Song of the Day, December 19: Weird Monkeys by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadMonkeysToday’s song is Weird Monkeys from Peter Blegvad’s finest album, 1983’s Naked Shakespeare. It’s a nice snapshot of his work, a smart, offbeat set of observations set to avant-pop music. Blegvad neatly dissects the human condition, taking a whimsical — if somewhat dark — objective look at the creatures that rule our world. He turns in a great vocal, pacing his almost spoken observations for maximum impact.

Distracted
by trivia, trance & trauma
from a possibility
their history
consistently
betrays.

Enjoy this witty song today.

Song of the Day, December 18: I’m Not Your Mother by Blake Babies

BlakeSunMotherToday’s song is Blake Babies’ I’m Not Your Mother. The edgy power pop trio formed in Boston in 1986. They attended a reading by Beat poet Allen Ginsburg, asking him to name their new band during the Q&A session. His suggestion was inspired by the work of William Blake, especially Songs of Innocence and Experience, a nice fit for the mix of sunny melodies and dark observations that make up most of the band’s output. Juliana Hatfield and John Strohm trade off lead vocals, with Hatfield taking lead on this track, the opener on their third (and final) disc.

It’s a powerful kiss-off to a would-be suitor, with Hatfield demanding someone with more strength and determination. Unwilling to be the only grown-up in a couple, she insists:

I’m the wrong girl for you
I’m not your mother.

It’s a smart, catchy song with just the right amount of grit. Enjoy this great track today.

Song of the Day, December 17: I Broke My Promise by American Music Club

AMCSanPromiseToday’s song is I Broke My Promise by American Music Club. After a decade together, the group — centered on writer and singer Mark Eitzel — had released a half dozen albums and featured a dozen members, with Eitzel, guitarist Vudi and bassist Danny Pearson being the only regulars. Their 1994 album San Francisco proved to be their last regular release before Eitzel began a solo career, reuniting the band only twice in the past two decades. It’s also one of their finest albums, a smart set of alt-pop ballads and dark observations. I Broke My Promise is classic Eitzel, a sad but not maudlin look at an old relationship. He mixes just the right amount of wistful nostalgia and honest reflection, delivering it all with one of his clearest, most compelling vocals.

Enjoy this bittersweet song today.

Song of the Day, December 16: Treason by the Bats

BatsTreasonLiveToday’s song is Treason, the opening track from the Bats’ stunning debut album Daddy’s Highway. After five years and three EPs, the band had developed a unique, cohesive sound and a strong reputation in their native New Zealand. This track introduces their first long-player perfectly. With a bittersweet lyric delivered in fragments, it’s classic Bats. The swirling, chiming guitars and quietly effective rhythm section move the sad tale forward. Lead singer Robert Scott shares the mic with guitarist Kaye Woodward, who typically provides harmonies. Their shared vocal makes this song distinctive in all the right ways.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, December 15: New Song by Howard Jones

howard-jones-new-song-weaToday’s song is New Song, the first hit by 80s keyboard star Howard Jones. The oldest of four brothers, Jones grew up in a musical family, with the boys performing together as Red Beat in their teens. He continued a musical career as he pursued his education, including a stint with the progressive rock group Warrior. Deciding to base his music on his synth work, he went solo, gigging regularly and talking his way into a BBC Radio 1 session that led to slots opening for Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. He landed a contract with WEA and released his debut EP in 1983.

The lead track was New Song, a simple synth and vocal song with a message of determination and optimism. Those threads would form the foundation of his career, featuring a dozen chart singles and three successful albums over the next decade. New Song wasn’t his biggest or most complex hit, but it’s simple charm showed off his talent and enthusiasm flawlessly.

Enjoy this lovely slice of 80s synth-pop today.

Album of the Week, December 14: I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsRobyn Hitchcock was born in London in 1953. While at Winchester College he began a musical career, eventually forming the psychedelic punk quartet the Soft Boys. The band recorded two stellar albums and an EP, then dissolved as Hitchcock began a solo career. His debut, Black Snake Diamond Rôle, borrowed part of a Soft Boys song title and was a logical progression from the band’s work. He followed with Groovy Decay, a frustrating mess of an album — with a couple of real gems — that has been reissued as Groovy Decoy and Gravy Deco to capture all the versions of the songs. Unhappy with the experience, Hitchcock took a break from recording. He decided to take a fresh approach for his next album, recording almost everything himself. The result is one of his finest recordings, a spare but compelling disc that shows off his lyrical charms and musical talents at their most fundamental and lovely.

Title I Often Dream of Trains
Act Robyn Hitchcock
Label Midnight Music Release Date 1984
Producer Robyn Hitchcock and Pat Collier
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Nocturne (prelude)
  2. Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl
  3. Cathedral
  4. Uncorrected Personality Traits
  5. Sounds Great When You’re Dead
  6. Flavour of Night
  7. Ye Sleeping Nights of Jesus
  8. This Could Be the Day
  9. Trams of Old London
  10. Furry Green Atom Bowl
  11. Heart Full of Leaves
  12. Autumn Is Your Last Chance
  13. I Often Dream of Trains
  14. Nocturne (demise)

A mostly acoustic album, it features great guitar and piano work, occasionally overdubbed to allow both instruments. Hitchcock’s vocals are simpler than his previous delivery, sometimes multi-tracked to provide harmonies, and far more open and emotional. While the lyrics are just as smart, funny, and often downright weird as ever, the presentation provides a far better setting for enjoying his pithy observations about life, death, sex, and — well — everything.

Making it clear that this is a differenty journey, he opens with the piano instrumental Nocturne, a sombre delight that works nicely as an introduction. Things amp up from there, with Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl feeling like a Soft Boys demo, an energetic romp about sexual fantasies. This one-two punch is a smart welcome.

Cathedral is a dark reflection on the lenses through which we view our lives, for better and for worse. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most poignant songs, delivered with a quiet, meditative vocal. Uncorrected Personality Traits finds the singer multi-tracking a quirky a cappella ode to pop psychology. It’s a funny song with just enough bite to continue the meditative tone of the disc. Sounds Great When You’re Dead is a highlight, a stirring make-the-most-of-the-life-you’ve-got song told in dark vignettes. Lyrically compelling and musically inspired, it’s the clearest blueprint for future Hitchcock recordings and one of the best songs in his long career.

James Fletcher joins the party for Flavour of Night, providing a haunting sax riff that nicely underscores the crystalline musical setting. Side one of the original vinyl wraps up with another almost light-hearted number, the pseudo gospel Ye Sleeping Nights of Jesus. Hitchcock affects a wink-and-nod accent from the American South, leading a song — with Chris Cox on bass and harmonies — that sounds like it started around a revival meeting campfire. Anchored by the line “If you belive in nothing, it believes in you,” however, it’s a very Hitchcock look at the afterlife.

This Could Be the Day is an enthusiastic kick-off for side two, a driving song about seizing the day and rising above one’s “frumpy little life.” Peppered with Walter Mitty style perils, it’s both stirring and amusing. Trams of Old London is a nostalgic ode to rail travel, a quiet, lovely song with a romantic edge. Furry Green Atom Bowl is another a cappella track, sadly lacking the charm and punch of Uncorrected Personality Traits; it’s fine, but the closest thing to filler on this otherwise stunning set of songs.

Heart Full of Leaves is another instrumental, a dark, beautiful guitar track featuring some nice electric work paired with the central acoustic figure. It leads perfectly into Autumn Is Your Last Chance, an atypically direct song of romantic loss that finds Hitchcock in beautiful voice. It’s a fine love song with just the right Hitchcock edge to it and another permanent standout. The title track finds the singer dreaming of events on that rail system he eulogized earlier. With a ringing guitar line, he delivers the perfect closer to this charming, smart disc. Nocturne returns as a coda, a fine bookend to wrap up the journey.

REISSUES AND BONUS TRACKS: As with most of Hitchcock’s early catalog, Trains has been reissued a number of times with a variety of bonus tracks. The best set appears on the 1986 CD release, where five tracks are placed cleverly between side one and side two. They’re all pieces recorded in the same time frame as the album and fit nicely. Mellow Together is the least compelling, a goofy love song sung in a sort of Monty Python Gumby voice. Winter Love is a nicely bleak companion to Autumn Is Your Last Chance and The Bones In the Ground ties into Sounds Great and Sleeping Knights with a charming sparkle. My Favourite Buildings is a perfect Hitchcockian ode and serves as a solid centerpiece to the new track listing. I Used to Say I Love You is the finest of this quintet, a fairly direct kiss-off song with just the right amount of off-kilter observation.

A 1995 Rhino re-issue moved these tracks to the end, spoiling the sequencing. It also adds five demos, which are fine but a bit pointless given the spare arrangements of the final versions. Yep Roc released yet a third version in 2007, also tacking the bonuses on the end. Mellow Together is omitted, which isn’t a serious loss. Four other songs are added: Chant/Aether, Not Even A Nurse, Slow Chant/That’s Fantastic Mother Church, and Traveller’s Fare. They’re all fine, but none are as good as the other bonus tracks. Two other demos replace the five from the Rhino version, a less eerie Heart Full of Leaves and a curious early version of the title track that’s by far the most interesting of the early glimpses.

Hitchcock also did a series of concerts in 2009 presenting most of the Yep Roc version as a live show. Released as I Often Dream of Trains In New York, it’s a fun experiment but doesn’t offer much new insight into the songs.

FURTHER LISTENING: In the three decades since the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock has released a dozen solo albums, three discs with the Venus Three (featuring Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin) and a half dozen with the Egyptians (featuring some former Soft Boys). I’ll have more on the Egyptians in a later Album of the Week. All of his output is solid, mixing quirky observations with smart lyrics and sturdy musical settings, but few discs are as consistent as Trains. The best are Black Snake Diamond Rôle and Eye. He’s also released a string of outtake and oddity compilations; the best of these is the out-of-print Invisible Hitchcock, the elements of which have been redistributed as bonus tracks on other albums. Uncorrected Personality Traits is a nice overview of his career through 1997.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending December 15, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Out of Touch Daryl Hall & John Oates 2
R & B Solid Ashford & Simpson 3
Country Nobody Loves Me Like You Do Anne Murray with Dave Loggins 1
Adult Contemporary Sea of Love The Honeydrippers 1
Rock The Boys of Summer Don Henley 1
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 20

TeenaMarieLovergirlThis week sees the multitalented “Ivory Queen of Soul” enter the Hot 100 with her biggest hit. Teena Marie was born Mary Christine Brockert in Santa Monica in 1956. She took piano lessons as a child and taught herself guitar, bass, and congas. She developed a fondness for the music of Motown and an urge to perform. She did some acting and dancing while also providing  vocals for a band she assembled and led. Brockert came to the attention of Motown producer Hal Davis, who signed her to Gordy records without the band. Label mate Rick James was impressed with her musical talents and dropped a chance to produce Diana Ross to work with the woman who became known as Teena Marie, derived from her childhood nickname (Tina) and her first name.

Her first single, I’m A Sucker For Your Love, went to #8 on the R&B charts while bubbling under the Hot 100. Since the disc was issued without a sleeve picture — as was her first album — her soulful singing and distinctively funky sound led many DJs to assume she was African American. She was the first white woman to sing a lead part on Soul Train and eventually appeared eight times, more than any other white act. She racked up a dozen R&B hits, including the #3 Square Biz, but only nudged the Top 40 once, with I Need Your Lovin’ [#37, #9 R&B, 1980]. She moved to Epic records in 1983.

This week her Lovergirl, a high energy funk dance tune written (as were most of her hits) by the singer, entered the Hot 100 at #79. It eased up the charts, eventually spending one week at #4 at the end of March 1985. Ironically, it was less successful on the R&B charts, making it to #9. She continued to chart R&B hits over the next decade, including her lone #1, 1988’s Ooo La La La. Marie died unexpectedly of indeterminate natural causes in 2010 at the age of 54.

As an interesting side note, Lovergirl shared most of its chart run with an unintended companion song. Billy Ocean, fresh from the success of Caribbean Queen, was blasting up the charts with Loverboy, which moved from #40 to #35 this week. It eventually peaked at #2 (behind Wham’s Careless Whisper). Despite its higher peak, Ocean’s hit had a faster rise and fall on the chart. When Billboard released its Hot 100 for the year of 1985, Lovergirl was #29, right behind Loverboy at #28.

Song of the Day, December 12: Can’t Stop the Girl by Linda Thompson

LTCantStopToday’s song is Can’t Stop the Girl. After Richard and Linda Thompson split up during the tour for their brilliant 1982 album Shoot Out the Lights, Linda had to regroup and consider her career. She got together with producer Hugh Murphy and his wife, Betsy Cook, creating her first solo recording after nearly two decades of work as a singer. Cook and Thompson hit it off and wrote a number of songs together, including this strong tune that became the opening track of One Clear Moment.

A driving anthem of independence and determination, it captures the spirit of her career renewal beautifully. Thompson is in fine voice, delivering each declaration with charming energy.

Enjoy this fine song today.

Song of the Day, December 11: Maybe After He’s Gone by the Zombies

the-zombies-maybe-after-hes-gone-columbiaToday’s song is Maybe After He’s Gone by the Zombies. After five years together, the band’s chart success had begun to wane. Signing to CBS, they handled all the tasks of their next album themselves, creating the charming masterpiece Odessey and Oracle. A lovely mix of low-key psychedelia, baroque pop, and smart musicianship, it showed off a cohesive talent that exceeded anything they had done before. Keyboard player Rod Argent and bassist Chris White traded off the songwriting; Maybe After He’s Gone is a White contribution, a wistful hope for rekindling romance. With Colin Blunstone’s strong, plaintive delivery and a stirring piano figure from Argent, the song is far more than the sum of its parts. The tone makes it clear that the object of the narrator’s affections is probably gone for good, but his passion demands a hope against hope.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, December 10: Wonder by Naughty Boy featuring Emeli Sandé

WonderToday’s song is Wonder. British DJ, songwriter, and producer Shahid Khan was only 17 when he signed a three-year publishing deal with Sony that included a one-disc release on Virgin EMI. He quickly made a name for himself as Naughty Boy, producing hits for the Chipmunks and Wiley. This early work included vocals by the then-unknown Emeli Sandé, whose stunning debut, Our Version of Events, featured further collaborations with Naughty Boy. When Khan assembled the talent for his album, Hotel Cabana, he invited Sandé along for the fun. She provided vocals for a handful of the songs, including Wonder, which she also co-wrote.

It’s a beautiful anthem of hope and personal determination with a catchy musical backdrop and a bigger-than-life vocal. The track caught on fast enough to be included on the U.S. release of Our Version of Events and later pressings of the British version. Sandé is in fine form, delivering an inspirational performance with just the right notes of support from Naughty Boy’s collected talent.

This is a perfect song for today, my wonderful husband’s birthday. No one is more full of wonder and energy to make the world welcoming for all than he is. Emeli includes a rousing version in her live shows that reflects the joy and delight he brings me. Thank you, Michael, for filling my days with Wonder.

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