Album of the Week, August 2: Icehouse by Icehouse (aka Flowers)

IcehouseWeCanicehouse_flowersIva Davies is a classically trained oboist who decided to pursue a career in rock. He taught himself guitar and hooked up with bassist Keith Welsh in 1977. The pair called themselves Flowers and quickly built a band to play covers in the local Sydney pub circuit. Davies’ voice and musical inclinations were well suited to the sounds of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Roxy Music. As they developed a following, Davies and keyboard player Michael Hoste began experimenting with a variety of synthesizers, slowly building Flowers’ own musical style. They signed with Regular Records in 1980, releasing the single Can’t Help Myself and the album Icehouse. The band and album were overnight sensations in Australia, which landed them an international distribution deal with Chrysalis. To avoid legal problems with the Scottish band the Flowers, they assumed the name of their debut album and became Icehouse.

Title Icehouse
Act Icehouse
Label Chrysalis Release Date  June 1981
Producer Cameron Allan and Iva Davies
U.S. Chart  #82 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks [U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Icehouse
  2. Can’t Help Myself
  3. Sister
  4. Walls
  5. Sons
  6. We Can Get Together [#62]
  7. Boulevarde
  8. Fatman
  9. Skin
  10. Not My Kind

At this point the band were a four-piece, with Davies and Welsh joined by drummer John Lloyd and keyboard player Anthony Smith. Hoste — who had been in and out of the band — co-wrote four tracks and provided some keyboard work but was gone from the group for good by the time the Chrysalis deal was inked. With the encouragement of their new label, Icehouse remixed the album and Davies recorded new vocals. Icehouse by Icehouse saw international release in 1981 with a new playing order and the lone dud, Nothing to Do, dropped entirely. Refined and bolstered by their success the band created a distinctive, compelling album that helped set the stage for 80s synth-pop. Icehouse is an aptly named track, a chilly, haunting metaphor for isolation and madness. With a quietly gripping synth line and cold, martial drumming, it remains one of the band’s finest moments and a perfect track on which to hang their legacy. Can’t Help Myself has a churning, surging sound, over which Davies intones an urgent vocal. The breakthrough single perfectly captures obsession, nicely building the tension between wanting and NOT wanting to act on one’s impulses. On Sister, Davies presents a slice of sci-fi fantasy, where robotic servants can fulfill one’s every need. The steady, mechanical keyboard work provides a flawless backdrop as the band crash away. A nice counterpoint to the title track, Walls finds the singer contemplating the security provided by boundaries. Davies explores his vocal range more fully, adding emotional punch to the song. Michael Hoste is the star of Sons, a creepy, compelling song of austere heroism. It’s a track that could have fallen off Bowie’s “Heroes”, right down to Davies’ intonation; Hoste provides an amazing piano figure that both supports that sensation and makes the song something very Icehouse. We Can Get Together is a delightful song of romantic longing, a dance-floor infatuation with hope for more. It’s a great change of pace, showing off a rare fun side of the band, and is one of their best moments. Boulevarde is a rippling night drive with a great rock beat, and a strong marriage of guitar and synth. When the vocal kicks in, it almost feels like Gary Numan fronting the E Street Band. (Yes, that’s a good thing.) Fatman is a fun bit of fluff, an almost throwaway that works as a bridge song and another glimpse at the diverse sounds the band was exploring. On Skin, cranks up the subtle momentum that has run through the whole album, a brief, insistent track about identity. Things wrap up — on both versions of album — with the stirring Not My Kind. Anthemic and sweeping, it’s a fine closer to an adventurous, carefully considered album. Over ten tracks and less than 40 minutes, Icehouse emerge from Flowers and announce themselves as a fresh talent with something grand to offer the changing musical landscape of the 80s. Seamlessly part of the New Wave era, Davies and company bring something original and Australian to the scene, launching a career that has lasted nearly 40 fascinating years. FURTHER LISTENING: Iva Davies is the only constant in the band, with every album featuring  a slightly different lineup. As the vocalist and primary songwriter, he ensures that each album is a logical progression despite the changes, however, and almost every disc has something wonderful to offer. Man of Colours was the commercial breakthrough, filled with hits and easy sounds. It’s also a bit boring, but still a finer disc than many of its contemporaries. The best original album is 1986’s Measure for Measure, the bold statement that prepared the band for their breakthrough and shows more confidence and consistency that most Icehouse albums. White Heat, compiled in 2011, is a two-disc singles compilation that represents the many phases of Icehouse well.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending August 3, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Shout Tears For Fears 1
R & B Freeway of Love Aretha Franklin 1
Country Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’) Alabama 1
Adult Contemporary Who’s Holding Donna Now? DeBarge 3
Rock Money For Nothing Dire Straits 1
Album Songs From the Big Chair Tears For Fears 4

CrueSmokinThis week sees a 70s hard rock smash help a major 80s band get their commercial breakthrough. Brownsville Station wrote and recorded Smokin’ In the Boy’s Room in 1973. The Michigan trio rocked it all the way to #3, their only Top 10 hit.

Twelve years later, Los Angeles metal band Motley Crüe recorded a cover of the song for their third album, Theatre of Pain. This week it moves from #48 to #39, becoming their first Top 40 single. It would eventually spend two weeks at #16. The Crüe would go on to notch another half-dozen Top 40 hits, a string of Top 40 Rock hits, six Top 10 albums, and a massively successful live career.

A curious side note: the song’s success was assisted by a comic anti-authority video featuring cult actor Michael Berryman. While the clip does include scenes filmed in a (remarkably clean) rest room and plenty of stage pyrotechnics, there are no scenes that include smoking in keeping with 80s TV practices.

Song of the Day, July 31: This Perfect Dress by Maria McKee

McKeePerfectDressToday’s song is Maria McKee’s This Perfect Dress. It appears on her 1996 masterpiece, Life Is Sweet. The disc is a brilliant musical contemplation of the many identities one person can carry and the various faces worn to balance and disguise them. This track is a nice distillation of the themes. It blends fashion and sewing imagery with body references, showing how deeply the disguises can be worn. Sung to a partner, it also reflects the intimate ways these costumes affect relationships. Is the perfect dress none at all? What costumes still remain?

Enjoy this wonderful meditation today.

Song of the Day, July 30: My Baby Loves A Bunch of Authors by Moxy Früvous

MoxyBargainvilleToday’s song is a bit of literary fun. Energetic Toronto buskers Moxy Früvous made a name for themselves with rapid-fire vocal delivery, smart lyrics, a sense of wonder, and an ability to blend in the serious effectively. Their debut album, Bargainville, is a perfect snapshot of their wide tastes and talents.

One of the standouts is My Baby Loves A Bunch of Authors. It’s the story of a man who just wants to go dancing but can’t interest his girlfriend, who wants to stay home and read. With a jaunty chorus, great harmonies, and funny but not silly lyrics, it’s a true delight of a song. It also features a great Dr. Ruth impersonation — really. The quartet manage to namecheck an impressive array of Canadian authors and make the case that literary pursuits may not be as low-key as they seem.

Enjoy this delightful romp today. Added bonus: it’s a live for TV performance that really shows off the band in action.

Song of the Day, July 29: He’ll Have to Go

jim_reeves-hell_have_to_go_sToday’s song is a Country standard. Former DJ and future American Hall of Fame songwriter Joe Alison wrote He’ll Have to Go with his first wife, Audrey. Inspired by his difficulty in hearing her soft voice, he started with the line “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.” They crafted a memorable song of love and regret, with the narrator sitting in a lonely bar, trying to convince the woman he loves to send the man she is with packing. It’s a tightly crafted song with a beautiful, haunting melody.

It was originally recorded by Billy Brown, but went nowhere. Intrigued by Brown’s version, singer Jim Reeves took on the tune, making it his own. With a quiet desperation that just avoids being maudlin, he creates a sincere, intimate musical portrait. The listening public loved the result. Reeves’ version spent an impressive 14 weeks at #1 on the Country chart; sales and airplay crossed over, and it went to #2 on the Hot 100 and ranked as the second biggest Pop single of 1960. He also made R&B inroads, peaking at #13.

NatKingColeRamblinGoThe song has become a standard, covered by dozens of artists over the years. My favorite is by Nat King Cole, who included it on his 1962 album Ramblin’ Rose. Cole adapted a number of country songs in the early 60s. A true talent with crossover appeal — despite the challenges he faced in a segregated nation — he blended the original spirit of the track with his jazz roots and smooth R&B delivery. The result matches Reeves for emotional resonance and features some of the finest singing Cole recorded.

Enjoy this classic song today.

Song of the Day, July 28: Spellbound by Cheri Knight

CKnightSpellboundToday’s song is Spellbound by Cheri Knight. Picking up where she left off when Blood Oranges disbanded, Knight created a powerful solo debut with The Knitter. Showcasing her confident, moving vocals and strong lyrical imagery, it’s a great set of songs that celebrates life away from the urban hustle.

Spellbound is one of her finest moments. It’s a creepy dreamscape set in the vast rural spaces of New England. The protagonist’s dreams and visions overlap with the events around her, with reality and imagination sliding over each other. Knight’s vocals start with a plaintive near whisper, growing in urgency as the various scenes unfold. The smart delivery is underscored by a sympathetic, stripped-down band.

Enjoy this dark song today.

Song of the Day, July 27: Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel by Todd Rundgren

ToddWizardKnowFeelToday’s song is Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel by Todd Rundgren. After the huge success of his masterpiece, Something/Anything?, Todd set to work on another ambitious project. Always restless and experimental, he largely abandoned traditional song structures and assembled a seamless flow of snippets, songs, and experiments into two full-side medleys. With the apt — and somewhat tongue-in-cheek — title A Wizard/A True Star, the disc received critical acclaim and cemented his status with fans but baffled the public at large.

Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel opens side two (the True Star set). It’s a fitting title for the disc; it also stands as a highlight of Todd’s long, creative career. Passionate and pondering, it contemplates the challenges of modern life, from the international to the mundane. Todd turns in one of his best vocals, lending the potentially ponderous lyrics a human sincerity.

Enjoy this great track today.

Album of the Week, July 26: Albion Bookends – No Roses and Rise Up Like the Sun

Ashley Hutchings is a restless spirit with a singular vision. He co-founded Fairport Convention in 1967, his distinctive bass work providing the steady pulse beneath the rapid evolution of the band. After a tragic accident nearly derailed the band, he immersed himself in research into traditional music, helping craft the band’s watershed, pioneering electric folk. Wishing to pursue that vein while his bandmates pushed to include original songs, he departed, founding another bastion of plugged-in traditional music, Steeleye Span. After three albums, he decided to pursue distinctly English folk and quit the band, retiring to the country to consider his next steps. He met established folk singer Shirley Collins, fell in love, and found his new course. The pair married and collaborated on an album that stands as a highlight in both impressive careers.

Title No Roses
Rise Up Like the Sun
Act Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band The Albion Band
Label Pegasus Harvest
Release Date October 1971 March 1978
Producer Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Robertson Joe Boyd and John Tams
Chart Peak U.S. n/c U.K. n/c U.S. n/c U.K. n/c
  1. Claudy Banks
  2. The Little Gypsy Girl
  3. Banks of the Bann
  4. Murder of Maria Marten
  5. Van Dieman’s Land
  6. Just As the Tide Was A’Flowing
  7. The White Hare
  8. Hal-An-Tow
  9. Poor Murdered Woman
  1. Ragged Heroes
  2. Poor Old Horse
  3. Afro Blue / Danse Royale
  4. Ampleforth / Lay Me Low
  5. Time to Ring Some Changes
  6. House In the Country
  7. The Primrose
  8. Gresford Disaster
  9. The Postman’s Knock [single]
  10. Pain and Paradise [single]
  11. Lay Me Low [re-mix / b-side]
  12. Rainbow Over the Hill [outtake]

Collins has an impressive musical resume. While considering a teaching career in England, she met American folk collector Alan Lomax in London. He sparked her growing interest in folk music and the pair toured the southern U.S. collecting songs. She built on that experience after returning home, recording a series of impressive thematic albums. Most were arranged by her sister, Dolly, whose ear for early music and unusual instruments set a distinctive backdrop for Shirley’s clean, pure vocals. She also recorded an album with jazz-folk guitarist Davy Graham, displaying her adventurous, collaborative spirit.

Collins and Hutchings inspired each other: their shared knowledge of traditional music, his intense desire to craft the finest modern vehicle for it, and her distinctive, straightforward singing set up a lesser-known but magnificent hallmark in English electric folk. No Roses features over two dozen performers. Hutchings’ infectious spirit and many connections helped him bring in an array of singers and musicians. Fairporters Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks play on most of the tracks; members of the Watersons and Young Tradition join in the fun, as do numerous other folk luminaries.

Claudy Banks, collected by the legendary Copper family, starts things off just right. It’s a solid declaration of purpose and a lovely song enhanced by Collins’ delivery. Over the course of the next eight tracks, mostly first-person narratives, Collins and Hutchings work with their talented friends to serve up a delightful array of songs. The Little Gypsy Girl is a wink-and-nod lark; Banks of the Bann and Just As the Tide are delightful discoveries; Van Diemen’s Land is a perfectly dark transportation ballad that they give a clever twist. On The White Hare, Lal and Mike Waterson join in, managing to craft an even finer version of the song than the one their family recorded a few years earlier. A jolly chorus of singers provide heft to Hal-An-Tow, another staple of the folk circuit that shines with special energy here.

The two highlights of the album are the murder songs that close each side. Hutchings builds a powerfully theatrical version of the Murder of Maria Marten, a retelling of the famous red barn murder. Sung from the perspective of the killer, the song alternates between his straightforward narration of the harrowing events and his pleas on the way to the gallows. It’s an amazing song, demonstrating Hutchings’ singular genius and Collins’ inspired singing while the band give them everything they need. Poor Murdered Woman is a perfect closer to the album, a quietly powerful song of sympathy and grief. It’s one of Collins’ finest vocal performances and an enduring example of Hutchings’ matchless art for framing a great song.

The assembled talent on No Roses was dubbed the Albion Country Band by Hutchings. These men and women would work together in a dizzying array of formal and informal groups for decades, often at Hutchings’ behest and inspiration. He created a slightly more formal Albion Country Band for one album, pursued some fascinating side projects, renamed the group Albion Dance Band to celebrate the Morris and other traditional dances that intrigued him, recorded an album, then rethought the band again.

The group’s fourth album featured the simpler name the Albion Band. Hutchings also decided to take a less active role, gathering the talent and providing bass and vocals but not producing or arranging. For those roles, he chose long-time Fairport producer Joe Boyd and rising talent and band member John Tams respectively. Tams rose to the challenge, demonstrating his powerful musical vision and crafting an amazingly diverse but eerily cohesive song cycle. In the end, Boyd shared the production credit with him.

With nine official members and a supporting cast that rivals No Roses, Rise Up Like the Sun has a solid core and dazzling spirit. Ragged Heroes is a Tams original, a stirring calling-on song that welcomes the listener to the proceedings. Invoking “half-remembered Albion hymns”, it hints at the treasures to come while showing off a great Tams vocal. Poor Old Horse is an adapted sea shanty that Tams intended to channel a country blues vibe. It’s a great song with an amazing sing-along chorus featuring Martin Carthy, Richard & Linda Thompson, Kate McGarrigle, and many others.

The instrumental pair Afro Blue / Danse Royale fuses John Coltrane and medieval courtliness with an energetic folk-rock adhesive. Inspired and unexpected, it’s typical of this fine album. Ampleforth is an old fiddle tune that bridges the instrumental with the next vocal piece. Lay Me Low is one of the album’s highlights, a stirring Shaker hymn painstakingly adapted to fit the tone of the disc. Richard Thompson’s Time to Ring Some Changes came from a demo that Hutchings heard — Thompson himself wouldn’t record it for another decade — and brought to the party. It’s a great political song and another invocation to action. House In the Country is a touching Travellers song featuring delightful vocals by Tams and Kate McGarrigle. The Primrose is another nice instrumental, a fun combination of two variants of the song. The original album ends with the grim, majestic Gresford Disaster, a tragic mining tale intoned by guest vocalist Martin Carthy. It’s a dark, stunning closer to a powerful album.

Later releases of Rise Up Like the Sun feature four bonus tracks that enhance the listening experience and round out the picture. Postman’s Knock is a fun dance tune that Hutchings had included on an earlier Morris album, here featuring a sly Tams vocal. Pain and Paradise is another Tams adaptation, a brilliant song of optimism and effort, and a rare Albion Band single; Tams remixed Lay Me Low as its b-side. The final track is another discarded Thompson song, Rainbow Over the Hill. Sung by Linda Thompson, its hopeful spirit brings the enhanced disc to a charming close.

Most of Rise Up Like the Sun was recorded live in the studio, a daunting task for the varied sounds and large assembly. Tams and Boyd inspired the group, creating a highlight of electric folk that shines with a charmingly different light than its peers.

FURTHER LISTENING: Given the complex array of talents on these discs, let’s look at four different catalogs.

ASHLEY HUTCHINGS – The bassist, vocalist, and inspirational band leader has an amazing, complicated set of recordings, ranging from his straightforward work with Fairport to one-off gatherings for a variety of musical purposes. His finest project outside of the various bands is 1972’s Morris On, a fun dance-folk collection co-starring Richard Thompson, Barry Dransfield, Dave Mattacks, and John Kirkpatrick. Hutchings has curated a number of discs that collect his many musical projects, all bearing the title The Guv’nor. The box set of these discs is a perfect, if necessarily incomplete, overview of his career.

SHIRLEY COLLINS – Despite her long career, Collins has a fairly small catalog. Her collaboration with Davy Graham, 1967’s Folk Roots, New Routes, is an inspired blending of seemingly irreconcilable talents and helped set the stage for electric folk. The lovingly crafted themed albums she created with sister Dolly are beautiful and complex. I find the careful arrangements a bit difficult to penetrate, but the passion and brilliance behind them are clear. The best of these is Love, Death and the Lady.

THE ALBION BAND – The group’s first official album after backing Collins is Battle of the Field, an amazing disc that compares well to these two seminal recordings. The lone Albion Dance Band album, The Prospect Before Us, is a fine romp but lacks the cohesion of Hutchings’ best projects. After Rise Up, the band became a more predictable, slightly less inspired enterprise but continued to offer fine traditional and modern folk songs with a changing array of talented members.

JOHN TAMS – As the Albion Band splintered into side projects, Tams poached some of the best talent for Home Service, a group he co-founded with Bill Caddick. Their work as a band and as musical support for the National Theatre helped establish him as a force to be reckoned with and set the stage for a small but impressive solo catalog in the 21st Century. More on that another week.


Billboard #1s for the Week Ending July 27, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Everytime You Go Away Paul Young 1
R & B Save Your Love (For #1) René & Angela 2
Country Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart It Breaks) Earl Thomas Conley 1
Adult Contemporary Who’s Holding Donna Now? DeBarge 2
Rock The Power of Love Huey Lewis and the News 2
Album Songs From the Big Chair Tears For Fears 3

PaulYoung-EverytimeThis week sees a British pop sensation help an American superstar log his last #1. Paul Young had managed three Hot 100 hits in the US without cracking the Top 20. He was much more successful at home, with a half-dozen Top 10 singles and a number of music awards to his credit. A master at finding great songs by talented writers, Young selected a relatively unknown track by a famous singer for his second album.

Everytime You Go Away was written by Daryl Hall for the Hall + Oates 80s breakthrough album Voices. Young recorded a distinctive version featuring an echoed piano and fretless bass. It entered the Hot 100 in May 1985 and eased up the charts, hitting the top spot in this, its 12th week. It remains one of only two Top 10 US hits for Young.

Daryl Hall had seen the top before, racking up an impressive six #1 hits with John Oates. This single was his only songwriting chart-topper not to feature his own vocals. He did have one other Top 20 cover success when Diana Ross took Hall’s Swept Away, written with his regular musical partner Sara Allen, to #19 in 1984.

Song of the Day, July 24: The Closer I Get to You by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

FlackHathawayCloserToday’s song is a potent collaboration that narrowly missed topping the charts. By 1978 Roberta Flack was a certified star with soulful vocals, flawless phrasing, and a great sense of songs to record. She had three #1 hits on the Hot 100, including the #1 song of 1972. She had also topped the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. She had made a few recordings with longtime friend and college classmate Donny Hathaway, a talented singer with deep gospel roots. When she began recording her sixth album, Blue Lights In the Basement, her manager suggested another collaboration.

The song they sang together was The Closer I Get to You. It was written by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume; both men had been members of Miles Davis’ electric band in the early 70s and were part of Flack’s regular band. They wrote a tune ideally suited to Flack’s talents. The addition of Hathaway’s sensitive delivery made musical magic.

The song made it to #2 for two weeks, frozen out of the top spot by the last of Saturday Night Fever‘s long run of singles, Yvonne Elliman’s If I Can’t Have You, and Wings’ With A Little Luck. It fared better ont he R&B chart, racking up two weeks at #1; it also spent a week at #3 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Sadly, Hathaway committed suicide only six months later, just as he and Flack were preparing to record an album together. The other principals of the song have had ongoing musical success. Flack continues a solo career and has racked up a dozen more hit singles. Mtume formed a new band and had substantial R&B success in the 80s. Lucas launched a successful dance / R&B production career, including work on Madonna’s debut album.

Together, they made beautiful music. Enjoy this lovely song today.

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