Song of the Day, July 30: Better Back Off by Marshall Crenshaw

CrenshawBackOffToday’s song is Better Back Off by Marshall Crenshaw, the standout track from his 1991 album Life’s Too Short. By this sixth disc, Crenshaw had firmly established himself as a chameleonic pop master, crafting solid, hook-filled songs of love and life.

While he is best known for his wry observations and often ironic take on the darker aspects of romance, this track is a very direct song of love and determination. Addressing a partner who is experiencing hard times and plagued with self-doubt, the singer offers a reminder that love provides its own value. With a driving rhythm section and a buoyant vocal, it’s a charming, insistent track.

But when you’re angry at life itself
Having a bad, bad day
Don’t judge yourself so brutally
I can’t stand it when you talk that way

Oh baby, baby
Better back off of that stuff
You’d better take it slow
I know you know
That you’re talking about someone I love

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, July 29: Girls Chase Boys by Ingrid Michaelson

IngridChaseToday’s song is Girls Chase Boys by Ingrid Michaelson. It was the lead single from her latest album, the fine Lights Out, a disc that finds her engaging in music that is both more complex and more collaborative. Girls Chase Boys is the high point of her career so far, a charming, engaging song about the pursuit and perils of romance. Michaelson describes the song on her Facebook page:

Girls Chase Boys started out as a breakup song but took on a deeper meaning as I continued writing. More than just being about my experience, its focus shifted to include the idea that, no matter who or how we love, we are all the same.

She took that approach seriously, with the catchy chorus having girls and boys chase both boys and girls. Despite its original intent, the final product is a wonderful homage to finding and losing love with a warm, optimistic heart. Michaelson’s vocals are stronger than ever and the clever pop backdrop is irresistibly infectious.

Michaelson took things one step further with the video, crafting a scene-by-scene replay of Robert Palmer’s 1988 hit Simply Irresistible but mixing the genders of the players. As she describes it, she intentionally “attempts to turn stereotypical gender roles on their head.” It works deliciously, and the video is a perfect companion to the spirit, words, and fun energy of the song.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, July 28: Going Down to Liverpool by the Bangles

Bangles_Going_Down_1984Today’s song is Going Down to Liverpool. Written by Kimberley Rew, it was originally recorded by Katrina and the Waves, the band for which he was lead guitarist after leaving the Soft Boys. It’s an indictment of Thatcher’s England, noting the high unemployment and low opportunity of the early 80s. The lyrics are flawlessly crafted, depressed without being pathetic and very human.

Vicki Peterson of the Bangles was introduced to the song by a friend and fell in love with it. She convinced the band to include it on their stellar debut disc, All Over the Place. Peterson’s vocals are more wistful than those of Katrina Leskanich, well suited to the air of hopelessness and disenfranchisement in the lyrics. Wonderful harmonies from the rest of the band elevate the song further, making it a high point of the album.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Added bonus! The video features Leonard Nimoy, whose son Adam was a college friend of Bangle Susannah Hoffs.

Album of the Week, July 27: The Golden Age of Wireless by Thomas Dolby

DolbyGAWThomas Morgan Robertson was born in London in 1955. He learned to sight-read by the age of 10 as he taught himself folk guitar. He soon moved on to piano as he developed an interest in jazz. By the mid-70s, he began a life-long passion for the power of electronic music after buying a home synthesizer kit. His fascination with keyboards and tapes earned him the nickname “Dolby.” As he began a music career, he adopted this as his stage name, partly to avoid confusion with British rocker Tom Robinson. Despite early press kits identifying him as Thomas Morgan Dolby Robertson, the Dolby has always been a nickname and stage name.

The newly minted Thomas Dolby worked with a number of bands, playing keyboards as a member of Camera Club and Fallout Club. He worked as a session musician, notably with early Thompson Twins and Lene Lovich (for whom he wrote the single New Toy.) His big break came when he was hired to provide keyboards for the sessions and supporting tour for Foreigner’s monster album, 4; his compelling keyboards on Urgent and haunting synth washes on Waiting For A Girl Like You earned him enough money to take his time in recording his own debut album. The result of that effort is one of the most praised and best-lasting tributes to the power of synth-based pop, The Golden Age of Wireless.

Title The Golden Age of Wireless
Act Thomas Dolby
Label Harvest / EMI Release Date March 1982
Producer Thomas Dolby, Tim Friese-Greene
U.S. Chart  13 U.K. Chart  65
[US Hot 100]
  1. Flying North
  2. Commercial Breakup
  3. Weightless
  4. Europa and the Pirate Twins [#67]
  5. Windpower
  6. The Wreck of the Fairchild
  7. Airwaves
  8. Radio Silence
  9. Cloudburst At Shingle Street
  10. One of Our Submarines
  11. She Blinded Me With Science [#5]
  12. Radio Silence (Guitar Version)
  13. Urges
  14. Leipzig

GAOWAlternateThe Golden Age of Wireless has gone through a dizzying array of releases and track listings — two in the UK and three in the US between its original 1982 release and its late 1984 CD release — with two different covers. The 14-track listing above is from the 2009 bonus edition on CD, assembled with Dolby’s supervision and assistance, and includes all the songs included on the five versions. Tracks 1 – 9 comprise the original release; notes on the sources and versions of the tracks are included in the review below.

Things kick off powerfully with Flying North, one of the finest songs in Dolby’s catalog. Based on his unusual fear of flying — he worries about planes breaking the bonds of gravity rather than crashing — it’s a haunting, emotive song. Firmly belying the myth of the cold synth track, Flying North is a passionate ode to our home planet and all its powers, blended beautifully with a compelling mixture of very human emotion. More prosaic but no less compelling, Commercial Breakup arises from a story of Franz Schubert mixing social time with his efforts to compose. It features a nice use of sampling and shows off Dolby’s studio wizardry to great effect.

Weightless turns its title concept inside-out, focusing on the hollowness that can define some people. Empty at the core, they have nothing to bind them to humanity. Dolby turns in an especially fine vocal on this one, showing off his stylistic range as he whispers, growls, bellows, and croons. Europa and the Pirate Twins is a lovely story song, based loosely on a former girlfriend. It’s a wonderful tale of innocence crashing against reality and the powers of both nostalgia and fame. Windpower is another track that blends technology, environmental themes, and the basics of humanity into a compelling ode to alternative power sources. The evocative synth work underscores a strong vocal, creating a mysterious, compelling track that is essential Dolby. Windpower is one of the songs subjected to alternate versions, with one US release featuring a sadly truncated version.

Wreck of the Fairchild is a quirky, experimental song, featured only on the original UK release of the album. Dolby frequently uses his fascination with historical events and characters as backdrops for his songs. This track is based on the crash of rugby team’s plane in the Andes and features background recitations by a retired Argentinian pilot. It’s a nice look at the way Dolby constructs a song and a fun mid-disc diversion.

Airwaves is a brilliant look at our dependency on rapid communication and the effort to remain true to ourselves in the modern world. It’s a strong track (also sadly butchered on two of the US releases) that features some amazing layered electronics and a soulful vocal. Radio Silence also featured in two versions. It was originally recorded with a strong guitar lead (track 12) but Dolby and collaborator Daniel Miller felt it was too “rock” for the album, so he created a synth-based version (track 8). An homage to pirate radio and musical diversity, it’s a wonderful song with a jerky chorus that conjures up the drifting signal. I’ve always favored the guitar version, which has more grit and energy, well suited to the themes.

Cloudburst At Shingle Street closes out the original album. It’s an ode to a beach that Dolby frequented, littered with the remains of concrete bunkers. A chilling but celebratory ode to the decay of human endeavor — and our best efforts to rise from the rubble — it shows off all of Dolby’s musical genius in a thrillingly crafted package.

The first US release sacrificed the Fairchild in favor of both sides of Dolby’s first single. Urges is a brilliant song, blending very earthy images and impulses with an almost detached electronic musical background. The use of harmonica demonstrates Dolby’s musical flexibility and is perfectly suited to the song. Leipzig is a charming, mysterious song that shows off the many sounds that he sampled while planning his debut. Later editions on both sides of the Atlantic were altered to include both sides of his monster hit, She Blinded Me With Science. A brilliant slice of snyth-pop, it shows off Dolby’s sense of history, music, and humor all in one delightful package. It’s also one of his finest moments debunking the myth that technology and passion are necessarily separate. It features with an extended drum-machine solo from the US 12″ mix on some editions and the leaner, more delightful single version on most pressings. Also taken from that 12″, One of Our Submarines is a tribute to the rarely necessary folly of military action, a chilling song of loss that surges with quiet power.

Mixing potent guitar and a wide array of traditional rock instruments with his stunning command of keyboards and samplers, Thomas Dolby raised shattered the barriers of modern pop music. While more typical synth-pop based on dance rhythms and simple instrumentation would continue to dominate the airwaves, the techniques that he pioneered inspired a wave of creativity. His clever mastery of his instruments, insightful lyrics, and wry sense of humor mixed to create a masterpiece. Justifiably lauded as “The best damned synth-pop record ever, period,” in Musician, it rises above even that praise to stand as a fine, unique piece of craftsmanship, one with a keen mind and a passionate hear.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending July 28, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 When Doves Cry Prince 4
R & B When Doves Cry Prince 5
Country Angel In Disguise Earl Thomas Conley 1
Adult Contemporary If Ever You’re In My Arms Again Peabo Bryson 4
Rock The Warrior Scandal 1
Album Born In the U.S.A. Bruce Springsteen 4

TwistedSisterThis week sees a very distinctive metal band debut on the Hot 100 with their signature hit. Twisted Sister arose from the ashes of Silver Star, a rock band intended to be the New Jersey alternative to the New York Dolls. Despite those glittery roots and the comically aggressive makeup they sported, the band rejected the Glam label and truly fit better in the rising 80s form of hair metal. They built a regular following over two albums, then broke big with their third, Stay Hungry.

The lead single — epitomizing their typical lyrical enthusiasm for independence and questioning of authority — was the anthemic We’re Not Going to Take It. The song debuts this week at #80. Two months later it peaked for two weeks at #21, a surprisingly low peak for a song heavily identified with the popular music of the mid-80s.

The cartoon violence and anti-establishment message of the song found the band targeted by Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center. Lead vocalist Dee Snider surprised everyone with his Senate hearing testimony, providing a strong defense of artistic freedom and a rejection of Gore’s efforts at censorship.

After some reasonable success on the rock and album charts and strong tours, Snider left the band in 1987. Since 1997, the group have occasionally reformed to release new tracks and tour on the 80s nostalgia circuit.

Song of the Day, July 25: Everything’s Different Now by ’til tuesday

TTDifferentToday’s song is Everything’s Different Now by ’til tuesday, the title track from their brilliant third — and final — album. Singer and writer Aimee Mann used the disc to exorcise her demons following her breakup with singer/songwriter Jules Shear. This apt track serves as a clear mission statement for the set, laying out her need to work through her feelings and move on.

Everything’s different now
And when I look in the mirror and talk to myself
I can’t pretend it’s the same

Mann is in particularly fine voice, making rare extended use of her higher range to achieve the emotional resonance that makes the song ache.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, July 24: The Slide by Tall Dwarfs

TDDogmaSlideToday’s song is The Slide by Tall Dwarfs featured on the finest of their many EPs, Dogma. Far more direct than most of their songs, it’s a powerful plea for assisted suicide. Singer Chris Knox narrates the horrifying circumstances of an 80-year-old woman who is terminally ill. Trapped in a failing body and a horrifying care home, she has lost all dignity and quality of life.

The harrowing vocal opens with a straightforward plea

Let her decide and peacefully slide

And ends with a demanding prescription based on the patient’s wishes

The doctor should kill; she’s terminally ill

With the Dwarfs typically demanding lo-fi instrumentation, the whole package is powerful stuff, compellingly delivered.

Song of the Day, July 23: The Pretty Drummer Boy by the Watersons

WatersonDrummerGarlandToday’s song is The Pretty Drummer Boy by Lal and Norma Waterson. They recorded it for the Watersons’ third album, A Yorkshire Garland. Since the track only features the two sisters, it was re-released on the CD version of their duo outing, A True-Hearted Girl.

An old traditional song [Roud 226], it features a standard motif, the woman who dresses as a man to enlist in the army or navy. This powerful tune, however, avoids the tropes of a secret lover or a tragic pregnancy. The Pretty Drummer Boy carries off her disguise without a hitch, admirably carrying out her duties.

With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned her to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With her gentle waist so slender, and her fingers long and small
She could play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, July 22: Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDEnolaToday’s song is Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. The lead track and only single from their sublime second album, Organisation, it remains one of their finest moments.

Perfectly capturing their blend of pioneering electronic music with true emotional resonance, it’s a rare danceable song about nuclear devastation. Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945. Writer and singer Andy McCluskey did his research, weaving significant historical details into the compelling narrative. Showing off his trademark wit and wordplay — even in the face of such dark material — he poses the question:

Is mother proud of Little Boy today?

As with much of OMD’s early work, the track eschews the standard verse-chorus-verse structure, relying instead on lyrical cues, repetition, and musical changes to drive home its urgent message. Rightly regarded as a classic, it is one of the finest songs of the 80s and presents a strongly anti-war message that resonates nearly 40 years later.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, July 21: Joke (I’m Laughing) by Eddi Reader

ReaderJokeToday’s song is Joke (I’m Laughing) by Eddi Reader. Taken from her second, eponymous solo album, it was written by longtime friend and collaborator Boo Hewerdine. Darkly ironic, it reflects on romantic betrayal, with the singer demanding an explanation, hoping against hope that the situation is a misunderstanding or a badly planned prank. With Reader’s beautiful, powerful voice, every anguished nuance shines with the fears, anger, and dashed hopes that resonate through the masterful lyrics.

D’you hear the one about
The one you filled with doubt?
Was it worth your while?

The way you kick a life around
Deserving to be underground
What is this?

Joke, is it some kind of joke?
Joke, I’m laughing, I’m laughing

Enjoy this brilliantly crafted song today.

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