Song of the Day, May 26: The Rhythm of the Heat by Peter Gabriel

GabrielRhythmToday’s song is the opening track from Peter Gabriel’s brilliant fourth album, dubbed Security by his US label. It’s a perfect start to the disc, showcasing the singer’s growing interest in sounds from around the world. The track was inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, whose experiences in East Africa in the 1920s helped shape his work. Building on observations Jung made after watching African drummers, Gabriel crafts a powerful portrait of traditional art. He mixes his vocals low, allowing the dance troupe that features on the track to be as significant as the lyrics. The overall effect is a compelling blend of the modern with the traditional. Gabriel carefully builds the tension as the drums become more dominant, concluding with an almost ecstatic burst of drumming that brings perfect closure to the ceremonial feel of the proceedings.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, May 25: She’s Leaving by Orchestral Manouevres In the Dark

OMDLeavingToday’s song is She’s Leaving from Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark’s third album, Architecture and Morality. The band’s sonic experimentation continued on this disc as they pushed the boundaries of popular music and electronic soundscapes. Within that framework, however, they continued to craft wonderful songs, and this is a standout.

The song dates back to much earlier sessions, but the band couldn’t find the right sound and abandoned it. When they dusted it off, writers Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys made it slower and stripped down the lyrics. The result is amazing, a simple story told in brief lines over a gorgeous, aching musical backdrop. McCluskey turns in one of his best vocals, making the most of the smallest phrases, investing them with whole implied paragraphs of backstory. When he sings “she washed her hands of this whole affair,” you can hear the resignation, determination, and quiet frustration that led to the final decision.

Fittingly, the somewhat elliptical tale ends with the epigram “the more we learn, the less we know.” That may well be true, but this track proves how deeply we feel even as our experience makes us question our assumptions.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Album of the Week, May 24: Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil

MOilD&DThe roots of one of Australia’s most important bands go back to a Sydney-based pub-rock covers group formed in 1971. Drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist/keyboard player Jim Moginie formed the Farm with a couple of other musicians. They played part-time while some band member were at University, eventually recruiting vocalist Peter Garrett. By 1976 they were a full-time operation, changing their name to Midnight Oil. They added guitarist Martin Rotsey and retained Farm bassist Andrew James. The Oils became famous for their incendiary live shows and incredible passion. Their first two albums captured the sound and fury of the live band; on their third, Place Without A Postcard, featuring new bassist Peter Gifford, they turned down the sonics just enough to let the messages resonate more clearly. In 1982, they headed to London and recorded the stunning 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, experimenting more with their studio sound but losing none of the passion. By 1985 they were one of the biggest bands down under and about to experience life-changing events that would lead to their finest album.

Title Diesel and Dust
Act Midnight Oil
Label Columbia Release Date August 1987
Producer Warne Livesey and Midnight Oil
U.S. Chart  #21 U.K. Chart  #19
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Beds Are Burning [#17]
  2. Put Down That Weapon
  3. Dreamworld
  4. Arctic World
  5. Warakurna
  6. The Dead Heart [#53]
  7. Whoah
  8. Bullroarer
  9. Sell My Soul
  10. Sometimes
  11. Gunbarrel Highway
    [not included on original US release]

The Mutitjulu Aboriginal Community, traditional caretakers of Uluru, the world’s largest natural monolith, asked the band to write a song to commemorate the official transition of Uluru back into their custody. They submitted three songs and The Dead Heart was selected. Following that selection, legendary Aboriginal group Warumpi Band invited the Oils to tour the outback with them. This weeks-long experience, dubbed the Blackfella/Whitefella tour — with its time spent in vast open spaces, playing to communities who might never have heard of Midnight Oil — was transformative.

They learned to add subtlety to their delivery: the sonic blast that worked in Sydney was overwhelming in the Outback. They also learned much more about the history and people of the area, fusing a sense of sometimes desperate humanity to their already well-honed political conscience.

The secret to Midnight Oil’s sound was always shared commitment and internal tension. Peter Garrett — with his large frame and larger voice, spinning madly while singing with near abandon — was the face and voice of the band. Hirst was its heart, committed to shaping the finest band in the world. Moginie was its soul, the quiet genius that everyone turned to for musical decisions and inspiration. The three were the principle writers and collaborative leaders of the band while Rotsey and Gifford kept up the musical quality and consistency. Time spent travelling longer distances than usual in wide open country honed their roles but deepened their appreciation of each other. As a result, one of the tightest bands in the world became even more formidable while learning how to deliver that power in a wider range of sound. The results speak for themselves.

The Oils kick things off with one hell of a statement of purpose. Beds Are Burning was drafted as one of the Uluru submissions. It evolved over the course of the tour and a final version was added to the album at the last minute. It’s a brilliant political statement, tied directly to Aboriginal land rights but conveying universal themes. Garrett makes the most of his vocals, blasting the chorus with enthusiasm but equally effectively making his point with the angry whisper of “Let’s give it back.” The song was like everything the Oils had done distilled into four powerful minutes.

That blend of Australian specificity, broad commitment to social justice, and moments of personal connection fueled the rest of the disc. Put Down That Weapon features one of Garrett’s most restrained vocals delivering some of the band’s darkest lyrics. Whoah shares the quiet of that track, adding a haunting chant to the chorus that makes the most of the group’s vocal harmonies. One track, Arctic World, is about oil drilling in Greenland but fits into the broader themes so smartly that there is no sense of disconnect. A highlight of the album is Sell My Soul, another broad political theme that works in the album’s Outback context and brilliantly in the larger world.

Hirst has said that his dream was an Australian music “that people overseas could get on to …which would enlarge their whole vision of Australia past Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroo hops.” Diesel and Dust accomplishes that, often in its most Australian moments. Warakurna — named after a settlement where the band played — and Bullroarer — a distinctive traditional instrument in Aboriginal culture — convey everything the group learned  in a way that makes it meaningful to audiences everywhere. Gunbarrel Highway, sadly omitted from the original US release, conveys the band’s passion and the almost unimaginable distances between settlements in central Australia.

Two anthems are among the finest Midnight Oil tracks. Dreamworld is a stinging indictment of those who live by selfish need. It’s a stirring warning that justice and equity win out in the end. Sometimes is a get-on-your-feet testifying song. Showing off the power of the three vocalists joining voices, it warns of all the dark times that may come. Despite these hardships “you don’t give in.” It’s great protest rock, rising above what could be a trite message because of the undeniable sincerity of the performers. Sometimes the simplest messages are the strongest.

The finest moment on the album is the song that started the journey. The Dead Heart, a nickname for the open territory around Uluru, is a beautiful testament to the history of the Aboriginal people, their indomitable spirit, and the pressures and abuses they have faced. Where Beds Are Burning is a stinging rebuke of European abuse, The Dead Heart is a celebration of a people who cannot be broken. A big white guy singing from an Aboriginal perspective could be tricky, but Garrett’s nuance and commitment, coupled with the incredible power of the band, make it work. The song ends with a mournful fanfare of trombone and cello, acknowledging past pain but offering hope for the future. That’s the spirit of Diesel and Dust.

The album was the group’s international breakthrough, selling millions across the globe. It helped realize Hirst’s dream of deeply authentic Australian themes resonating with people thousands of miles away. The album also reinvented a band that was already a musical and political powerhouse. All five members clearly delineate their lives before and after Blackfella/Whitefella, acknowledging the profound impact of the experience. What they made of that paid off in sales and acclaim — the editors of the 2010 book The 100 Best Australian Albums put Diesel and Dust at #1 — but also in spirit.

FURTHER LISTENING: There’s no such thing as a bad Midnight Oil album, but some definitely stand out. 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,  was their first watershed moment, a truly inspiring blend of pub rock power, political activism, and studio genius. Red Sails In the Sunset has amazing highs, but does get bogged down a bit. Blue Sky Mining followed Diesel and Dust and is a worthy successor even if (understandably) lacking its full majesty. Earth and Sun and Moon came next and feels much more like an album in its own right. Capricornia was the band’s last album before Garrett left in 2002 and it’s a fitting sendoff.

There are also a number of Midnight Oil compilations. The best is Essential Oils, a lovingly constructed overview of the band’s career with well-chosen songs from each album.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending May 25, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Everything She Wants Wham! 1
R & B You Give Good Love Whitney Houston 1
Country Radio Heart Charly McClain 1
Adult Contemporary Suddenly Billy Ocean 1
Rock Trapped Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band 3
Album No Jacket Required Phil Collins 6

WhitneyGiveThis week sees a superstar of the Billboard charts notch her first #1. Whitney Houston was born into music royalty. Her mother was gospel star Cissy Houston and her cousin was Pop and R&B sensation Dionne Warwick. She began modelling young, but was encouraged to wait a few years to start her singing career. Her first hit was a duet with Teddy Pendergrass, Hold Me [#46, #5 R&B] in 1984. Soon after that she began work on her solo debut, the massive hit album Whitney Houston  which launched four top 3 singles.

The first was You Give Good Love, written by LaForrest Cope. It entered the R&B charts in early March 1985 and made it to #1 this week. On the Hot 100 it was three weeks old, moving from #52 to #44; it spent one week at #3 in July. It also made it to #4 on the Adult Contemporary chart. All in all, an impressive start, but barely a hint at what was to come.

Over the next 15 years, Houston was a force to be reckoned with. She ranks in the all time Top 20 on the Hot 100, R&B, Adult Contemporary, and Dance charts and logged a successful string of albums as well. Here’s an overview.

  • Hot 100: 48 singles, 35 Top 40, 24 Top 10, 11 #1 hits spending a total of 31 weeks at the top
  • R&B : 46 singles, 40 Top 40, 26 Top 10, 8 #1 hits for 33 weeks
  • Adult Contemporary: 30 singles, 28 Top 40, 24 Top 10, 10 #1s for 31 weeks

She logged 12 Dance #1s and took three of her first five albums all the way to the top. The soundtrack to her film The Bodyguard spent 20 weeks at #1 and spawned the massive hit I Will Always Love You which was #1 on the Hot 100 for a then-record-breaking 14 weeks and spent 11 and five weeks atop the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts respectively.


Song of the Day, May 22: (The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether by the Alan Parsons Project

ParsonsTarrWhen engineer, producer, and musician Alan Parsons started working with producer, manager, and songwriter Eric Woolfson, their first project was something Woolfson had wanted to do for a while. The pair built a concept album around the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, creating musical pieces based on several of his stories. Tales of Mystery and Imagination shares its title with a collection of Poe stories, and the Parsons / Woolfson collaboration — ably abetted by the orchestrations of Andrew Powell — does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of his work.

The band they assembled included the lineups of Ambrosia and Pilot, two groups Parsons had produced, along with many other talented musicians. Parsons and Woolfson carefully paired different vocalists with each track to make the most of the songs and their macabre narratives. For Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether, they brought in two versatile singers, John Miles and Jack Harris. Over an eerie backdrop of churning guitars and found effects, the pair construct a brilliant sonic version of the Poe story. It’s a testament to the talents involved that a fairly strange song about the lunatics literally taking over the asylum managed to crack the T0p 40.

It’s got “just what you need to make you feel better,” so enjoy this classic bit of Parsons / Woolfson genius today.

Song of the Day, May 21: Under the Mask of Happiness by Graham Parker

ParkerMaskToday’s song is Under the Mask of Happiness by Graham Parker. By the time he recorded The Mona Lisa’s Sister, Parker had started strong, worked with an amazing backing band, then lost and found his way a few times, all the while fighting with label after label. He finally found his groove again, turning out a career high point. One of the best songs on the disc, Under the Mask is classic Parker with a clean new edge. He dissects happy relationships with almost giddy abandon, looking at the ways we wear ourselves out pretending that everything is fine.

Look at them walking look at them kiss
What a picture of domestic bliss
Laughing and laughing like clockwork toys
Until they’re broken girls and boys

Smart, biting, precise, and accurate, it would be painful indeed if there weren’t a strong thread of compassion woven into his delivery. It’s a great song, powerfully delivered.

Enjoy this bit of dark romantic commentary today.

Song of the Day, May 20: Comfort and Joy by Clive Gregson

GregsonC&JAfter splitting with musical partner Christine Collister in 1992, Clive Gregson began a proper solo career. A decade later, he had hit a nice groove — never a rut — with simple, lovely songs that he wrote and produced himself, typically playing all the instruments. His warm voice and keen eye for detail, combined with his compassionate but realistic sense of the perils of modern love and life, resulted in great sets of songs each time out.

2002’s Comfort and Joy is one of his finest, and its title track is a standout in his long career. Opening with a sly nod to the lyrics of Matty Groves, it’s a bittersweet look at neglected lives and quiet regrets. His characters are sad but never tragic, and his delivery somehow makes the title seem hopeful and faintly possible rather than just ironic. It’s a wonderful construction, beautifully sung, by a master of understated music.

Enjoy this glorious little song today.

Song of the Day, May 19: Drifting Through the Days by Richard Thompson & Danny Thompson

ThompsonIndustryToday’ s song is Drifting Through the Days by a pair of folk musicians with a long history. Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson (no relation) were members of two seminal British folk-rock units in the 60s, Fairport Convention and Pentangle respectively. They had worked together occasionally and supported each other on a variety of projects. Both are talented multi-instrumentalists and songwriters, with Richard best known for guitar and vocals and Danny much in demand for his double bass work. They also share a love of musical and social history.

They toured together in the 90s and finally decided to undertake a project together. 1997’s Industry looked at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the United Kingdom, including the traumas of the industrial decline. It’s a smart, compelling look at the way various social, political, and economic forces were shaped by industrialization with a keen eye for the plight of the average British worker.

The standout track is Drifting Through the Days, a lament for lost work. The protagonist is laid off and has lost his sense of purpose. Richard’s vocal is stark and poignant and the pair craft a dark but sympathetic musical backdrop.

Enjoy this wonderful, musical slice of social commentary today.

Song of the Day, May 18: Glass by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

RobynGlassFegToday’s song finds Robyn Hitchcock reunited with some old bandmates. After three solo discs, he assembled a new band — the Egyptians — featuring a few former Soft Boys and put together the album Fegmania! It’s a mixed bag, featuring some fun wordplay, some great playing, and some ideas that aren’t quite fully realized. One of the standouts is the wistful Glass. The wordplay is clever but poignant, eschewing his typical surreal approach. It’s a meditative number that would have been at home on his solo acoustic disc I Often Dream of Trains, exploring the various kinds of fragility and transparency that affect our relationships.

Glass is all we’re really made of and Glass is all we’ll ever be Nothing there to be afraid of, We’re both transparent, can’t you see?

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Album of the Week, May 17: Furnace Room Lullaby by Neko Case and Her Boyfriends

NekoFurnaceCoverNeko Case was born in Alexandria, VA in 1970. Her mother and stepfather moved frequently, and she lived in several states before settling in Tacoma, WA, which she considers her hometown. She left home at 15, drumming in local punk and alt-country bands while finishing school. She moved to Vancouver, BC in 1994 to pursue a fine arts degree and continued drumming and occasionally singing. When she graduated, she moved to Seattle and began a musical career in earnest. Her debut album, 1997’s The Virginian, found her crediting her collaborators as “and Her Boyfriends”. Case presented a strong set of original songs and smart covers, all delivered in a honky-tonk vein that earned her comparisons to Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson. Three years later, she put together a second Boyfriends album, the stunning Furnace Room Lullaby.

Title Furnace Room Lullaby
Act Neko Case and Her Boyfriends
Label Bloodshot Release Date February 22, 2000
Producer Neko Case and Darryl Neudorf
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Set Out Running
  2. Guided By Wire
  3. Porchlight
  4. Mood to Burn Bridges
  5. No Need to Cry
  6. Twist the Knife
  7. Thrice All American
  8. We’ve Never Met
  9. Whip the Blankets
  10. South Tacoma Way
  11. Bought and Sold
  12. Furnace Room Lullaby

The country influences are still there, but honky-tonk is blended into a sort of “country noir” that set the stage for the singer’s future work. With a powerful voice, just a little twang, 12 great songs, and a sympathetic batch of collaborators, Neko Case made her first powerful statement.

Set Out Running is an appropriate title for the album’s launching point. A classic bad romance song, it showcases all of Case’s skills and sets a tone of independence and vulnerability that resonate throughout the disc. Guided By Wire is a stirring ode to the power of music featuring a nice vocal by John Ramberg. On Porchlight, singer Kelly Hogan provides a haunting vocal that works seamlessly with Case’s. It’s a track of yearning and loss, with the light burning far away offering faint hope in the distance.

On Mood to Burn Bridges Case brings back the honky-tonk, giving a gritty performance that makes it clear she will take no prisoners. It’s a great, high energy song and one of the disc’s standouts. Things get quieter on No Need to Cry, a sweet country ballad with hushed instrumentation. It sounds like a 50s Country classic and shows off Case’s power at any volume. Twist the Knife is a torchy regret song that caps off this alt-country triad with class.

Case pays tribute to her oft-maligned hometown on Thrice All American. She’s not blind to Tacoma’s faults, but she knows that home is a powerful thing and respects everything the city gave her. We Never Met is another country-tinged weeper, saved from being maudlin by the glorious vocals and nice fiddle figure. Case gets energetic again on Whip the Blankets, a raunchy raver that shows off another side of the talented musician. It’s one of the highlights of the album.

South Tacoma Way invokes the city again, this time as a setting rather than tribute. It’s a quiet, affecting song that shows of the great sequencing on this album. Bought and Sold is the last of the classic country songs on the disc, a great song of loss and regret that makes particularly fine use of Case’s range. The album ends with the creepy title song, a dark, elliptical story of something gone wrong. It’s a masterpiece of country noir and one of the finest vocal performances Case has ever turned in. Confined to the furnace room perhaps, but evoking wide open spaces and an aching need, it’s a brilliant song that encapsulates everything wonderful about this great album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Since she abandoned the Boyfriends identity, Case has become an alt-roots superstar. She’s worked regularly with the New Pornographers and the Sadies while building a sterling solo career. Her amazing voice is at the center of all her work, but her musical smarts and great collaborators are also part of the fun of every outing.

All of the albums that bear her name are worthwhile. The Virginian is the most country of the set, making it the most constricted but also a fun look at where she comes from. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is the best, most consistent disc, with Middle Cyclone coming in a close second, suffering only from a bit of sameness. The brief live disc The Tigers Have Spoken is a smart set without a dud that features an array of guests that includes most of Her Boyfriends.

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