Song of the Day, September 30: Catch the Wind by Donovan

donovan-catch-the-windToday’s song is Catch the Wind, the first single by Donovan. Although best known now for his fusion of jazz, folk, pop, and psychedelia — which resulted in three massive Top 5 singles in the late 60s — he began his career with an earnest approach to modern folk. Born Donovan Leitch in 1946, he dropped out of art school by 1960, busking and travelling, learning guitar techniques from other players and honing his art. Building on influences similar to those that inspired a young Bob Dylan, he was dogged by the unfair “Dylan clone” tag for years.

Catch the Wind is one of his earliest original songs. It’s a romantically lyrical but world-weary track with a perspective that seems much older than his years — not unlike Joni Mitchell’s original version of Both Sides Now. A deceptively simple guitar, vocal, and harmonica song, it features powerful images and a strong vocal. Donovan balances hope, disappointment, and resignation nicely. The almost sighed  line “Ah, but I may as well try to catch the wind” anchors each verse as the story unfolds.

A wonderful song that distills many influences into a unique, new talent, Catch the Wind was a powerful start to a successful career. Sadly, the single version adds unnecessary strings and echo, but the stirring original has become available once again. Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, September 29: That Song About the Midway by Joni Mitchell

MitchellCloudsMidwayToday’s song is That Song About the Midway from Joni Mitchell’s lovely second album, Clouds. A huge leap in sophistication, this disc set the tone for the rest of the first major phase of her career. Midway is a brilliant story song, narrated by a woman suffering the aftershocks of a charming rogue. Lacking a chorus, it relies on the complex structure of each verse to move the story forward. Changes in meter trigger shifts from metaphor to narrative to reflection as the singer treats us to an engaging dissection of a compelling but ultimately doomed romance. The use of the fair as a backdrop gives the story weight and lends itself to nicely turned analogies. Mitchell is in fine voice, using her full range and great sense of phrasing to best effect.

You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice
I heard your bid once or twice
Were you wondering was the gamble worth the price

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

BONUS: The talented Bonnie Raitt turned in a flawless cover of the song on her fourth album, 1974’s Streetlights. She captures Mitchell’s energy while making the song distinctly her own.

Album of the Week, September 28: Transformer by Lou Reed

TransformerLou Reed was responsible for one of the most important bodies of popular music in the 20th Century. Born in Brooklyn in 1942, he played guitar and sang while in school. He pursued a journalism degree at Syracuse, but right after graduating went right back to music. After a brief period as a staff writer, he fell in with a diverse crowd and formed the Velvet Underground, musical pioneers that helped launch a dozen musical styles. By the time he left the Velvets, Reed had a solid reputation for lyrical honesty — often discussing topics that had been taboo — and solid musical chops. Best known for exploring the darker side of life with laserlike precision, he also had a strong romantic side and a deep sense of fun. His first solo album sounded like a weak Velvets disc, not a big surprise since he was that band’s primary writer and lead vocalist. Retrenching after that release, he hooked up with David Bowie, who had been deeply influenced by the Velvet Underground. Bowie co-produced Reed’s second album with regular collaborator Mick Ronson. Their glam-rock approach meshed nicely with Reed’s tales of losers, outcasts, and mavericks, resulting in a powerful album that is one of the most fun and celebratory in his long career.

Title Transformer
Act Lou Reed
Label RCA Release Date November 8, 1972
Producer David Bowie and Mick Ronson
U.S. Chart  #29 U.K. Chart  #13
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Vicious
  2. Andy’s Chest
  3. Perfect Day
  4. Hangin’ ‘Round
  5. Walk On the Wild Side [#16]
  6. Make Up
  7. Satellite of Love
  8. Wagon Wheel
  9. New York Telephone Conversation
  10. I’m So Free
  11. Goodnight Ladies

Dismissed by critics at the time because it didn’t sound “like Lou Reed,” Transformer is both daring and perfectly logical. It shows off the breadth of his talent as a writer and singer while sticking close to the subjects he explored best and most consistently.

Vicious kicks things off flawlessly. Inspired by a lyrical request from long-time friend Andy Warhol, the track captures the spirit of the album nicely. The lyrics are a nasty kiss-off with hints of the S&M world explored by the Velvets; the music is solid rock, with a classic guitar riff. The vocals, however, are arch, almost camp, adding a sense of whimsy to the darkness. Is that wink a welcome or a warning? It’s Transformer.

Andy’s Chest, presumably dedicated to Warhol as well, is downright silly at times but also charming. Reed’s lyrics are free-associations and goofy images presented as tribute to someone clearly worthy of celebration. It’s a new side of Lou Reed, but it works. Perfect Day is a beautifully bittersweet song, one of the finest of Reed’s compositions. Delicate but powerful, it’s an achingly everyday ode and also features some of his most stirring vocal work.

Rock comes back to the fore with Hangin’ ‘Round, another nice juxtaposition. With a classic piano line straight out of the 50s and a street corner vocal and guitar mix, it’s comforting, well-crafted musical territory. The stories on this corner, however, would never have appeared in an early rock hit, exploring darker adventures with musical glee. That sets things up for the album’s most famous track (and Reed’s only Top 40 hit), the glorious Walk On the Wild Side. Inspired by the real characters that assembled at Warhol’s factory, it shows off Reed’s knack for biography. It’s also a series of road songs, telling each person’s journey over a surging, rambling guitar line. With subtle strings and a famous doo-doo-doo chorus, it’s a flawless pop gem that managed to subvert chart trends with its very direct lyrical content.

Make Up is an ode to transformation and disguise, a fairly direct theme song for the album. A suitably camp vocal about “a slick little girl” is buoyed by an oddly effective tuba line. When the oompahs accompany Reed declaring that “we’re coming out of our closets,” the celebration is complete.

Satellite of Love is a very pretty song about a very ugly emotion. A twisted look at jealousy, it’s an amazingly effective mix. Bowie’s vocal contributions aid the subversively joyous feel. As an antidote to the darkness underlying that brilliant track, Wagon Wheel is a fun guitar romp composed around three lyrical fragments. It’s truly joyous and fun, with a silly edge that shows that both Bowie and Reed could play as hard as they could ponder. New York Telephone Conversation is just that, a spoken-sung snippet that raises the camp quotient in a quick bit of fun.

I’m So Free is another gem, a bristling celebration of self-determination with — of course — some darkness around the edges. A celebration of camaraderie, it’s a powerful track. Things wrap up with the apt Goodnight Ladies, a lovely farewell to all the characters that populate the album. With a charming New Orleans style clarinet riff and an almost Tin Pan Alley feel, you can hear the curtain closing as emcee Reed bids farewell.  It’s nicely presented and a final example of the flawless sequencing that help make this disc a masterpiece.

Since its initial dismissal — this just wasn’t Lou enough for critics in 1972 — Transformer has justly risen to a place of honor in the rock canon. It’s a brilliant collaboration and a perfect reinvention for Reed. Any disc that includes Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love, and Walk on the Wild Side, is worthy enough, but the depth, cohesion, and inventiveness of Transformer make it an amazing release even from a major talent like Lou Reed.

FURTHER LISTENING: With dozens of albums over 40 years of solo work, picking through Reed’s strong, diverse catalog is daunting. While always insightful, unflinching, and dedicated, his work varies dramatically from album to album from the sublime to the frankly dismal. Most albums have a gem or two (if not more), however, and most are great samples of true rock talent. A few rise to the top.

While Berlin receives more plaudits than most, I find it a bit claustrophobic and lacking in the musical diversity that marks my favorite Reed albums. New Sensations is one of his finest, a wonderful mix of romance, reality, and the land in between. Few artists are as unremittingly New York as Reed, so his homage to the city, New York, is a powerful statement without a bad track. Magic and Loss, a meditation on mortality inspired by the loss of two close friends, is a mixed bag that is occasionally ponderous but overall rewarding. It also features some brilliant vocal work from the late, great Little Jimmy Scott.

With only a handful of singles, a tendency to craft tightly cohesive albums, and a few label changes, Reed is short on good compilations. There are a number of discs that capture one period or another of his career, notably Walk on the Wild Side. The best long-form overview is the three-disc Between Thought and Expression.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending September 29, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Let’s Go Crazy Prince and the Revolution 1
R & B Caribbean Queen (No More Love On the Run) Billy Ocean 4
Country Turning Away Crystal Gayle 1
Adult Contemporary Drive The Cars 2
Rock On the Dark Side John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band 2
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 9

Solo artists emerging from successful bands is not an unusual phenomenon. For examle, the Beatles famously racked up as many hits as four solo artists as they managed as the most successful band ever. For some reason, the mid-80s were particularly thick with such artists. This week sees a remarkable 16  of them on the Hot 100:

  • John Waite (The Babys), #2 – Missing You
  • Jermaine Jackson (The Jacksons/Jackson 5), #16 – Dynamite (and at #17 with the Jackson and Torture)
  • Lionel Richie (The Commodores), #18 – Stuck On You
  • Ray Parker, Jr. (Raydio), #19 – Ghostbusters
  • Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac), #25 – Go Insane
  • Peter Wolf (J Geils Band), #28 – Lights Out
  • Diana Ross (The Supremes), #30 – Swept Away and #53 – All of You (with Julio Iglesias)
  • Dennis DeYoung (Styx), #35 – Desert Moon
  • Barry Gibb (The Bee Gees), #40 – Shine Shine
  • Jeffrey Osborne (LTD), #43 – The Last Time I Made Love (with Joyce Kennedy)
  • Steve Perry (Journey), #50 – Strung Out
  • Glenn Frey (The Eagles), #70 – Sexy Girl and #18 – The Allnighter
  • Tommy Shaw (Styx), #76 – Girls With Guns
  • Freddie Mercury (Queen), #85 – Love Kills

Even more remarkable, all but two (Love Kills and The Allnighter) were past, present or future Top 40 hits.

Song of the Day, September 26: Proserpina by Martha Wainwright

Martha-Wainwright-Come-Home-To-MamaMartha Wainwright has never shied from musical honesty. She was famously brutal about her relationship with her musician father, Loudon Wainwright III, and has used her relationships and experiences as direct material for her music from the beginning. For her third full disc, 2012’s Come Home to Mama, she had a lot to draw on — a new and turbulent marriage, a premature infant, and the death of her mother, singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle. Wainwright wove four years of personal turmoil and growth into a compelling set of songs that is at once harrowing and cathartic, with a sense of strength that lends a thread of optimism to the whole enterprise.

The standout is the defacto title track, Proserpina, the one song Wainwright did not write . It was the last song penned by her late mother. Based on the Greek myth, it details the powerful bonds between mother and daughter, even if the relationship can be tempestuous. With a vocal fragility she rarely demonstrates, Wainwright opens the song plaintively. Over the course of four minutes, her cover becomes a stirring tribute as her singing grows richer and the production swells to match her love and grief. It’s a flawless blend, one of the finest moments in her catalog and one of the most compelling of the scores of covers of her mother’s beautiful songs.

Overly personal singing and songwriting can be a tricky thing, but when it works well, it can be astounding. Martha Wainwright pulls off this musical tribute with skill and passion.

Enjoy this powerful track today.

Song of the Day, September 25: Where the Bodies Are by John Wesley Harding

WesBodiesToday’s song is Where the Bodies Are from John Wesley Harding’s wonderful fourth album Why We Fight. After a few years honing his distinctive mix of folk, pop, and post-punk sounds, Wes turned out his masterpiece, blending sharp observations, strong melodies, and lovely singing into a solid work. Not quite a concept album, the disc’s tracks all reflect on various forms of conflict. Where the Bodies Are is a standout, a sardonic look at forensic technology and the talents of the nefarious. Despite all our advances in science, he muses, a clever criminal is limited only by his wits. It’s a nice metaphor for reality celebrities and modern life, with a dig at the fallacies of neatly wrapped up cop dramas tossed in for fun. “Only I know where the bodies are,” he intones, “and I’m not telling you.”

Sparkling wordplay and charming vocals blend to make this a highlight in his fun and eclectic career. Enjoy this lovely track today.

Song of the Day, September 24: Reasons for Waiting by Jethro Tull

TullStandReasonsToday’s song is Reasons for Waiting from Jethro Tull’s transitional second album, Stand Up. After a bluesy debut, co-founder Mick Abrams left the band, leaving Ian Anderson as the group’s primary creative force. Anderson recruited the profoundly talented Martin Barre to fill the lead guitar slot; the pair have been the only constants in over 40 years of eclectic, progressive rock.

While Stand Up retains some of the blues that underpinned the early band (and would remain an element of their music for at least a decade), it shows a clear shift in tone and a real burst of creativity. Hints of folk and baroque rock fill out the sound and the quartet’s playing leaps to a whole new level. The standout track is Reasons for Waiting, featuring lovely acoustic guitar and lush strings. Anderson’s lyrics are wistful and hopeful, weaving a beautiful tapestry of words and song. His flute playing — now more confident — gives the track a distinctive flavor that helps establish the Tull sound.

Enjoy this beautiful classic today.

Song of the Day, September 23: Barges by Ralph McTell

McTellBargesToday’s song is Barges by Ralph McTell. Born Ralph May in 1944, he was named for composer and musicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose gardens his father had tended before WWII. He developed a love of music as a child as well as a keen sense of observation and storytelling. Inspired by the work of American blues greats, he adopted Blind Willie McTell’s surname and began busking and working with a number of folk revival luminaries (including Martin Carthy). He has a long, respected career as a singer, writer, and guitarist, with songs covered by a wide range of artists including the extended Fairport Convention family. His poignant social protest song Streets of London has been covered by over 200 artists.

Barges comes from happy childhood memories of summers in Banbury with his extended family, telling of rural ramblings he shared with his brother, Bruce. Nicely detailed, it shows off his strengths at weaving a story and sharing it in an open, beautiful narrative. The sweet, open musical backdrop emphasizes the quiet, bucolic joys.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, September 22: A Blind Step Away by French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson

FFKTLLLL2Today’s song is A Blind Step Away by (John) French, (Fred) Frith, (Henry) Kaiser, (Richard) Thompson. These four innovative, collaborative musicians pooled their diverse talents simultaneously challenging one another and creating a wonderful middle ground in the universe of their broad — sometimes eccentric — tastes. This track is a dark highlight, a classic Thompson look at doomed romance using Blind Man’s Bluff as its central metaphor. With wonderful, wordless harmonies from the whole group and a meditative lead from Thompson, it’s a spare but complex gem.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, September 21: 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields

MagneticFieldsThe-69LoveSongsStephin Merritt has never lacked musical ambition. Born and raised near Boston, he had a high school band called the Zinnias with friend and drummer Claudian Gonson. For a studio project, he created Buffalo Rome (also with Gonson), which evolved into the Magnetic Fields. Dissatisfied with his own voice, Merritt eventually recruited Susan Anway to sing his songs. With Merritt playing almost everything, this duo recorded two solid albums in the early 90s, featuring her haunting vocals over diverse musical soundscapes mostly played on intentionally cheap synths. A sort of wall-of-lo-fi electro-pop, the discs bristled with Merritt’s stunning wordplay and clear sense of musical styles and history. Gonson and cellist Sam Davol appear on both discs. Anway moved away and Merritt recorded his own vocals on the thematic Charm of the Highway Strip. While his quirky baritone was quite different from Anway’s vocals, it served the material well. After two more albums, the Magnetic Fields were really a band: Merritt, Gonson, Davol and guitarist John Woo. For his first project with the formalized group, Merritt decided to do something big.

Title 69 Love Songs
Act The Magnetic Fields
Label Merge Producer Stephin Merritt
Release September 7, 1999 U.S. Chart n/c U.K. Chart n/c
Tracks Disc One Disc Two Disc Three
  1. Absolutely Cuckoo
  2. I Don’t Believe In the Sun
  3. All My Little Words
  4. A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
  5. Reno Dakota
  6. I Don’t Want to Get Over You
  7. Come Back From San Francisco
  8. The Luckiest Guy On the Lower East Side
  9. Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits
  10. The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be
  11. I Think I Need A New Heart
  12. The Book of Love
  13. Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long
  14. How Fucking Romantic
  15. The One You Really Love
  16. Punk Love
  17. Parades Go By
  18. Boa Constrictor
  19. A Pretty Girl Is Like…
  20. My Sentimental Melody
  21. Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing
  22. Sweet-Lovin’ Man
  23. The Things We Did and Didn’t Do
  1. Roses
  2. Love Is Like Jazz
  3. When My Boy Walks Down the Street
  4. Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old
  5. Very Funny
  6. Grand Canyon
  7. No One Will Ever Love You
  8. If You Don’t Cry
  9. You’re My Only Home
  10. (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy
  11. My Only Friend
  12. Promises of Eternity
  13. World Love
  14. Washington, D.C.
  15. Long-Forgotten Fairytale
  16. Kiss Me Like You Mean It
  17. Papa Was A Rodeo
  18. Epitaph For My Heart
  19. Asleep and Dreaming
  20. The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing
  21. The Way You Say Good-Night
  22. Abigail, Belle of Kilronan
  23. I Shatter
  1. Underwear
  2. It’s A Crime
  3. Busby Berkeley Dreams
  4. I’m Sorry I Love You
  5. Acoustic Guitar
  6. The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure
  7. Love In the Shadows
  8. Bitter Tears
  9. Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget
  10. Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
  11. Experimental Music Love
  12. Meaningless
  13. Love Is Like A Bottle of Gin
  14. Queen of the Savages
  15. Blue You
  16. I Can’t Touch You Anymore
  17. Two Kinds of People
  18. How to Say Goodbye
  19. The Night You Can’t Remember
  20. For We Are the King of the Boudoir
  21. Strange Eyes
  22. Xylophone Track
  23. Zebra

Initially planned as a set of 100 songs that could be performed as a revue with varying vocalists, Merritt scaled the project back just a bit. Settling on 69 songs, he brought in some additional help and recorded his masterpiece. Perhaps the best introduction to this epic masterpiece is a quote from the author:

69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.

That’s a perfect analysis. Merritt has always reveled in dissecting, imploding, and subverting familiar musical forms and tropes. Romping through a whole batch of them, loosely joined by the love song theme, shows off the breadth of his talent and the fun that can be had with a great musical idea. The songs range from Abigail, Belle of Kilronan to Zebra (strangely missing only a “J” song to have a complete alphabet) and from 29 seconds to just over five minutes in length.

Merritt provides 45 lead vocals plus two duets, one with Gonson and another with the charming Shirley Simms (who would later become an offical band member). Longtime friend and collaborator ld beghtol and irony champion Dudley Klute (who also perform with Merritt as the Three Terrors) each pitch in leads for six tracks, as do Gonson and Simms. This diversity of vocal talent lets Merritt really match the song to the singer, often in subversive and unexpected ways.

A track-by-track analysis (like I usually provide for Albums of the Week) would be too exhausting for both writer and reader. Suffice it to say that while there is a bit of inevitable filler (note the tracks that mention specific musical forms), the whole project is amazingly consistent and cohesive. Any set that includes a spot-on trad-folk parody (Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget), a darkly haunting kiss-off (No One Will Ever Love You), a sprightly murder ballad about a famous linguist (The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure), and an ABBA-worthy pop epic (Sweet-Lovin’ Man) is worth the time and effort. That analysis barely scratches the surface. (I’ve written up Songs of the Day for most of my favorites, available through the links in the track list above.)

It’s easy to label an album like this sprawling, epic, massive, or daunting. All of those terms apply to some extent. More importantly, however, it’s visionary, smart, clever, fun, compelling, and satisfying. Expertly sequenced, lovingly played, and dizzyingly diverse, 69 Love Songs is like nothing else. It’s also magnificent. The three discs are available separately, but not owning the whole set is simply a crime. (There’s a box set version which features an extended conversation about the songs between Merritt and longtime friend Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snickett. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks.)

Merritt manages to be ringmaster, Svengali, and bandleader while still being very much a part of a larger whole. Anyone who appreciates smart writing, music with a sense of history AND fun, and a group of players at their best should invest in this wonderful set.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to keep track of Stephin Merritt’s musical projects. Besides his ten discs as leader of the Magnetic Fields, he has four other musical identities with recordings available. As the 6ths, he’s recorded two albums with a wide array of vocalists from all over the indie music world, each singing one track. That “group’s” Wasp’s Nests is a masterpiece of a very different flavor but almost as compelling as 69 Love Songs. With Gonson and keyboardist Christopher Ewen, he is part of the much more democratic electro-pop group Future Bible Heroes. Their material is a lot of fun and features some smart playing. The best of their albums is Eternal Youth. The aptly named Gothic Archies are another side project, with smaller output; it’s good stuff, but not as compelling. Merritt also records under his own name, especially soundtrack work.

Of the Magnetic Fields albums, three others stand out. Distant Plastic Trees, the debut with Anway, is less fully-formed and features some weaker experiments, but it also includes some of Merritt’s most beautiful melodies. The cheap-synth folk feel is uniquely compelling. The Charm of the Highway Strip is a strong concept disc with an almost alt-country feel. i, the first in no-synths trilogy, is the strongest of the post-69 material. All of the albums are worthwhile (with the overlong Get Lost and the overwrought concept of Distortion coming closest to real stumbles) and fans of Merritt’s distinctive musical vision can find real gems on every one.

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