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.)

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:

(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.)

To my ears and soul, Life Is Sweet is not just one of the greatest lost albums of all time, but one of the greatest, period. It’s glam. It’s rock. It’s operatic. It’s art.

The story behind it: While touring in support of her country-rock classic You Gotta Sin to Get Saved in 1993, one of the members of Maria’s band is said to have given her a mixtape of classic glam and glitter tunes. Maria listened. Loved. Obsessed. And then wrote and recorded a set of songs, released in 1996, that blended those glittery hues of yore with dramatic colors of her own design.

“Scarlover,” the opening track, is a great example. It’s rough, ragged and refined all at the same time, with guitars giving way to strings that give way to guitars, set to Maria’s seemingly stream-of-conscious admission that “ugly inside of me taught me of beauty/I wouldn’t trade that work of art.”

As a whole, the album explores self-doubt, self-loathing and, ultimately, self-acceptance. At times, yes, it’s stasis in darkness (aka Sylvia Plath set to song). More than that, however, it’s Maria McKee unshorn, seemingly exploring her rapid-cycle bipolar disorder in ways that both replicate it and make it relatable. It’s the Bowie homage “Absolutely Barking Stars” with lyrics that delve into yin-yang duality… 

…and the dramatic “I’m Not Listening,” in which she attempts to ignore the voices inside her head that are taunting and haunting her. 

The utterly catchy “Everybody” explores celebrity and Andy Warhol’s infamous “15 seconds of fame” maxim: “We’ve all been flirting/with the perfect day/when they think we’re perfect/Yeah, but who are they?” There’s also a flat-out incendiary guitar break:

“Carried” is another highlight:

And, of course, there’s the title track, which may well be the greatest song she’s yet written or recorded. 

Geffen, her record label, hated the album. AAA radio stations like WXPN, which embraced and promoted the hell out of You Gotta Sin, refused to play it. Some critics slammed it. Some fans did, too. Artistic growth often comes at a price, and in this case the cost was Maria’s major-label career. Life Is Sweet failed to sell, and she left Geffen not long thereafter. The album also fell out of print, and has never been reissued, even digitally. (A true crime against art.)

Twenty-plus years since its release, however, and it sounds as fresh and hauntingly familiar as it did upon first listen. If you like Anna Calvi, Bat for Lashes, and similar dramatic acts, seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

The track list:

  1. Scarlover
  2. This Perfect Dress
  3. Absolutely Barking Stars
  4. I’m Not Listening
  5. Everybody
  6. Smarter
  7. What Else You Wanna Know
  8. I’m Awake
  9. Human
  10. Carried
  11. Life Is Sweet”
  12. Afterlife