, physicist Hugh Everett III. Many years after his death, the elder Everett makes his way into the middle of this song by his son. Or, at least his theories of quantum mechanics do. Read more
Listen to this track by Oklahoman new-psych art rock trio The Flaming Lips. It’s “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton”, the second track off of their 1999 magnum opus The Soft Bulletin. That album was not only a landmark album in their career, being their ninth. It also became a landmark album for the times as well, a sumptuous and artfully realized goodbye to the twentieth century.
This song is one of many that laid out a new template for the ‘Lips for which they continue to be associated today. On it, they decided to cut back on the guitars a bit, and focus more on varied textures. Part of this was an embrace of electronics, which was a natural progression for rock bands in the nineties. The walls between rock music and electronic music were very thin indeed then, and certainly musically permeable without the artists being self-conscious about it. Another was a more expansive approach to production (handled here in part by the band themselves) and to arrangements that included orchestral instruments, including harp, strings, and gong, the latter played (whacked?) by lead singer and head writer Wayne Coyne when they toured the record that summer. Seeing him wail on the gong live on stage was a musical highlight for me that year.
But, getting back to the idea that this album and this song seemed to be a marker of the late twentieth century, there are certainly threads to follow that tie it to pop music of several decades earlier. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this song, and about The Soft Bulletin in general is that it captures something that is quintessentially twentieth century; optimism and idealism when it comes to the future. Read more
Listen to this track by solo Japan founder and pop music envelope pusher David Sylvian. It’s “Let The Happiness In”, a single from his 1987 album Secrets of the Beehive. The record scored a top forty showing on the British charts that year.
Sylvian joined on this track by renowned trumpeter Mark Isham who helps to give the song its Miles Davis-style vibe, and by Sylvian’s long-standing musical cohort by this time, Ryuichi Sakamoto who plays synths, and is responsible for the low-brass arrangement that helps set the scene so well.
This is one of those songs that sets a sombre mood, but is ultimately hopeful. A part of the sombreness may be down to Sylvian’s voice, never an instrument completely without shades of grey. Even the scene is somewhat melancholic; a lone figure by the seaside, and on the cusp of deciding what kind of day it’s going to be.
I think too that this song is ultimately speaking to an important aspect of the human condition, too. Read more
Listen to this track by Californian musical concern as led by Mark Oliver Everett (or ‘E’ just to make things simple), Eels. It’s “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues”, a single released in February of 2000 and later to appear on the album Daisies of the Galaxy as a bonus track. His record company, apparently, insisted on it.
The song itself is a glorious three chord wonder, with the titular Mr. E providing his signature Eeyoresque voice to a song that is defiantly optimistic, co-written with Dust Brother Michael Simpson. The song charted in the top 20 in the UK. So, goddamn right indeed. The song would also appear on movie soundtracks for the films Road Trip, and Charlie Bartlett.
The optimism to be found here is in some ways to be contrasted by what had preceded it, namely Electro-Shock Blues which is considered to be E’s strongest artistic statement, and perhaps one of the best records of the 1990s to boot. That record was a loose concept record around the theme of death and mourning, in part inspired by the passing of Everette’s sister, mother, and a number of other family members and friends in close succession.
Needless to say, “Mr E’s Beautiful Blues” is the sound of a man emerging from a darkened room and outside into the sunlight, perhaps a little bit rumpled, squinting, and sore. But, alive, aware, and ready to move on. Even still, there remains to be a hint of mourning left over from E’s previous release. Read more
Here’s a clip of the video for Ron Sexsmith’s tune “All in Good Time”, taken from his 2006 album Time Being.
I was thinking recently about optimistic songs, once again. I’ve written about some of them before of course in my 10 Songs of Optimism article. And it struck me that I could have chosen nearly any song of Ron Sexsmith’s for that list. One of his key strengths is putting a positive spin on a bad situation in song, while not making that spin sound trite, or disrespectful of the dark side of things which are just as important. I think it’s one of the elements which makes him a great songwriter; he’s got enough respect for the complexities of the human experience to write about it seriously, without the fashionable miserablism which often goes along with that. It’s refreshing not to hear another singer-songwriter banging on about how depressing life can be. There are times when that kind of writing is cathartic, of course. But, that takes a certain kind of talent too, to strike the fine line between creating catharsis, and just being a self-indulgent whiner or worse; a phony.
With Sexsmith’s work, there is a sense that we’re all in this together whatever it is, that what is common among human beings is our uncertainty. And from here, we can take this as a call to arms to seek out our own meaning, or we can weaken to bitterness. But, as he says in another song of his, “Listen”, taken from his 2005 album with Don Kerr Destination Unknown:
“Listen to that inner voice/Telling me I have a choice/to condemn life or rejoice/I think I’ll choose rejoicing”.
And that choice really what it’s all about if nothing else, isn’t it?
For further reading, check out this interview with Ron Sexsmith. And for more music and information, check out Ron Sexsmith’s MySpace page.