Song of the Day, July 2: Hood by Perfume Genius

perfumegenius-hoodToday’s song is an example of reality mirroring art. After a solid debut, Mike Hadreas turned out a brilliant second album under his musical name, Perfume Genius. Put Your Back N 2 It is a strong collection of intimate songs, often focusing on insecurity and romantic doubt. As a gay man, Hadreas includes significant reflections on homophobia and the power of public disapproval to tarnish affection and love.

Hood is a song of fragile beauty. Hadreas ponders his value as a someone who can love and be loved.

You would never call me baby
If you knew me truly
Oh, but I waited so long for your love

It’s a brief song that perfectly captures insecurity and hope.

Hadreas made a touching video to accompany the song, featuring himself with porn star Arpad Miklos. The pair are scantily clad — symbolizing their vulnerability — and offer each other tender touches and glances. It’s a moving set of images that work nicely with the lyrics. Unfortunately, when Matador Records tried to market the album using a pre-roll clip from the video, YouTube banned the ad, saying that it wasn’t “family safe”. Fortunately, the video itself is available to enjoy.

Ironically, YouTube’s stance underscores the insecurities and doubts that homophobia creates in too many lives every day. Hadreas used the experience to inform his bold, angry declaration of independence, Queen, from his complicated third album. Let’s be grateful that he is committed to honest, powerful songs and enjoy this beautiful track today.

Song of the Day, July 1: Tower of Song by Leonard Cohen

CohenImYMToday’s song is the magical closing track to Leonard Cohen’s brilliant eighth album, 1988’s I’m Your Man. A smart reinvention that draws on all his strengths while breaking new ground, it’s a flawless set of eight compelling tracks. After telling tales of heartbreak, isolation, despotism, paranoia, and more, Cohen grows reflective as he rounds out the set.

Tower of Song puts the singer in a professional prison, trapped by his own career and accomplishments. It’s a nice conceit, crafted with Cohen’s trademark wit. Delivered in a melodic deadpan, it shows off the wry nuance of his unique voice. He ponders his place in the musical pantheon while considering the congenial isolation of the travelling life. Nothing sums it up quite like these lines:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

Enjoy this brilliant song today.

Song of the Day, June 30: Bell Tower Radio by John Bottomley

BottomleySOHBellToday’s song is the stirring opener to John Bottomley’s second album, Songs With the Ornamental Hermits. A talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Bottomley created his own brand of folk rock. Lyrically complex, filled with natural imagery, often focused on character and vignettes, his songs were crafted of beautiful tunes with just the right edge of electric guitar, creating a distinct crunch that set him apart from his contemporaries.

Bell Tower Radio is something of a Bottomley manifesto. Using the image of a travelling troubadour, he sings of the power of music. Drawing strength from the natural trails he wanders and inspiration from the animals he encounters, the bard offers ringing songs of wit and charm. Bottomley’s slightly raspy vocal adds grit to the mix, creating a compelling vision of musical offerings and the varied emotions they convey.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, June 29: Bored By Dreams by Marianne Faithfull

FaithfullSecretBoredMarianne Faithfull is a restless musical soul and that works to everyone’s advantage. After a brief career as a folk-pop chanteuse and nearly a decade out of the spotlight, she blasted back with the smart, harrowing Broken English. Since then she’s never looked back, releasing a steady stream of albums that range from smart sets of covers to indie collaborations to carefully crafted alt-rock song cycles. For her 13th album, 1995’s A Secret Life, she found an unusual collaborator.

Angelo Badalamenti was best known for his eerie instrumental work, providing soundtracks for David Lynch’s unique cinematic vision. Paired with Faithfull, he added a quiet claustrophobia to her meditations. It’s a mixed bag, but when it works it’s amazing. The finest moment is Bored By Dreams. What do we do when even our aspirations leave us cold? It’s a dark thought, carefully explored. Faithfull’s weary words and Badalamenti’s languid music balance each other nicely, and the overall effect is disturbing yet oddly compelling.

Enjoy this dark track today.

Album of the Week, June 28: I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen

CohenImYMLeonard Cohen was born in Quebec in 1934. He developed a passion for literature and began writing in his teens. While at McGill University, he honed his craft and published a collection of poems. Throughout the 50s and 60s he published more poetry and two novels to solid critical acclaim. He also wrote songs and began to focus his energies in that direction by 1967. He found a champion in Judy Collins, who recorded a stunning cover of his song Suzanne and encouraged him to play at the Newport Folk Festival.

By the time he was 40 — nearly twice the age of many of his contemporaries — he was an established fixture in folk music. His lyrical style was allusional and epic and his music was spare, providing a sympathetic backdrop for a voice often described as melodious monotone. His first three albums feature an astounding array of songs that have been covered dozens of times by a wide range of performers. He slowed down a bit in the 70s, then took a six-year break before returning with Various Positions in 1985. Having found his muse again, he spent a couple of years creating his next album, the high point of his long, inventive career.

Title I’m Your Man
Act Leonard Cohen
Label Columbia Release Date February 2, 1988
Producer Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Beck and Michel Robidoux
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  #48
  1. First We Take Manhattan
  2. Ain’t No Cure For Love
  3. Everybody Knows
  4. I’m Your Man
  5. Take This Waltz
  6. Jazz Police
  7. I Can’t Forget
  8. Tower of Song

By 1988, Cohen’s voice was deeper than ever, still a distinctive, compelling instrument. His lyrics were as inventive as ever and his stories were just as epic — and often cryptic — filled with losers and liars, dreamers and lovers. He produced the disc himself with some outside assistance, embracing a more complex soundscape that featured synths, keyboards, and driving beats. He frequently shared the vocals with two women — Jennifer Warnes, who had worked with him before, and Anjani — adding color and texture without taking away from his own singing. The result was Cohen reinvented, a startling, satisfying new approach to the musical skills he had honed for two decades.

With the first track, Cohen stakes out familiar territory with new energy. First We Take Manhattan is a tale of espionage, power, and deceit. With anthemic keyboards and a dark, surging beat, it welcomes the listener to Cohen’s world. It’s a standout in his whole catalog and a perfect opener. Ain’t No Cure For Love is an ironic look at heartbreak, with Cohen assuming the character of a lounge singer. All the while it’s clear that he’s suffered the stings that he describes with such panache. It features great harmonies from Anjani and Warnes, and he works in a fun aside — “Ah, tell ’em angels!” as they croon the chorus. It’s one of the most fun songs in a career noted for its seriousness.

Everybody Knows is a Cohen masterpiece. It’s so distinctly his own that it’s one of his rare songs that fails when covered. A litany of broken promises, surveillance, loss, and sorrow, it’s held together with a weary detachment. We’re all going to be miserable and we all know it, so let’s make the best of it. Rarely is despair so engaging.

On the title track, Cohen offers a pledge of love. He can’t promise all the things that the stories say love should be, but he can promise to do his best. It’s a charming song filled with grandiose promises offset with disarming honesty. It’s a nice note of optimism, holding out the hope that two people agreeing to share their lives might just make things work out.

Take This Waltz is adapted from the work of another poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. It’s a wonderful use of music as a symbol of life, with lovely images set to a stirring tune. Warnes turns in an especially lovely duet vocal, lending majesty to the proceedings. Jazz Police is a strange vignette, a noirish bit of paranoia. It’s a fun romp that’s well executed and finds Cohen in fine voice, and the cryptic nature of the tale works especially well. On I Can’t Forget, Cohen spins a yarn of escape featuring one of his trademark losers. It’s a dark song leavened by the tagline, “I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what.” It has just the right desperate energy.

The album closes with the brilliant Tower of Song. A bit of autobiography and another look at the power of music, it ponders the role of the bard and the unpredictable nature of a musical career. It’s a wonderful construction filled with some of Cohen’s best lyrics and a fitting meditation for the 54-year-old performer as he launches the third phase of his storied career. It wraps up this set of songs on just the right note, looking back from a vantage that can see what the future might hold.

FURTHER LISTENING: Leonard Cohen has released just over a dozen albums of original songs in nearly 50 years. His first two — Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From A Room — are amazing collections of songs, many of which have become folk standards, like his signature Bird On A Wire. The next few discs are less consistent but all feature some wonderful songs. Various Positions was a solid return and set the stage nicely for I’m Your Man. Since 1988, Cohen has released new material sporadically, with 2001’s Ten New Songs being the standout.  For a great overview of the first 35 years of his career, the 31-song set Essential Leonard Cohen is actually that. It’s a solid introduction and includes most of his best work up to 2002.

Cohen has also gained signficant recognition for the power of his lyrics and music, celebrated by scores of musicians who site him as an influence and who have recorded great versions of his songs. As a testament to his enduring power, Cohen’s music has inspired six tribute albums. Singer Jennifer Warnes recorded Famous Blue Raincoat just before joining in on I’m Your Man. It’s a moving collection, inspired in no small measure by her close work with Cohen. The 90s saw dueling multi-artist tributes. I’m Your Fan showed up in 1991, a fun collection of often inspired covers by alt-rock performers. 1995’s Tower of Song was a sadly leaden collection by more established performers, with a couple of solid — if predictable — inclusions. Judy Collins aptly crafted a collection of Cohen covers in 2004, Democracy, a nice reminder of the power of her voice and a tribute to their long connection. Mojo magazine brought together a collection of modern indie performers in 2012 for Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered, another interesting collection. The best of the bunch is the soundtrack to the film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. A nice tribute to Cohen, it features live recordings from a series of tribute concerts headlined by the extended McGarrigle / Wainwright family with many friends — like Teddy Thompson, Nick Cave, Beth Orton, and Antony Hegarty — joining in. It’s a joyous celebration and a wonderful testament to the power of Cohen’s music.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending June 29, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Heaven Bryan Adams 2
R & B Rock Me Tonight (For Old Time’s Sake) Freddie Jackson 5
Country She Keeps the Home Fires Burning Ronnie Milsap 1
Adult Contemporary The Search Is Over Survivor 2
Rock If You Love Somebody Set Them Free Sting 1
Album Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack 2

tears-for-fears-shoutThis week sees one of the biggest acts of 1985 drop a second hit into the Top 40, bound to be follow-up chart-topper. Tears For Fears — fronted by the duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith — broke big in Europe with their debut album, The Hurting. With three Top 5 singles in the UK, it was a smash, also topping the album chart there. The British band couldn’t duplicate that success in the US, however, scraping into the Hot 100 with one single and managing only #73 with the album. Building on the themes of emotional distress and release the formed that disc, the pair crafted a follow-up that took the whole world by storm.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World was the third single in most countries, but it was chosen as the lead track for the American market. That decision paid off, as the song spent two weeks at #1. This week it drops from #3 to #7. The breakthrough single around the globe was Shout, which was chosen as the second US release. It entered the Hot 100 at #66 on June 15 and this week moved from #45 to #35. It blazed up the chart, eventually spending three weeks at #1, becoming the band’s biggest hit.

Songs From the Big Chair spawned two more Top 30 hits. Three of the songs wound up on the year-end Hot 100 and Tears For Fears was one of the top five acts of the year (behind Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, and Madonna). They took their time crafting a third disc, and although it was a critical success, the delay lost the group chart momentum. Smith departed in 1992, and Orzabal ran Tears For Fears as a solo enterprise for years. The duo reunited in 2004 and continue to record and perform.

Song of the Day, June 26: The Moth by Aimee Mann

MannMothToday’s song is another brilliant pop moment from Aimee Mann’s masterpiece Lost In Space. The Moth is that disc’s penultimate track, drawing together the themes of journeying, isolation, and determination. It opens with a great couplet:

The moth don’t care when he sees the flame
He might get burned, but he’s in the game

Mann carefully dissects obsession, pondering the balance between caution and blind action. Concluding “Come on, let’s go,” she chooses to move forward, aware of the risks but preferring them to being stuck. It’s a wonderfully crafted song, with Mann’s always smart lyrics forming an especially tight narrative. The stripped back instrumentation allows the tale to make its own point, adding just the right amount of quiet urgency.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, June 25: One Less Bell to Answer by the 5th Dimension

5thDBellToday’s song is one of the finest interpretations of a Burt Bacharach / Hal David song. The star songwriting team composed One Less Bell to Answer for Keely Smith in 1967. Rosemary Clooney had the first chart success with the song, taking it to #34 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1968. A couple of years later, another act crafted the definitive version.

In 1970, the 5th Dimension were a well-established hit machine. A smooth soul unit that incorporated folk and pop elements for a distinctive sound, the band racked up a dozen Top 40 hits starting in 1967. Producer Bones Howe know how to make the most of their sound, tracking down songs that he helped craft into musical magic. Most of their hits were written by Laura Nyro or Jimmy Webb, but they also successfully covered Neil Sedaka, John Phillips, and others. Howe heard One Less Bell to Answer and realized that it was a perfect fit for Marilyn McCoo’s voice.

A tale of heartbreak and resignation, it’s a classic Bacharach/David tune. Using simple imagery to masterful effect and weaving it into a complex musical fabric, they built something special. McCoo’s delivery is flawless, making the most of the ache in the song without devolving into pathos. It’s a wonderful track and one of the band’s biggest hits. [#2 Pop, #4 R&B, #1 Adult Contemporary]

Enjoy this classic pop gem today.

Song of the Day, June 24: Bones by Luka Bloom

luka_bloom-the_acoustic_motorbikeToday’s song is Bones from Luka Bloom’s brilliant sixth album, The Acoustic Motorbike. When Barry Moore reinvented himself as Luka Bloom after three albums, his intent was to achieve the power of a rock band armed with little more than his acoustic guitar. He meets this goal admirably, crafting strong songs and propelling them with his distinct style. This track is one of his finest. With a surging beat that connects nicely to the album’s themes of travel and journeys, he tells a tale of despair. The lyrics portray a man at the end of his rope. The circumstances are unclear, but life has clearly left him with nothing that he values. While the song is dark and aching, Bloom adds a final note, “This road and me…” that indicates he’s still searching.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, June 23: Making Plans for Nigel by XTC

XTCNigelToday’s song is a standout track from XTC’s wonderful 1979 album Drums and Wires. “Wires” refers to guitars, with the title indicating the change in sound that resulted from the departure of keyboard player Barry Andrews. On this third disc, the band really stretch, moving from their punky dance rock to more complex New Wave sounds while maintaining their distinctive edginess. The songwriting is stronger as well, with more topical songs and deeper reflections.

Colin Moulding wrote Making Plans for Nigel, one of the group’s finest early songs. It’s a scathing indictment of shallow middle-class values. Terry Chambers’ drum work is astounding, propelling the song with an angry, martial beat as Moulding’s bass thrums with menace. Andy Partridge is in fine voice, making the most of the lyrics as he simmers with barely controlled disdain. Newcomer Dave Gregory’s guitar ties the whole package together neatly.

An incisive bit of social commentary that you can dance to, it’s one of the best singles of its era. Enjoy this great song today.

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