Song of the Day, October 30: It’s A Beautiful Night by Eddi Reader

ReaderVagaBeautifulToday’s song is It’s A Beautiful Night, written by Boo Hewerdine for his 2009 album God Bless the Pretty Things. In 2013, his longtime friend and frequent musical collaborator Eddi Reader began working on Vagabond, one of her finest albums. She gathered a number of friends — including Hewerdine — and recorded a set of original songs and covers that had special meaning for her. The result was a casual but cohesive disc that captures her wonderful voice and shows off her flawless sense of song selection. With the album’s themes of wandering, loving, losing, and making the most of life, this is the perfect closing track. As Reader observes in the liner notes:

The theme of finding beauty in the moment is something that is very important to me. [Boo] nailed it in this lyric… A song to sing as dawn is approaching while you’re draped over a piano. Or waltzing with the company of old companions. This is for all the players and Mark for making these sessions some of the most beautiful nights of my life.

That sums up the feel of the song — and the album — perfectly. It’s rare that anyone outshines Hewerdine on his own songs, but Reader simply nails the observational beauty and casual joy of this track. Enjoy a perfect celebration today.

Song of the Day, October 29: Never Could Have Been Worse by Everything But the Girl

EBTGNeverWorseToday’s song is Never Could Have Been Worse by Everything But the Girl. The duo recorded it as a B-side to their first single, Each and Every One and later included it on their eponymous U.S. debut album. It’s a haunting track about domestic violence, narrated by an outside observer who describes the scenes with detached horror. The stripped down sound — typical of their early work — is perfect for the harsh vignettes. Tracey Thorn is in fine voice, with her pure near-whisper echoing in the spare music. An eerie guitar figure and steadily ticking drum line move the story forward, grimly inexorable.

Enjoy this haunting song today.

Song of the Day, October 28: She’s Not There by the Zombies

ZombiesNotTHereToday’s song is She’s Not There by the Zombies. The quintet was formed by five lads at two separate schools in St. Albans, England. Rod Argent, the principle songwriter, played piano and keyboards and Colin Blunstone handled vocals with Paul Atkinson on guitar, Hugh Grundy on drums, and Chris White replacing original bassist Paul Arnold and writing some later songs. The band, named in a hurry to enter a competition, was intended as a schooldays lark. After winning a recording session with Decca, however, they decided to pursue  recording in earnest.

Argent had begun She’s Not There with three inspirations: an opening line from the John Lee Hooker song No One Told Me, a recent breakup with his fiancée, and a tune he knew was a perfect fit for Blunstone’s vocals. Manager Ken Jones encouraged him to finish the song, which became their first single. It was also their biggest, hitting #12 at home and making it all the way to #2 in the U.S. (behind Bobby Vinton’s Mr. Lonely).

Blunstone’s distinctive singing — breathy but fully expressive and well-controlled — was only one of the features that differentiated the Zombies from their British invasion colleagues. Argent’s fondness for minor keys and jazzy use of electric piano combined with the tight-knit unit of the rest of the band to make them pioneers in the small cohort of baroque pop.

She’s Not There is a brilliantly crafted pop gem, telling the story of a man betrayed by love, wondering why his friends did not warn him how things might end. Blunstone starts in a sad near whisper racing into a breathless chorus with nice harmonies from the rest of the guys. Argent’s hectic pianet breakdown on the bridge carries the energy, capturing the sorrowful frustration just in time for Blunstone to wrap things up.

Enjoy this magnificent song today.

Song of the Day, October 27: Begin the Begin by R.E.M.

REMBeginToday’s song is Begin the Begin, the opening track from R.E.M.’s powerful fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant. It’s the perfect introduction to the album, a driving statement of purpose that announces the band’s growing musical diversity. After a near fanfare burst of guitar, singer Michael Stipe growls a welcome to the listeners, inviting them on a journey of discovery and active contemplation. Always a cohesive unit the players are tighter than ever. Begin the Begin is a stirring anthem to a group increasingly willing to share its opinions and a wonderful kickoff to one of their finest albums.

Enjoy this great song today.

Album of the Week, October 26: Bad Vibes by Lloyd Cole

ColeVibesLloyd Cole was born and raised in Derbyshire in England. He studied philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he met the four men who would join him as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. The quintet played smart, wry, literate, pop with a folk-tinged sound that was part of the British jangle-pop movement. Cole broke up the band after three strong albums and moved to New York. He built a potent backing band with Fred Maher, Robert Quine, and Matthew Sweet, releasing an eponymous solo debut that mined his well-honed lyrical vein with a punchier rock backdrop. The next disc, Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe, had one side of similar songs and a second side of lush, string-laden songs, albeit with his familiar lyrical approach. Dropped by his U.S. label, Cole regrouped, teaming with producer Adam Peters (late of the Triffids) and adding some old bandmates into the mix. The result was a simultaneously slicker and earthier disc that remains his most consistent and intriguing.

Title Bad Vibes
Act Lloyd Cole
Label Rykodisc Release Date October 1993
Producer Adam Peters
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  38
  1. Morning Is Broken
  2. So You’d Like to Save the World
  3. Holier Than Thou
  4. Love You So What
  5. Wild Mushrooms
  6. My Way To You
  7. Too Much of A Good Thing
  8. Fall Together
  9. Mister Wrong
  10. Seen the Future
  11. Can’t Get Arrested
  12. For the Pleasure of Your Company [bonus track]
  13. 4 M.B. [bonus track]

The album opens with Morning Is Broken, a nice play on a familiar title that presages the even more darkly ironic lyrical tone of the disc. It opens with a scratchy guitar and mechanical drum line, the bursts into solid 90s power pop. Cole’s first words, “You used to be mean,” start the story of a complicated relationship. His lyrics are still wry and literate, but he’s grown up and his themes are richer and darker. That said, he still enjoys a lark, and So You’d Like to Save the World is a wonderful blend of a barfly pickup and environmentalism. It works strangely well and turns out to be one of his finest moments.

Holier Than Thou slows things down, with a hushed vocal suited to the vestry. Another broken relationship song, it features a braggart of a narrator whose comeuppance looms in the chorus. Love You So What is a delightful romp with our casual Lothario getting as good as he gives. Energetic and fun, it’s a close to a dance hit as Cole ever gets — and that works too. Things get a bit weird with Wild Mushrooms, with the tables fully turned and a mysterious figure taking advantage of the narrator. The eerie music fits the story nicely, saving it from being a throwaway moment.

The lush textures of the previous album return for My Way to You. It’s nice sequencing, moving into a fairly straightforward romantic ballad with a dark edge. It shows off another aspect of Cole’s work and is quite effective, even without his trademark irony. A trip-hop beat opens another nearly danceable song that builds the romantic energy nicely. With a seductive vocal and surging rhythm, it promises that if the lover of the last track welcomes him home, the narrator will make it worthwhile. It’s a good pair of songs and demonstrates Cole’s growing musical and lyrical flexibility.

Fall Together is a dark song built on a familiar theme, borrowing from the Beatles sideways. With a guitar line that could have been on Abbey Road, Cole kicks of a four-song suite about the perils of seeking — and achieving — success. Mister Wrong almost breaks the theme as it plays out a breaking relationship over a folky melody reminiscent of Cole’s Commotions days. The sense of failure, romantic or otherwise, fits in however. Seen the Future is a bleak look at corporate music and a fairly vitriolic questioning of the value of succeeding. The set grinds to a halt with Can’t Get Arrested, as fame passes by and the narrator decides that might be just fine. With a slow burn and a lovely keyboard line, it almost feels like a lost Triffids song and closes out the original album on a note of quiet despair with just a hint of self-respect.

The U.S. release included two bonus tracks. 4 M.B. is a pleasant, straightforward ode to Marc Bolan, a musician whose work Cole has frequently cited and sometimes covered. It’s fine, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings. For the Pleasure of Your Company, on the other hand, is a wonderful song that fits nicely with the romantic sequence earlier in the disc.

Bad Vibes lacks some of the dramatic musical highs of other Lloyd Cole albums. What it offers is a clear sense of transition, with the wryly literate observer growing and taking a more active part in his world. The songs are more varied and overall more consistent. While this disc may not have as many laugh-out-loud or sigh-deeply moments, the overall tapestry is tightly woven and more fully satisfying than any other release in Cole’s rich catalog.

FURTHER LISTENING: The three Commotions discs are all quite good. Even better is the compilation 1984 – 1989, a true best of that shows off the band at its finest from start to finish. Sadly, Cole’s work since then has never been effectively anthologized, with 2004’s The Singles doing the best job but overlapping too much with the Commotions retrospective. The best standalone albums are:
  • Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe (1991): a wonderful look at two musical sides of Lloyd Cole with some very nice songs;
  • Love Story (1995): the beginning of Cole’s long run of label changes and more stripped-down, folky songs and a strong follow-up to the maturity of Bad Vibes;
  • The Negatives (2000): a new, one-off band featuring some young talent reinvigorates Cole’s energy for the many standout tracks, although the whole proceeding drags a bit;
  • Standards (2013): a remarkable return to form with one well-chosen cover and a great set of new songs.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending October 27, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 3
R & B I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 3
Country If You’re Gonna Play In Texas
(You Gotta Have A Fiddle In the Band)
Alabama 1
Adult Contemporary I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 3
Rock I Can’t Hold Back Survivor 1
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 13

U2PrideThis week sees one of the most successful bands of all time enter the Hot 100 with what would become their first Top 40 hit. U2 formed in Ireland and began a steady career of critical acclaim. Their first three albums did reasonably well on the charts and earned many accolades, but their singles regularly stalled out in the lower reaches of the charts. For their fourth album the band teamed with producer Brian Eno and struck true gold. The lead single from The Unforgettable Fire was a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Pride (In the Name of Love), enters the Hot 100 at #85 this week and would eventually make it to #33. Massive chart success was just around the corner, with The Joshua Tree hitting #1 on the album chart and spawning two #1 pop hits in1987.

Song of the Day, October 24: Especially For You by the Smithereens

SmithereensToday’s song is Especially For You by the Smithereens. Despite sharing a title with their debut disc, the track actually appeared on their second — and most consistent — album, 1988’s Green Thoughts. The New Jersey quartet formed in 1980 and quickly developed a local reputation for their strong power pop chops. Vocalist and principle songwriter Pat DiNizio has a wonderfully expressive voice and a great ear for a pop hook. This song is one of the band’s finest. Slower than most of their output, it’s a carefully paced tribute to a broken relationship, with the singer holding on to something that’s no longer there.

I’ve been trying to build a bridge
To get to you for so many years
Now it looks like it’ll have to be
A dam instead to hold back the tears

You won’t make me cry
My heart won’t break in two
My love is especially for you

Enjoy this sad song today.

Song of the Day, October 23: Say Yes by Elliott Smith

ElliottSmithEitherYesToday’s song is Say Yes, the closing track from Elliott Smith’s third album, Either/Or. By the disc’s early 1997 release, Smith had become well-known in indie rock circles for his lo-fi, folky, confessional alt-rock, mostly recorded by Smith alone. He had a knack for writing dark songs that let just enough light creep in around the edges and a strong sense of storytelling.

Either/Or features more complex instrumentation — still mostly played by Smith — but still plays to his lyrical strengths. For the album’s closer, he picked one of his most optimistic songs, a love song to a departed girl he hopes will return.

I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl
Who’s still around the morning after
We broke up a month ago, and I grew up – I didn’t know
I’d be around the morning after

That’s pretty cheerful for Smith, who invests the nearly whispered track with real emotion. He went on to a contract with DreamWorks and greater fame for contributing an Oscar-nominated song to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, but fame and fortune didn’t ease his troubled life. After years of drug and alcohol problems, he died at the age of 34 from a self-inflicted stab wound. His lyrics are easy to read as a narrative of his life. Sadly the hope that rings through his finest song went unrealized.

Enjoy this darkly beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, October 22: Dancing With Myself by Billy Idol

IdolDancingToday’s song is Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself. He wrote it with bassist Tony James while they were both part of the punk band Generation X. The band included it on their final album in 1981, but it received little notice. As Idol began establishing a solo career, he revisited the song, mixing the guitars down, changing it from an aggressive, post-punk rave to a charming power pop tune. After his debut solo album spawned two Top 40 hits — Hot In the City [#23, 1982] and White Wedding [#36, 1983] — he released the EP Don’t Stop which featured an extended mix of the new version. Released as a single, it stiffed, bubbling under the Hot 100 at #102. Despite this chart failure, it has become one of his signature songs and is frequently included in 80s nostalgia packages; 30 years after its release, it is ironically better known than most of his bigger hits.

The lyrics blend a potent, danceable beat with a lyrical frustration that’s classic rock and roll. With a desperate growl, Idol turns in a wonderful vocal. The whole package is flawless 80s dance pop with just the right edge. Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, October 21: That’s Really Super, Supergirl by XTC

XTCSupergirlToday’s song is That’s Really Super, Supergirl by XTC. It appears on their brilliant 1986 album Skylarking. Written by vocalist Andy Partridge, it bears his distinctive wry stamp. As the title indicates, it’s sung to Kara Zor-El, Superman’s heroine cousin. The narrator is a depressed beau, tired of Supergirl’s frequent heroic absences and suspicious of her multiple identities. Partridge stikes a perfect balance of bitter and bemused and delivers a fine vocal. Enjoy this charmingly skewed look at just what super can get up to today.

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