Archive for the ‘Today’s Top 5’ Category

It’s odd the way the mind’s turntable works. 

Earlier this week, singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews posted to her Instagram account that she “can’t wait to sing with humans in a room, that’s what I miss most.” For reasons only a mystic may know, that simple admission caused my inner turntable to queue up the “Someday We’ll Be Together” 45 by Diana Ross & the Supremes.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua in 1961, and was first recorded and released that same year by Bristol and Beavers (as Johnny and Jackey) on the Tri-Phi label. That version, however, features little of the magic heard in Diana’s rendition…

… which, though billed as a “Diana Ross & the Supremes” song, was recorded with Merry Clayton, Patrice Holloway, Maxine Waters and Julia Waters on backing vocals, not Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Johnny Bristol, who joined the Motown fold in the mid-1960s, had worked up the track for Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, but Berry Gordy decided it was better suited for Diana; at that stage, he earmarked it as her solo debut. He changed his mind after it was completed, however, and issued it instead as the final single from Diana Ross & the Supremes in order to help promote Diana’s departure from the group. Bristol’s vocal contributions, by the way, came about by accident: In an early take, the engineer accidentally recorded him while he was positioned off-mic singing along and offering words of encouragement to Diana. They liked the result, so kept it.

Released on October 14, 1969, it peaked at No. 1 on the pop charts for the week of December 27th, so is technically both the final No. 1 of the 1960s and first No. 1 of the 1970s. 

What’s wild about the song: Although written 59 years ago about love and regret (“Long time ago my, my sweet thing, I made a big mistake, honey/I say, I said goodbye”), it remains as relevant as ever – no more so than today, given that the pandemic is keeping loved ones apart: “I wanna say, I wanna say, I wanna say some day we’ll be together/Yes we will, yes we will say some day we’ll be together/Some day, some sweet day, we will be together…” 

The first song released under the Diana Ross & the Supremes moniker, “Reflections,” is a Holland-Dozier-Holland gem that, though about love, is also applicable to these times: “Through the mirror of my mind/Time after time/I see reflections of you and me/Reflections of/The way life used to be…”

Released on July 24th, 1967 (aka the Summer of Love), it rose to No. 2 on the charts by September 9th – and sports a soft (and somewhat dated) psychedelic sound due to the use of a test oscillator as part of its sonic makeup. Yet, it remains a great song – one of my favorites by Diana & Company.

(Both have been added to my list of songs Courtney Marie should cover – though I doubt she ever will.)

A year later, Diana and the Supremes released the Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a sales misstep – it peaked at No. 150 – that, yet, is eminently enjoyable. One highlight – and another song that could have been written about life during the COVID-19 pandemic – is “People.”

If you listened, you heard Diana’s heartfelt plea, which could well be spoken today: “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love/All the people have a dream/for peace, for security/let the world fall in love again/please, please, let our lives not be in vain…”

Another H-D-H classic, “My World Is Empty Without You,” released by the Supremes at the tail end of 1965, echoes modern life, as well:

Incidentally, its album home – I Hear a Symphony, which was released in early 1966 – is well worth many spins. The title cut is a classic, of course…

…and there’s also a touching cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Another highlight is their rendition of “Unchained Melody,” which had been a hit for the Righteous Brothers the year before:

Too often, songs of yesteryear are dismissed as relics from a bygone age – as if love, heartache and regret are modern conceits. Yeah, sure, the albums by the Supremes often include covers of then-popular hits, as well as Broadway favorites, but – to me, at least – that’s part of their charm. At their best, which is often, Diana Ross and the Supremes (both pre- and post-ampersand) simultaneously reflect and transcend their times, and remain as relevant and wonderful as ever.

I’m not sure when I first heard Natalie Duncan, though I know it came about from a review of her 2012 debut album, Devil in Me, that appeared in either Mojo or Uncut that July – which means it was likely sometime in August. For good and ill, those British magazines were the primary vessels of my music discovery at the time, but they always arrived in U.S. bookstores a month late due to the vagaries of the shipping process. Those were the days, I should explain, when Diane and I routinely took up residence in the cafe section of our local Barnes & Noble bookstore for most of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, she reading a book in full over the course of a few weeks and I, when not doing the same, paging through magazines while downing a succession of high-octane coffee drinks.

At any rate, Devil in Me became an instant favorite. At their best, the songs conjure the ghosts of popular music past while remaining firmly rooted in the present; her evocative lyrics and intricate melodies paint scenes that resonate deep within the soul. At worst, some songs – while strong – sound overproduced to my ears; and the album, which clocks in at over an hour, is just too long. (That’s a common complaint I have with most CD-age albums, actually. More is not always better.)

That said, YouTube holds more proof of her prodigious talent, including renditions of some Devil in Me songs that gain strength by stripping off their veneers. “Uncomfortable Silence” is a good example; although it’s powerful on album, this rendition – just Natalie at the piano – is spellbinding.

Speaking of spellbinding, here she is performing three songs in early ’12 at the Real World Studios – Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” “Sky Is Falling” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; the latter sends shivers up my spine every time I play it.

Unfortunately, despite much positive press, popular success didn’t follow and she eventually parted ways with her record label, Verve. In 2015, however, she released the electronica-tinged Black & White EP, which is well worth many listens. The title track is a hypnotic trance set to song, just about…

…and that same year she released the minimalistic single “Lies,” another sterling track. This video captures her performing it at London’s Wet Fish Cafe:

Flash forward five years and Natalie has a new album in the offing, Free, which is slated for release at the end of July on DJ Goldie’s new label, Fallen Tree 1Hundred. Of the lead single, “Sirens,” she says in the release on Bandcamp, “I initially wrote the piano and I whistled the vocals because I wasn’t able to talk at the time. It was a very frustrating writing process, but it was so euphoric the first time I was able to sing the chorus line ‘Can you make me fly’ — it felt like my voice was finally free and flying again.”

 

In a better world, Natalie Duncan would already be at the top of the charts. When I first heard Devil in Me in 2012, my assumption was that her soulful sound would soon top the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. Although that’s yet to happen, I still believe it. Her talent is too large for it not to be syncopating through the sonic landscape that is popular music.

Anyway, I’ll close with this cool cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” Although she’s considered a “neo-soul” artist, as the performance demonstrates, hers is an old soul. (When she shared it on her Facebook page a few months back, she wrote, “I can’t get over how Stevie Wonder never stops inspiring me. I heard a quote from Herbie Hancock yesterday – ‘Stevie Wonder is an example of the best a human can be’. Big tings.”)

Last evening, Diane and I watched a film we’d never seen before: St. Elmo’s Fire.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, which was released in June 1985, it’s a so-called “brat pack” picture about the trials and tribulations of seven friends in the year following college graduation. The main cast consists of three-fourths of The Breakfast Club (Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy) plus four other talented young actors (Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore and Mare Winningham). Joel Schumacher directed it and co-wrote the script with Carl Kurlander, whose initial screenplay, a semi-autographical tale, centered around a bellhop’s unrequited love for a waitress. 

The original storyline remains, but is spread out amongst several characters. Rookie reporter Kevin (McCarthy) has always pined for aspiring architect Leslie (Sheedy), who’s with political aide and philanderer Alec (Judd Nelson); Kevin’s roommate Kirby (Estevez), a law student and waiter, has it bad for hospital intern Dale (Andie MacDowell), who was a few years ahead of him at Georgetown; and social worker Wendy (Winningham) has a longstanding crush on bad-boy Billy (Lowe). At the same time, Billy is finding it hard to shed his frat-boy ways; and banker Jules (Moore), a party girl, basically lives on credit cards and cocaine.

Here’s the trailer:

Back in ’85, it did okay at the box-office – $37.8 million (90 million in today’s dollars), which translated into a tidy profit for Columbia Pictures, as the studio spent about $10 million to make it. Although it was not well-received by critics then nor now, every so often some writer will pen a piece that claims it “defined a generation” – like this Entertainment Weekly oral history.

Trust me when I say that the only thing it defines is bad cinema. (If Diane said “this is bad” once, she said it a hundred times during the course of its one hour and 50 minutes.) In short, it’s a shallow spin on a subject with much potential, primarily marred by thoroughly unlikeable characters, especially stalker-in-the-making Kirby and out-and-out jerks Alec and Billy. You find yourself rooting that each will get hit by a car. The most interesting stories don’t get their proper due, such as Wendy’s decision to move out from her family home and make her own way in life or Kevin’s landing a bylined piece in the Post. Jules’ descent into drugs and debt is also interesting, if predictable, though I found her character intriguing for another reason: She reminds me of the manager I worked for right about the time of the film’s release, though that manager – to my knowledge – didn’t have a drug habit, just the same hairstyle.

I’ve revisited 1985 many times in the past (click here for those posts), so won’t recount too much beyond the basics: I’d just finished my sophomore year at Penn State’s Ogontz campus, was working full-time in a department store and saving most of my cash for the fall, when I was due to beam up to the Penn State mothership in University Park. But I still found time for music. Among my music purchases for the month: Bryan Ferry’s Boys & Girls, Hank Jr.’s Major Moves and 5-0, and The Highwaymen by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.  

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: June 7th, 1985, courtesy of the charts (for the week of the 8th) over at Top 40 Weekly.

1) Tears for Fears – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” One of singer-songwriter Diane Birch‘s favorite songs, this tune enjoys its first week (of two) at No. 1. 

 2) Katrina & the Waves – “Walking on Sunshine.” Sneaking into the Top 10 this week is this blast of pure happiness. 

3) Prince & the Revolution – “Raspberry Beret.” Following up Purple Rain with the soft-hued psychedelia of Around the World in a Day may have confounded some fans, but so what? This was an instant-classic song, which leaps to No. 17 from 25.

4) ’Til Tuesday – “Voices Carry.” Aimee Mann has carved out an acclaimed solo career, yet this song is the first thing I think of when I hear her name. It takes the 25th slot, up from 28.

5) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Glory Days.” A year after the release of the Born in the USA album, “Glory Days” saw light as the album’s fifth single. It would eventually top off at No. 5, but this week – in its second week – it cracks the Top 40 at No. 37.

In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.