Song of the Day, October 6: One of These Things First by Nick Drake

DrakeThingsToday’s song is One of These Things First from Nick Drake’s ambitious second album, Bryter Layter. The disc repeats the successful formula of the debut: the fragile strength of Drake’s songs, Joe Boyd’s clean production, and gorgeous, sympathetic string arrangements by Robert Kirby. Boyd brings in a wider variety of supporting artists and expands the musical styles a bit. The result is a mixed bag, but when it works, the songs shine brightly indeed.

A sort of existential exploration, this track finds Drake pondering just who he wants to be. That’s not an unusual place for the singer to find himself, but the clever wordplay and layered meanings — why is he making this journey? for whom? — make it one of his finest moments.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, October 5: Sorrow / Babylon by Home Service

HomeServiceBabylonToday’s song is a potent fusion of modern and traditional folk. Home Service came together as a joint project of singer, bandleader, and melodeon player John Tams  and singer /guitarist Bill Caddick. It was a large group, built around many players who had been part of the Albion Band for the Rise Up Like the Sun sessions helmed by Tams. With many busy musicians, numerous side projects, and frequent theatre work, the band recorded as unit only sporadically. Their finest album is the luminous Alright Jack.

Blending traditional themes and tunes, talented electric folk players, and stirring brass elements, it’s a fine album from start to finish. While the heart of the album is the magnificent Percy Grainger medley A Lincolnshire Posy, its call to arms is another medley. Tams wrote Sorrow, a bracing indictment of political indifference and greed. It features a fine vocal, delivering trademark Tams incisiveness. As that song fades, a traditional anthem rises. Babylon is one of Tams’ most compelling vocals, bolstered by vigorous horns and expertly martial playing. The combination is unbeatable, a highlight in Tams’ long, illustrious career and a fine moment from all the talent assembled.

Enjoy this stirring song today.

Album of the Week, October 4: Home by John Tams

TamsHomeJohn Tams took his time recording a solo album, but of course he was rather busy. Born into a musical family in 1949 in Derbyshire, he learned horn and guitar, leaving school to work in a fairgrounds. He trained as a journalist, writing for a wide variety of outlets, a side career that he has kept up for decades. He taught himself the melodeon, and hooked up with another restless spirit, English folk master Ashley Hutchings, playing on Hutchings’ second morris collection and becoming a member of the often-shifting Albion Band. He co-produced and sang on that group’s brilliant 1978 album; when the Band went on hiatus, Tams took several members and formed Home Service. That eclectic folk unit served as a de facto house band for the National Theatre, and Tams spent many years as the Theatre’s musical director. He also wrote soundtrack music and acted, notably in the ITV series Sharpe. After 30 years in these diverse roles, having played on dozens of albums, he finally entered the studio for his first solo album in 2000. Unity was universally acclaimed, showing off Tams’ strong sense of folk, sensitive vocals, great playing, and solid production skills.

Album Home
Act John Tams
Label Topic Release Date February 25, 2003
Producer John Tams
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. You Don’t Know Me Anymore
  2. Another Grey and Grim Old Grimy Day
  3. Yonder (Down the Winding Road)
  4. The Ballroom
  5. Hugh Stenson & Molly Green
  6. Right On Line
  7. The Traveller
  8. Red Gown
  9. Bound East For Cardiff
  10. When This Song Is Ended There’s No More

Somehow, he managed to up the ante on his second solo outing. Home is an impressive song cycle, demonstrating everything Tams had mastered in his career while sounding fresh and engaging. While the disc is clearly Tams’ show — he wrote all the tracks but one — he’s a collaborator at heart, and the musicians that join him provide a smart, sympathetic backdrop. Lyrically, the themes connect to the album’s title, whether looking at home as a place, a time, or an attitude. Musically, a critical element to all ten tracks is the use of percussion, with Tams’ crisp production and percussionist Keith Angel’s flexible rhythms providing a varied backbeat to the proceedings.

You Don’t Know Me Anymore is a gorgeous ache of a song, a declaration of independence tinged with regret. Tams’ vocal is flawless, bitter and sad in a smart balance. Angel’s drumming propels the music as the band provide a sympathetic framework. Tams built Another Grey & Grim Old Grimy Day as an improvisation on a marimba line that Angel played him. That marimba line is the dark heart of a bleak, majestic track. In lesser hands it would be simply dark, but the very human essence at the heart of the song makes it work, one of the finest moments in a long career.

Yonder (Down the Winding Road) is a song of hope, a nice lift from the opening pair. The percussion is very subtle, with Angel playing the surdo quietly under Tams’ acoustic guitar and a marvelous organ line from long-time Tams collaborator Barry Coope. A subtle, surging journey of a song, it moves things along just right. In The Ballroom, the listener is treated to a series of vignettes, with the titular location providing a place of hope, solace, and romance. A smart collection of characters, it shows off the singer’s theatrical sense; the use of congas provides a well-chosen beat for the hall and its denizens.

The one traditional folk track on the album is Hugh Stenson and Molly Green, a tale of love and betrayal arranged by Tams to fit the song sequence. He opens with a clarion call of a cappella singing, joined by Angel’s propulsive djembe, fitting Stenson’s military background. The guitar work — by Albion and Home Service veteran Graeme Taylor — is searing, establishing this track as a centerpiece of the album.

Right On Line features Tams alone on vocal and acoustic guitar. A song of need and determination, it provides a nice change of pace. Here, the lack of percussion is a smart move, allowing the song to drive itself with quiet clarity. A wide range of percussion drives The Traveller, moving the song along like  its title character. Tams turns in a delightful melodeon line, hearkening back to his Albion days. The vocals don’t show up until half the song has gone by, allowing the music to build and the journey to get underway. Coope provides a marvelous harmony vocal as the track drives the traveller toward home, with all its enticements and complications.

The scene shifts back to the ballroom for Red Gown, a more personal story of romance and joy. It builds slowly, with Tams increasingly exhorting his companion to put on her dancing shoes and celebrate with him. When the drums kick in halfway through, it shifts the band into high gear, providing a delightful honky-tonk backdrop. Bound East for Cardiff is another theatrical number, based on a speech from O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. A dark reflection on the sailor’s life, it’s a compelling song told in painful fragments. Elegiac keyboards provide an evocative backdrop, while Angel’s drumming rolls like the sea. Coope provides answering vocals, giving the track a nice internal / external monologue feeling.

Tams wraps things up with the apt When This Song is Ended There’s No More, a song of disappointment. Somehow, the sense of lessons learned gives this closing track just the right hint of hope, even as things wind down quietly. Once again, the lack of percussion allows the lyirc to move the song, and Tams turns in a fine, bright vocal.

In his liner notes, Tams calls Home “that difficult second album”. That may be, but the effort more than paid off. He also provides fair credit to “musicians drawn disparately together” for the Unity sessions, now a band in their own right. Angel, Coope, Taylor, Alan Dunn (keyboards), and Andy Seward (bass), certainly deserve credit for providing a tight, cohesive sound that supports Tams’ vision neatly. The result is an amazing album, a wonderful set of songs lovingly crafted and delivered.

FURTHER LISTENING: If John Tams had a hand in it it’s worth a listen. That said, there are a few standouts, including the aforementioned Albion Band treasure Rise Up Like the Sun. Tams has worked on and off with Home Service for over 30 years, in the theatre and on record. Their finest moment is Alright Jack, a powerful blend of traditional and original songs presented with a bright brass section, a solid band, and Tams’ wonderful singing and production.

The man himself has only recorded three solo albums, and all of them are outstanding. Unity set the stage, Home is the bright jewel, and The Reckoning is a stellar follow-up. All three are well represented on The Definitive Collection, a nice overview of Tams’ career including some Home Service tracks and a couple of other well-chosen collaborations.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending October 5, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Money For Nothing Dire Stratits 3
R & B You Are My Lady Freddie Jackson 1
Country Lost In the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night) Ronnie Milsap 2
Adult Contemporary Saving All My Love For You Whitney Houston 1
Rock Lonely Ol’ Night John Cougar Mellencamp 5
Album Brothers In Arms Dire Straits 6

MilsapLost50sThis week sees a Country superstar manage a rare 80s feat. Ronnie Milsap started his chart career with I Hate You [#10 Country] in 1973. Within a year he hit #1, with Pure Love. The top spot suited him, and the vast majority of his subsequent hits were chart-toppers. He managed an impressive 35 #1 Country singles, with only eight intervening songs missing the top. That string makes him one of the most successful Billboard Country stars ever.

This week his Lost In the Fifties Tonight — performed as a medley with the Five Satins classic In the Still of the Night — spends its second week at #1. The Country charts were extremely volatile in the 80s, with only 23 of the 485 #1 songs spending more than one week at the top. It’s a testament to Milsap’s popularity that this track ranks among them.

Song of the Day, October 2: Making Contact by Bruce Cockburn

CockburnContactToday’s song is the centerpiece of Bruce Cockburn’s glorious Stealing Fire. Cockburn’s work became increasingly political in the 80s as he travelled the world, observing poverty and oppression that he was determined to shine a bright light on. He firmly believes that the personal is political and that change requires commitment. Making Contact celebrates these themes, demanding that we work together to improve the world and make space for our shared humanity.

Enjoy this inspired, passionate song today.

Song of the Day, October 1: Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie

QueenBowiePressureToday’s song is a superstar pairing that works. In 1981 Queen were coming off the massive success of The Game; David Bowie was rejuvenating his career, about to record his smash album Let’s Dance. Bowie had dropped in on the sessions for Queen’s Hot Space, recording some backing vocals that were not working out. The five musicians spent some time just jamming together, and the result was a highlight of both careers.

The loose, improvisational origin of the song is part of its success. Both Bowie and Queen are notorious for their laborious studio work. The scat-style vocals and loose-limbed instrumentation of Under Pressure show off another side to both acts that serves them well. It wound up credited to all five performers, a rare Queen track with writing split all four ways. The song is a perfect balance of performers’ prog/glam history, growing interest in dance music, and solid pop skills. Bowie and Freddie Mercury blend their voices together flawlessly while the rest of Queen provide an urgent, compelling backdrop.

The result was Queen’s second and Bowie’s third UK #1 and a great reintroduction of Bowie to US radio listeners. It remains one of the finest singles in both catalogs.

Enjoy this early 80s gem today.

BONUS VERSION: After Freddie Mercury’s untimely death, Queen held a tribute concert to raise money for AIDS research. Bowie — who had not sung the song live — joined the band for a rousing version of Under Pressure. Stepping in for Mercury was the incomparable Annie Lennox, whose fiery turn finds new energy in the song and clearly inspires the band and Bowie.

Song of the Day, September 30: A Letter Back by the Golden Palominos

GPalHerdLetterToday’s song is A Letter Back from the Golden Palominos fourth album, A Dead Horse. The band is an ongoing project of drummer Anton Fier, a Cleveland rocker who has worked with numerous legendary bands including the Feelies, Pere Ubu, and the Voidoids. The Palominos started as an art-noise project, then morphed into an assemblage of guest stars model. The only constants have been Fier, bassist Bill Laswell and guitarist Nicky Skopelitis. Singer Syd Straw got her start with the band, eventually going solo; former Information Society vocalist Amanda Kramer stepped in. Guests have included Richard Thompson, Peter Blegvad, Michael Stipe, T Bone Burnett, Matthew Sweet, Don Dixon, Jack Bruce, and dozens more.

By A Dead Horse — Kramer’s first appearance with the band — things had settled down a bit. This disc set the tone for future work with a fluid but less chaotic lineup and clear musical themes on each album. The highlight of the album — and one of the Palominos best moments — is A Letter Back. Written and sung by Robert Kidney, it’s a slowly building tale of distance and nostalgia. The regular band are a solid unit by this point, providing a surging backdrop for Kidney’s narration. The result is a surprisingly straightforward ballad from a group known for its experimentation, with the rough edges replaced by expertise.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, September 29: Tired of Sleeping by Suzanne Vega

VegaTiredToday’s song is the opening track from Suzanne Vega’s third album, Days of Open Hand. After the unexpected success of Solitude Standing and its Top 10 single Luka, the singer took her time crafting the follow up. A glorious cycle of songs about personal realities and perceptions, it remains a highlight of her catalog.

Tired of Sleeping is a perfect starting point. Vega narrates a series of dream images, interspersing them with the obervation that “there’s so much to do and I’m tired of sleeping.” The effect is both jarring and welcoming, a perfect setup to the album, set on a driving folk soundtrack.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, September 28: These Hands by the Damned

DamnedHandsToday’s song is a bit of gruesome fun from punk clown princes the Damned. When the band reunited to record Machine Gun Etiquette, they reconfigured a bit and came up with their classic lineup and sound. Blending punk energy with proto-goth trappings, solid musical chops, and smart lyrics, they created a new standard for the fragmenting punk movement. In barely two minutes, These Hands sums up much of the band’s new vision in a bizarre, funny, scary snapshot.

The song is narrated by a homicidal clown, with Dave Vanian providing his best deadpan delivery. Demented keyboard work lurches behind the tale, demonstrating just how awry things in this circus have gone. It’s a fun construction, delivered with skill and humor.

Enjoy this lovely oddity today.

Album of the Week, September 27: The Blurred Crusade by the Church

ChurchBlurredThe Church formed in Sydney in 1980. Bassist/vocalist Steve Kilbey and guitarist Peter Koppes had played together in a glam-rock outfit before hooking up with drummer Nick Ward. Calling themselves Limosine, they built a solid local reputation. That brought in guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, solidifying the group’s sound, a blend of new wave precision and neo-psychedelia. Changing their name to the Church, the quartet landed a deal with EMI and recorded a powerful debut album. Ward left immediately after that, replaced by Richard Ploog, finalizing a lineup that lasted for decades. After knocking out an EP that sounded a lot like the debut, the band hooked up with producer Bob Clearmountain and headed into the studio. Neatly avoiding a sophomore slump, they refined their sound around the twin guitar magic of Koppes and Willson-Piper, Kilbey’s strong vocals and mysterious lyrics, and the steady heartbeat provided by Ploog.

Album The Blurred Crusade
Act The Church
Label Arista Release Date March 25, 1982
Producer Bob Clearmountain
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Almost With You
  2. When You Were Mine
  3. Field of Mars
  4. An Interlude
  5. Secret Corners
  6. Just For You
  7. A Fire Burns
  8. To Be In Your Eyes
  9. You Took
  10. Don’t Look Back

From the opening notes, it’s clear that the Church have found their own sound. Almost With You is an enchanting song, a roadmap for a journey that might be inward or outward. Broadly appealing but anchored in the personal, it’s one of Kilbey’s finest lyrics and sets the stage for the band’s amazing output. The music is refined and accessible, a blend of swirling, chiming guitars and crisp rhythms.

When You Were Mine starts out slow and builds, proving the band’s skill at simplicity and complexity. It’s a beautiful song of loss with a magical guitar solo. Willson-Piper puts in a rare lead vocal on Field of Mars, a song that finds its narrator in a distant, lonely place. He could be travelling in space, lost in time, or stranded miles from home; the very human ache of the song blends with the surreal elements and mundane details to create a powerful picture. On An Interlude, the sound is more typical 80s rock, with a Churchy twist. Ploog provides some of his finest drumming, gradually picking up steam while the guitars cut in and out, finally catching up with him and providing a long, lovely fadeout. The sense of journeying fits in nicely with the other tracks, moving the album along with lovely sequencing.

Each side ends with a short song. Secret Corners (1:45) wraps up side one, a promise that the narrator will be ready when his companion needs him. A chiming guitar provides a sort of fanfare, wrapping up the first set with a promising enthusiasm.

Side two opens with a false start, a bit of acoustic guitar interrupted by knocking. Kilbey tells the visitor to wait, then kicks off the song. Just For You is a lovely acoustic ballad, a charming, almost folky moment that expands the band’s palette but fits in flawlessly. It has just enough of the sighing electric guitar to tie it to the rest of the tracks. That provides a smart bridge to A Fire Burns, which features some of the best psychedelic guitar duelling in the band’s catalog.

To Be In Your Eyes is a a remarkably straightforward love song, the closest the Church come to knocking off a typical 80s single. Kilbey’s lyrics are just mystical enough to make it a solid fit in this Crusade, however, and his almost-spoken vocal is a great touch. The album’s epic track is You Took, clocking in at over eight minutes. None of that time is wasted, however, as the band build a quietly angry tale of loss and betrayal. It’s an amazing piece of music, allowing each player to shine individually and as part of the magical whole. Kilbey’s barely restrained delivery is masterful; the electric / acoustic guitar jousting is scintillating; the drumming is spectacular, almost a primer in how to make an epic track tick.

After that emotional powerhouse, things wrap up quietly with Don’t Look Back, another short song (1:59) that makes its point and leaves the stage. A bit of optimism set over a throbbing rhythm with a guitar fanfare much like Secret Corners, it provides a perfect wrap-up to a beautiful album. The Church moved past their strong new wave launch to create their own special musical landscape. The Blurred Crusade remains the finest map to that place, an amazing musical statement that set the stage for an impressive run of sonic adventures over the next 30 years.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Church had an amazing debut with Of Skins and Heart. It’s the least like the rest of their music, but works very well as a representative of Australia’s finest new wave offerings. The third disc, Séance, was a rare misstep, with odd production and an awkward drum sound. From there, every album has something amazing to offer, and the band’s catalog is impressively consistent. The finest moment after The Blurred Crusade is 1988’s Starfish, their commercial breakthrough. It’s an amazing set of songs that benefits from the group’s sense of dislocation, recording in Los Angeles. The albums to either side of Starfish — 1985’s Heyday and 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix — are solid offerings that only pale compared to the band’s two masterpieces. Ploog left in 1990, and the band’s sound with new drummer Tim Powles became more ethereal and free-form. It’s solid music, well-played, but not as compelling for me. The best of this era is Untitled #23 from 2009.

For a well-chosen overview of the Church’s music, 1999’s Under the Milky Way offers 17 great songs. It leaves out a lot of wonderful music, but provides a good introduction to an impressive, distinctive band.

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