Song of the Day, December 5: Sleeping With the Television On by Billy Joel

joelglasstvBy the time he released his seventh album in March 1980, Billy Joel was a famously frustrated musician. His past two albums had cemented his relationship with his well-honed band and producer Phil Ramone. They had also generated platinum-level sales, a string of seven Top 40 singles, and a pair of Grammy awards. Critics, however, remained skeptical. Joel became known for his antipathy toward the rock press, and set out to record his response to the critics apparent preference for punk and new wave over his carefully crafted pop.

Glass Houses was another smash, spending six weeks at #1 and generating another four Top 40 hits, including Joel’s first #1, It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me. The other six tracks were also strong, resulting in his most consistent, rewarding package. Overall, the songs rocked a little harder, but they retained the pop smarts that are the hallmarks of the best of Billy Joel.

One standout track is Sleeping With the Television On, perhaps the finest non-single pop track in the Piano Man’s catalog. Directed at the fictional love interest Diane, it’s a song of romantic frustration. He wishes he was “a fool who’s not afraid of rejection,” lamenting the paralysis he suffers from over-thinking his best move. Smart, fun, funny, wistful, and perfect pop length at just over three minutes, it’s a catchy tour-de-force.

Enjoy this wonderful gem today.

Song of the Day, November 26: Time of Inconvenience by Nanci Griffith

griffithinconvenienceToday’s song is an unexpected surprise. Nanci Griffith is known for her smart, intimate songs, often careful character sketches or tender story songs. She is a lifelong fan of protest folk musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, however, and frequently adds a song about the modern condition to her albums. Her 1994 release, Flyer, is one of her best albums, containing almost entirely Griffith’s original compositions.

A highlight is the powerful Time of Inconvenience, a weary but determined look at the inequities of living in late 20th Century America. Her clear vocals have just the right bite as she dissects the forces that try to run the country only for their own gain.

We’re living in the age of communication
Where the only voices heard have money in their hands
Where greed has become a sophistication
And if you ain’t got money
You ain’t got nothin’ in this land

Sadly, her words resonate even more strongly more than 20 years later. Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, August 5: We Sing Hallelujah by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonHallelujahToday’s song is a modern working class anthem. When Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention, he wanted to build on the traditional music the band was exploring while pursuing his own distinctive vision. The result was a charming blend of English sensibility, wry humor, and timeless themes. After one solo disc, he and wife Linda began a decade-long musical collaboration, starting with the amazing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

The disc is a lively mix of songs that look at the concerns of the everyday person. Themes of work and toil run through much of the music. We Sing Hallelujah is a smart update of the worksong. Calling on the season cycle, the Thompsons channel the endless nature of daily work. They infuse it with joy, however, celebrating a job well done and the pauses in the cycle that signify accomplishment. It’s a fun song, uplifting but tied to the mundane, a tricky balance that the singers and band carry off with aplomb.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

PS – With this entry I’m wrapping up regular posts on Music and Meaning. It’s been a lot of fun sharing my favorite music, but finding the time to write good posts regularly is increasingly challenging. I hope to pop new things into the virtual jukebox from time to time, but daily posts are done. It seemed fitting to end with a track from a favorite album (also my last regular Album of the Week post) by two of my favorite artists. Thanks for listening!

Song of the Day, August 4: Yonder (Down the Winding Road) by John Tams

TamsYonderToday’s song is a stirring mission statement from a great folk talent. John Tams’ long career has included work as a singer, actor, musical director, and bandleader. After recording with the Albion Band and Home Service, he finally began releasing solo albums in 2000. His second foray, 2003’s Home, is a masterpiece. Centered on ideas of travel and rest, it’s a great song cycle, and the third track sums up the disc nicely.

Yonder (Down the Winding Road) has a simple folk structure, repeating the chorus around a series of hopes and observations. Cautiously optimistic, it reaches for the solace that comes at the end of a journey. The path may be short or long, simple or arduous, but the knowledge that something worthwhile is at the end keeps the traveller going.

Percussionist Keith Angel — the disc’s secret weapon — provides quiet support with an uncluttered surdo line. Longtime Tams friend and collaborator Barry Coope turns in a fine organ line, adding brightness to the journey. Tams supplies a nice acoustic guitar figure and turns out one of his finest vocals. His strong voice is low, almost restrained, saving itself for the many steps ahead, but clearly ready to take them.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, August 3: Jesus’ Hands by American Music Club

AMCJesusToday’s song is the perfect distillation of a troubled songwriter’s genius. Mark Eitzel has made a career writing and singing about loneliness and alcohol. The two themes fit nicely together, and he often explores that relationship. The finest example of this approach closes his band American Music Club’s best album, Everclear.

Narrated by a loner sitting at a bar, it starts with his classic claim that he has places to go and people to see, and oh, by the way, “a thirst that would make the ocean proud.” In no hurry to get to those places, he tells the listener his story of heartbreak, punctuating it with his efforts to use drink to cope. Unlike many of Eitzel’s songs, this is direct narrative with simple imagery, and it gains power from that approach.

The band provide a perfect country weeper backdrop, with mandolin and steel guitar bolstering Eitzel’s barely restrained ache. By the end of the song, a tightly constructed three minutes of sad tension, the narrator is far more honest.

I’ve got nowhere to go
No-one to see
I got thirst that would make the ocean proud.

That thirst is part of a cycle, one that has led him to further loneliness. In a perfect image, Eitzel has him conclude that he’s slipping through Jesus’ Hands.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, August 2: Simple Twist of Fate

BaezDylanTwistToday’s song experienced two stellar renditions in less than a year. Bob Dylan put together Blood On the Tracks in late 1974, stepping away from his work with the Band and exploring more personal themes as he pondered his splintering marriage. The result was 10 fine tracks that fused together into one of his best albums.

A highlight is the poignant narrative song Simple Twist of Fate. Told mostly in the third person, it explores a romance slowly coming apart, troubled by the little things that happen in life. Dylan slips into first person at key moments, making the subject of the narrative simultaneously more intimate and uncertain. It’s an amazing feat, and the deceptively simple, quiet music provides a stirring backdrop for the careful storytelling. Dylan is known to introduce the song live simply as “a love song — it happened to me.” That encapsulates its power nicely.

While Dylan was working to support the new album, he reconnected with an old friend. He and Joan Baez had a complicated relationship, including a short-lived romance that both have alluded to in song. Baez was understandably impressed with the Tracks, and asked to include one of them on her new album.

Her interpretation of Simple Twist of Fate is a highlight of her finest album, Diamonds & Rust. She stays true to the spirit of the song, investing it with her own energy and entrusting it to the capable hands of her crack jazz-pop band. The result is an amazing cover, a standout in decades of interpretations of Dylan tracks. As a tribute to the composer and a sign of her sly sense of humor, Baez drops her clear soprano for a nice Dylan impersonation late in the song. It’s a wonderful moment, and a nice nod to the performers’ complex history.

Legitimate links to original Dylan songs are notoriously hard to find, and none of the live versions I found live up to the original. I encourage you to seek it out. You can, however, enjoy Baez’ amazing cover today.

Song of the Day, August 1: Sometimes by Midnight Oil

MOilSometimesToday’s song is a shining example of protest rock. Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust is one of the finest albums of the 80s, a stunning blend of passion and politics, Australian spirit and universal themes, all performed with authentic rock spirit. Inspired by a concert tour of Aboriginal settlements and towns in the Outback, it shows how life-altering experiences can inform brilliant music.

Sometimes is a roaring anthem of the spirit that will not be restrained. No matter what pressures come to bear, it proclaims, be true to your heart and your beliefs. Working together, we can solve anything. The band are tighter than ever, roaring their pub rock roots into a polished but never slick proclamation. Peter Garrett delivers one of his most impassioned vocals (no mean feat) and the whole package is inspiring, a fitting close for a brilliant set.

Sometimes you’re shaken to the core
Sometimes the face is gonna fall
But you don’t give in

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending August 2, 1986

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Glory of Love Peter Cetera 1
R & B Closer Than Close Jean Carne 1
Country Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her George Strait 1
Adult Contemporary Glory of Love Peter Cetera 3
Rock Higher Love Steve Winwood 3
Album Top Gun Soundtrack 2

doctor_the_medics-spirit_in_the_skyThis week sees an unusual song begin a brief chart return. Norman Greenbaum — a Jewish  psychedelic rocker from Massachusetts — heard Porter Wagoner sing on TV and decided to write a gospel song. While not especially religious, Greenbaum crafted a smart modern spiritual, infusing it with the energy from his rock and jug band roots. The result, Spirit In the Sky, was a smash, peaking at #3 in 1970 and appearing on many best-singles lists over the years. It was also his only Top 40 appearance, followed by two minor hits before his chart career ended.

In 1986, British Glam Rock band Doctor and the Medics recorded a cover of the song. (Curiously, Greenbaum’s first chart appearance was with Doctor West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band…) Their crunchier interpretation entered the Hot 100 at #95 this week. It failed to match the success of the original, peaking at #69 but it topped the UK charts. The Medics never charted in the States again, making this song nearly a double One Hit Wonder.

Song of the Day, July 29: Gan to the Kye by the Unthanks

UnthanksLastToday’s song is the perfect opening to a brilliant album. After two albums as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Rachel’s younger sister Becky became a permanent part of the band. A few other personnel changes — including a regular position in the band for long-time producer Adrian McNally — resulted in a new name. The Unthanks recorded the acclaimed Here’s the Tender Coming, then followed it with a quiet masterpiece.

Last continues the group’s blend of traditional and modern folk in quietly moving settings. The Unthank sisters’ voices work nicely together, and the band have become a sympathetic, cohesive unit. The disc opens with a stirring traditional song, Gan to the Kye. With subtle, moving strings and flawless percussion, the musical backdrop works nicely for the eerie vocals. It’s a mystical package of old, rural life, that just happens to be directed at the cattle that are the lifeblood of the family in the song. Its a bit of rural passion with mystic overtones, reminisent of Cheri Knight’s stirring Dar Glasgow.

With smart, sensitive delivery and an evocative performance, the Unthanks make it work — gorgeously. Enjoy this wonderful track today.

Song of the Day, July 28: Tilted by Christine and the Queens

christine-and-the-queens-album-cover-2015-billboard-1000x1000Today’s song is a perfect summary of its performer’s journey. Héloïse Letissier was born in Nantes, France in 1988. She studied theatre in Lyon and Paris, moving to London after graduation to escape a broken romance. There she met local drag star Russella, who inspired her to assume the persona of Christine to channel her art. Drawing power from the drag and queer scene — she’s also a huge fan of RuPaul — she added “and the Queens” to her stage name when she returned to France. She recorded a couple of EPs, then her debut album Chaleur humaine. Seeking a wider audience and more artistic challenges, she reworked that disc into the mixed English and French Christine and the Queens on Because Music in 2015.

The standout track is a sort of mission statement. Entitled Christine in the French version, Tilted is a powerful statement of independence and making the most of uncertainty. Christine’s work is a mix of dance, music, and theatre, grounded in her lyrical explorations of gender and identity. It’s a magical mix, presenting complex ideas in catchy, danceable pop frameworks. No wonder Time named this song one of the best of last year.

I liked translating this song because the idea is the same in French and in English. It’s about making a pop song with a subject that’s not really funny or cool. It’s about making an easy song with an uneasy subject. It’s about feeling out of place, not finding your balance, or being depressed even, but with playful images, with a song you can dance on.

Enjoy this delightful song today.


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