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.

Song of the Day, October 20: Dark Sun by Sally Timms

TimmsSunToday’s song is Dark Sun from Sally Timms’ wonderful album Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos. The album is built as an ode to country music, frequently using atypical images and themes. Timms and longtime collaborator (and fellow Mekon) Jon Langford crafted this quirky track, one of the disc’s highlights. They conjure up the spectre of Dr. Strangelove and warn of possible nuclear devastation. The music, however, is galloping 50s country and western. The blend of two 50s themes — country radio and early Cold War paranoia — works disturbingly well. Timms’ almost deadpan delivery wraps up the package perfectly.

Enjoy this haunting gem today.

Album of the Week, October 19: The Swimming Pool Q’s

Swimming-Pool-Qs-CDJeff Calder was born and raised in Lakeland, FL. He developed a fondness for southern literature and offbeat music, notably Captain Beefheart. When he discovered Georgia’s answer to the Captain, the Hampton Grease Band, he realized that it might be possible to merge the two. While working as a freelance music journalist, he was introduced to Atlanta guitarist Bob Elsey by HGB’s Glenn Phillips. Elsey’s fondness for off-kilter rock and Hendrix guitar pyrotechnics helped inspired Calder to form a band. The pair flirted with heading to New York, but decided that to pursue their distinctly southern lyrical vision, they should base the band in Atlanta. The Swimming Pool Q’s (named punningly after mishearing a warning of a “swinging pool cue” in a seedy bar) debuted in 1978 and built a solid following in the slowly emerging southern New Wave movement that included Pylon, the B-52’s, R.E.M., Let’s Active, and the dB’s. Determined to prove that southern music was more than what he called the “Boogie Establishment,” Calder wrote literate, often biting lyrics that both celebrated and dissected the complexities of the South. Wedding the words to music that owed little to the jangle-pop that defined most of southern alternative music, he and Elsey fronted a rotating cast for a few years. After a successful self-released single, they signed to DB records for a solid debut, The Deep End, featuring harmonies from Anne Richmond Boston. The disc sold well and caught the attention of the major labels. Eventually A&M signed the band, now a steady quintet with drummer Billy Burton and bassist J.E. Garnett.

Title The Swimming Pool Q’s
Act The Swimming Pool Q’s
Label A & M Release Date Fall 1984
Producer David Anderle
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. The Bells Ring
  2. Pull Back My Spring
  3. Purple Rivers
  4. The Knave
  5. Some New Highway
  6. Just Property
  7. Silver Slippers
  8. She’s Bringing Down the Poison
  9. Celestion
  10. Sacrificial Altar

Deciding to make the most of the band’s talents, Boston was moved to co-lead vocalist, a smart move that finalized the Q’s distinctive sound. Calder’s distinctive southern vision and gruff but musical vocals, Boston’s enchanting clarion voice, Elsey’s stunning guitar work and Burton and Garnett’s steady underpinnings created a sound that should have made them stars.

The disc kicks off with a crisp drumbeat and launches into a powerful musical journey in The Bells Ring. With just a bit of jangle and a whole lot of muscle, the band propel Calder’s tale of escaping bad romance on a bus. Boston’s vocal is transcendent, wringing just the right emotions from each line as she regrets leaving some things and celebrates leaving others. Using the romantic departure as a metaphor for the erosion of the best and the worst of the Old South, the Q’s announce their mission with power and clarity.

Pull Back My Spring brings Calder to the mic for a growling exploration of generational tension. With wonderful imagery and nicely crafted similes, he poises his character on the edge of something that could be great, given the chance. Boston turns in a remarkable vocal on Purple Rivers, a nostalgic ode to changing times. Although steeped in Southern themes, it resonates with all the changes in Reagan’s America. Things take a nastier twist with The Knave, a look at a scheming character and the twists of his dark mind. Calder’s vocals are flawless, spitting out his distaste with melodic bile.

Some New Highway wraps up side one with one of the band’s finest moments. Some New Highway mourns a culture being paved over by strip malls while holding out hope that the changes might also grind away some of the worst parts of the past. Boston’s vocal is a revelation, making the most of the vignettes that form the song; Calder adds a risky spoken word bridge that he pulls of with sincerity instead of his usual arch vocalizing. Elsey proves that he was one of the most sadly overlooked guitarists of the 80s; his ringing leads swirl beautifully around Boston’s vocals and his solo is aptly heartbreaking.

After driving down that highway, the Q’s blast apart the remnants of the landscape in Just Property. Boston and Calder share a lead vocal that blends beautifully while Elsey swings a wrecking ball of guitar chords over the driving rhythm. Majestic and devastating at once, it’s a stunning opener to side two. Boston takes the lead on the next pair, a couple of southern gothic stories. Silver Slippers is gorgeous, fragile tale of privilege and crumbling patriarchy with a dark sting. She’s Bringing Down the Poison is a tale of vengeance that could fit in with a compilation of the finest southern short stories. Boston’s fine, nuanced delivery of the pair shows off her talent nicely and brings the characters fully to life. (Bonus points go to Calder for opening Poison with “She’s screaming like a phone off the hook too long.”) Calder returns to the lead for the touching Celestion, a grand love song that shows he can sing with passion of many stripes.

The Q’s major label debut wraps up with the epic Sacrificial Altar, a song of dark enchantment over the radio waves merged with a chorus of aching desire. The mix is heady stuff, and Calder and Boston once again blend their vocals to great effect. Over the course of these ten tracks, the Swimming Pool Q’s show of an amazing musical consistency, blending five talented individuals into a stunningly cohesive unit. They spin out their distinctly southern tales in a way that makes them universal, achieving Calder an Elsey’s original vision with skill and charm. Dark, literate, musical, and fun, it’s a unique slice of early “College Rock” and an overlooked gem of 80s music.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Q’s talent got them some major attention, opening for Devo and the Police while supporting their first album and landing a plum spot supporting Lou Reed on his New Sensations tour after their second album. Despite their talent and initial support, however, they never quite caught the public’s ear. After one more album, Blue Tomorrow, A&M dropped them and Boston left the band. The remaining quartet soldiered on, releasing an EP and two more albums. All of the Q’s work is solid. The Deep End is rougher, but it works well. Blue Tomorrow is more polished than the eponymous disc, for better and for worse. After two decades out of print, the two A&M discs were given their first-ever CD release in one package, a fine way to enjoy the best that this talented quintet had to offer.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending October 20, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 2
R & B I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 2
Country I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (The Moon Song) Conway Twitty 1
Adult Contemporary I Just Called to Say I Love You Stevie Wonder 2
Rock On the Dark Side John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band 5
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 12

Jack_Wagner_-_All_I_NeedThis week sees TV soap opera General Hospital contribute another hit to the Hot 100. Actor and singer Rick Springfield revitalized his career on the soap with a very successful 80s presence on the charts. Patti Austin and James Ingram’s duet Baby, Come to Me found a second life when played on the show, eventually going to #1. Christopher Cross’ Think of Laura was a hit in its own right but received significant play on the show.

Actor Jack Wagner played Frisco Jones on the show and decided to try a singing career as well. This week his All I Need enters the Hot 100 at #88. It made it all the way to #2 in early 1985. Unlike Springfield, however, Wagner never managed another Top 40 hit and has reverted to a reasonably successful TV acting career.

Song of the Day, October 17: The Old Man’s Song (Don Quixote)

TaborAqabaQuixoteToday’s song is The Old Man’s Song. It was written by John Tams and Bill Caddick while both were in the innovative folk band Home Service. The band performed it live, but did not record it for many years. In the meantime, June Tabor — who recorded a number of Caddick compositions over the years — included it on her 1988 album Aqaba. While not exactly a concept album, the disc features many story songs, most of which look at the lives of complex heroes.

The Old Man’s Song, subtitled with its principal character on Tabor’s album, features the Man of La Mancha looking back over his life. It’s a powerful, contemplative song and an unusual look at a character usually celebrated in dashing tales and quirky adventures.

Tabor’s quietly powerful vocal is as flawless as ever, capturing the aged spirit of the knight. The track also features one of her earliest collaborations with pianist Huw Warren, who became a regular fixture on her albums and in her live shows. His sympathetic keyboard work provides just the right musical backdrop.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, October 16: Life of Crime by the Triffids

TriffidsBornCrimeToday’s song is Life of Crime from the Triffids’ acclaimed second album, Born Sandy Devotional. Vocalist and songwriter David McComb described the disc as autobiographical, and the scenes are very evocative of life in western Australia. This track conjures up the oppressive heat of summer there, blending that feeling with a deep lust for a person who is better left alone. It’s one of McComb’s most cinematic songs and his slow, deep delivery matches the images nicely.

Sunlight was hot, and your mother was calling
My chest burning, rising falling
Dog licking drips from our garage tap
Miles from nowhere just a little dot on the map
I believe you will lead me to a life of crime

Enjoy this dramatic song today.

Song of the Day, October 15: All the Children Sing by Todd Rundgren

ToddChildrenToday’s song is the opening track of Todd Rundgren’s 1978 mini-masterpiece, The Hermit of Mink Hollow. A cohesive set of twelve songs, unlike the frequently sprawling and experimental discs that feature throughout his career, it’s a delightful collection of pop gems. Much of the album is dark or meditative, reflecting his recent breakup. On the surface, the opener is a different thing, a celebration of music. It has a dark undertone, however, with vignettes describing isolation and dark characters. Each receives inspiration as a bell in their heads rings. Music, then, is a universal language that ties us together, light days and dark. It’s a complex lyrical concept delivered in a fun pop setting, a dichotomy that’s perfectly Todd.

All the children sing
All the birds are chirping harmony
The scent of love is in the air
Sunset on the sea
The angel of the Lord
Just declared we aren’t worth a thing
The galaxy is null and void
All the children sing

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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