Archive for the ‘The Essentials’ Category

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

On one or some enchanted day(s) or evening(s) in 1984, a ragtag group of Paisley Underground pals came together at the Radio Tokyo recording studio in Venice, Ca., for an endeavor said to have been dreamt up by David Roeback, co-founder of Rain Parade. The idea: pay homage to those artists and songs that had inspired him and his compatriots.

I should mention that “pals” and “compatriots,” in this context, translates into members of Rain Parade, the Bangles, Three O’Clock and Dream Syndicate.

The Magnet article “One Nation Underground: The Story of the Paisley Underground” delves into the weeds of the scene, Rainy Day and Danny & Dusty’s equally cool and essential Lost Weekend (which, unlike Rainy Day, is available on Apple Music and Spotify). Two quotes stand out. The first is from the Three O’Clock’s Michael Quercio, who explains himself and his friends: “We were all record collectors who played music. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was certainly a big deal to us.”

The second quote is from one of those friends, the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn: “We were all big music fans and pretty diligent about the things we thought were cool or weren’t cool. We felt more like messengers for music that matters than rock stars.”

That’s evident on the Roeback-produced Rainy Day collection, which was stamped onto vinyl in 1984. It curates classic – but, “Sloop John B” aside, not necessarily well-known – tracks from the Beach Boys, Big Star, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan (by way of Nico or Fairport Convention, most likely), Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground and the Who.

Here’s Susanna Hoffs fronting “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” for example.

In today’s world, one can learn about most songs in seconds. For instance, the Wikipedia entry explains that Bob Dylan wrote “I’ll Keep It With Mine” in 1964, and never released it until decades later; Judy Collins issued it as a single in ’65; and Nico covered it on her 1967 album Chelsea Girl, followed a few years later by Fairport Convention, who recorded it for their What We Did on Our Holidays LP and also released it as a single.

In the ‘80s? It could take weeks, months and even years to figure out a song’s recorded history, let alone track down and hear the different versions. Nico’s Chelsea Girl was long out of print by then, after all; to acquire a copy meant one had to hope an area used-record store had it in stock.

Back on point: Just like Chelsea Girl, few folks actually bought Rainy Day. It was released by Llama Records in the U.S. and licensed by Rough Trade for the U.K., and though some of us recognized – or would soon recognize – the names of the players, most folks had no clue as to who they or their bands were.

Make no mistake, however: It’s a sheer delight.

Another highlight: Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong,” one of two Neil Young-written songs on the collection:

That’s Kendra Smith on lead vocals. At the time, she was in Rain Parade with David Roeback; they’d soon leave that band and start Opal. Speaking of Roeback, his rendition of “On the Way Home” (the second Neil-penned tune) is also a marvel:

Another highlight: the cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the second track with Susanna Hoffs singing lead:

By 1989, when the collection was issued on CD, Susanna Hoffs was likely the best-known entity thanks to the success of the Bangles. But she’s far from the only reason to search for this gem; each of the nine tracks adds something unique to the original.

Here’s the track list:

I’m sure it won’t stick around YouTube forever, as it was uploaded by a user and not the label, but here’s the album in full…enjoy it while you can.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Immense. That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of “Rockferry,” the title track of – and lead single from – Duffy’s stellar 2008 debut album. Co-written with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, the song is laden with echoes of the ages. Way back at the end of 2008, in a Facebook post (now available here), I noted that it “has an utterly timeless feel, conjuring the likes of Procol Harum, Lulu and Petula Clark.” I should have added Dusty Springfield, too.

Although the single didn’t do well in the charts, peaking at No. 45 in the U.K., it’s the song that drew me to the album. In those days, I sat in a cubicle composing TV descriptions that the whole world – or, at least, TV Guide subscribers – read. An episode of the Brit TV show Later…With Jools Holland that she appeared on was slated to air in the U.S. in the spring of ‘08, and the single moniker led me to verify that, indeed, she was a she and, too, a single-name singer. I also learned that her full name is Aimée Duffy, and that she hails from Wales (which seems to produce more musicians per capita than just about any other country). Anyway, I remember plugging in my headphones to my work computer, pulling up YouTube, and watching the video for “Rockferry” – and being transfixed. It’s a magical song.

I ordered the CD that night, and played it to death over the next few months. And when she released a “deluxe edition” that included six additional songs later that year, I purchased that, too.

Another highlight: “Mercy,” the second single, which broke big. It topped the charts in 13 countries and made her a household name in the United Kingdom.

“Warwick Avenue,” another wondrous track, was the third single. It reached No. 3 on the U.K. charts.

“Syrup & Honey” is another tasty number. Here’s a clip of the songstress singing it in the studio…

My favorites, however, are the title song, which kicks off the 10-track set, and the closing number, the yearning “Distant Dreamer.”

The deluxe version is well worth seeking out, I should mention. It includes the hit single “Rain on Your Parade,” which was in contention to become the theme song for the Jame Bond flick Quantum of Solace. (It lost out to “Another Way to Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys.)

Other “deluxe” gems include “Oh Boy”…

…and “Enough Love,” which – like “Rockferry” – echoes long-ago days while sounding utterly modern. (At least, it does to my ears.)

There’s much to be said of the trajectory of Duffy’s career in the years since, but that’s grist for another post. The reality is that, even if she never records again, she’s gifted the world with a “bag of songs” that resonates still, a decade later.

Here’s her seven-song set from Glastonbury ’08…

… and here’s the track list of Rockferry, the album, in its deluxe form:

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Released on April 1st, 1987, Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, is a near-perfect gem that time has yet to – and will likely never – tarnish. Its poetic power is matched by mesmerizing melodies with perfect arrangements. 

The opener, “Tom’s Diner,” is one highlight.

The first time I heard the song wasn’t on the album, however, but via a Fast Folk LP a year or two earlier while deejaying the Folk Show on WPSU. It’s a different recording, but still a cappella, and still a richly detailed portrait of an everyday occurrence – catching coffee inside a diner before heading to work. “There’s a woman/on the outside/looking inside/does she see me?/No she does not/really see me/cause she sees her own refection.” It captures humanity at its essence.

The song became an unlikely hit a few years later after two British deejays added a Soul II Soul beat to an unauthorized remix that Vega’s record company then embraced and officially released.

The remix isn’t on the original album, however. Instead, the LP continues in the vein of the original “Tom’s Diner,” featuring a succession of vivid pictures of life internal and external. One of the most memorable is “Luka,” which reached No. 3 on the pop charts – a true surprise given its subject matter. She based it, she’s said, on a real little boy she knew, though she doubts he was abused. (And here’s some trivia: Shawn Colvin provides backing vocals on the song.)

The title tune is another brilliant turn, with Vega’s poetic lyrics equaled by the deft backing of her band, who – as with many of the album’s other songs – are credited as co-writers. (Side note: I never knew there was a video for the song until this morning. It’s quite cool.)

Along with offerings by Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, the album helped spur the folk-rock/urban folk/singer-songwriter resurgence of the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“Night Vision” is another favorite:

The track listing:

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Heaven knows, she ain’t no Margaret Mitchell – and thank God for that. For the past two weeks, I’ve been in something of a Shelby Lynne frame of mind – in the run-up to her concert in “almost Philly” last week, I explored her canon; and in the afterglow of said show, I’ve continued on. There are many flat-out fantastic platters in her catalog. I Am Shelby Lynne, her breakthrough, is one. Suit Yourself, from 2005, is another, And Just a Little Lovin’, her 2008 collection of Dusty Springfield songs, is yet another. 

Revelation Road is one more. Released in 2011, the 11-song-strong set (12 on vinyl; and more on the deluxe edition released a year later) was written, performed and produced by Shelby, but it’s far from a stripped-down affair. She plays guitar, bass, percussion, and keyboards, and provides all the backing vocals. The one-woman-band approach wouldn’t mean much without quality songs, of course. And she has them. (As the picture shows, my LP – which I bought at last week’s show – is autographed.)

In the liner notes, before dedicating the album to her Mama, Daddy, and Sissy, she explains that “writing these songs put me on the back roads of my past. I remembered my childhood in Alabama as I wrote this album and I looked back with love.” But processing that past also means, as evidenced by some of the songs, that she processed (at least in part) the pain. Her nostalgia is forever tinged bittersweet.

Also included are the yearning lyrics to a song called “Travelin’ Fever” that was written by her father, who – from what I’ve read – took off from time to time. Among the lines: “Every time I settle down and vow to roam no more/Something like a restless wind calls me to my door.” Remembering the best of him must be hard.

Shelby’s 11 (or 12, or more) songs explore the vagaries of her life. To crib from myself from earlier this year, “The mark of much, though certainly not all, great art is that it’s simultaneously personal and universal, restrictive yet expansive.” I.e., we identify with the lyrics, and hear ourselves in them. Such is the case here.

One highlight: “I’ll Hold Your Head,” in which she recalls trying to shield her younger sister from the “blues and the beer and the bourbon” that accented their childhoods. 

Another: “Even Angels.”

Another: “I Want to Go Back,” about accepting, confronting and escaping one’s past. In some respects, it delves into the same gauzy territory as Goffin-King’s “Goin’ Back,” but with much clearer eyes: “I want to go back so I can run away again.”

One song singled out in many of the reviews I’ve read is “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” which made Rolling Stone’s list of “40 Saddest Country Songs of All Time” in 2014. It revisits what must be the ghostliest demarcation in Shelby’s life: The morning her father shot and killed her mother and then turned the gun on himself. What’s remarkable about it: She tells the story from the perspective of her dad: “Lost all the faith a man can own/My hopes are empty and so is my soul.”

“I Won’t Leave You,” which is also featured in the making-of documentary included with the deluxe version, is yet another gem.

The track list: