Song of the Day, January 16: I’d Rather Not by Emeli Sandé

sandeidrathernotToday’s song is an understated tribute to devastation and determination. Emeli Sandé’s second album, Long Live the Angels, is a brilliant emotional and musical journey, inspired in part by her divorce and the pressures of sudden fame. She wrote I’d Rather Not with regular collaborator Naughty Boy, Jonny Coffer, and Shakil Ashraf. The backing track is swirling, almost airy, and Sandé’s delivery is quietly detached.

The lyrics however, are powerful. Comparing a broken relationship to a hurricane, dynamite, and weapons of war, Sandé weaves a dark tapestry of injury and betrayal. When the spurning suitor returns, she is faced with a decision that she sums up nicely.

But if it’s all the same to you
As much as I’d love to
I’d rather not

The offhand words are delivered with such quiet determination that they blow away any chance of a reconciliation. Sandé holds this tension perfectly.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, January 13: I’m A Believer by the Monkees

monkeesbelieverToday’s song provided a landmark in the careers of two very different talents. By the end of 1966, the Monkees were riding high. The “Pre-Fab Four” had a hit TV series, a monster #1 debut album, and a #1 debut single. For the band’s second album, More of the Monkees, their management team assembled a star-studded array of writers and producers. Jeff Barry stepped in to produce a couple of tracks, including one written by a largely unknown new talent named Neil Diamond.

Diamond had already recorded I’m A Believer, but had not yet released the album Just For You, which included it. The Monkees made the most of the delirious lyrics, with Mickey Dolenz turning in an exhilarating lead vocal. A perfect pop gem, it clocked in at under three minutes, celebrating new love with enthusiasm and joy. The single quickly hit number one on the last chart of 1966, lodging at the top for seven weeks and becoming the Monkees biggest hit. It’s also the most successful of Diamond’s compositions, staying at #1 longer than any of his own three chart-toppers.

Enjoy this classic hit today.

Song of the Day, January 9: Scandinavian Skies by Billy Joel

joelnylonskiesToday’s song is a perplexing delight. After the smash success of Glass Houses, Billy Joel took a brief detour with the live album Songs From the Attic, exploring some of his earliest songs in new settings. He followed that with one of his most ambitious recordings, The Nylon Curtain. It’s a fascinating disc, mixing the very personal, the overtly political, the romantic, and the mysterious. The production is much more complex than most of his recordings, and the result is reminiscent of late-period Beatles through an 80s pop lens.

One of the standout tracks is Scandinavian Skies, a six-minute epic of dislocation. Using airport sound effects, backward strings, and a very Lennon-inspired vocal, Joel crafts a compelling, elliptical track. Critics praised the song while admitting to being baffled by its meaning. At the time, Joel was content to let listeners wonder, saying only that it was “a drug and decadence song [about] the nightmare of my generation’s drug experiences.” Later, he confessed that the lyrics drew on his one experience with heroin. The result is a distinctive standout in the Joel catalog.

Enjoy this fascinating song today.

Song of the Day, January 6: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

mitchelltaxiliveToday’s song has appeared in many versions, including three by its writer. Joni Mitchell wrote Big Yellow Taxi while staying in Hawaii. She was enchanted by the beauty, but horrified by the intrusion of modern life, later recalling:

I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart.

She wrote a smart lyric of environmental concern, adding in a dash of romantic disappointment, all tied together with the observation “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” The song was included on  her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, and it became her first U.S. single, peaking at #69. Around the same time, vocal pop group Neighborhood also charted with their version, taking it to #29.

Mitchell loves the song, regularly featuring it in her live shows. For her first live album, recorded with jazz backing band L.A. Express, she captured a smart take and released it as another single. This time she bested Neighborhood, going to #24. Over the years many artists have covered the song, including minor chart hits by Amy Grant and Counting Crows with Vanessa Carlton. Janet Jackson and Q-Tip sampled the track for their #36 hit Got ‘Til It’s Gone, featuring a new vocal line from Mitchell.

Mitchell herself revisited it again on her most recent album, 2007’s Shine, fitting it in with the social and environmental concerns of the disc.

Enjoy all three Joni Mitchell versions of this wonderful song today: the studio original, the live hit, and the charming reinvention.

Album of the Year, 2016: Long Live the Angels by Emeli Sandé

sandebreathingAdele Emily Sandé was born in Sunderland, England, where her Zambian father met her English mother. The family moved to Alford, Scotland when she was four. She began songwriting at 11 and pursued music as a passion, including participation in a “Rapology” competition at 16. Inspired by her educator father, she took her education seriously, completing a degree in neuroscience before pursuing music full time so she would have “something to fall back on.” Her artistic inspirations are Frida Kahlo – for her fearlessness – and Nina Simone. She also drew musical inspiration from Joni Mitchell.

Sandé’s early work consisted of writing songs for other acts, gradually assuming guest vocalist roles on a number of these tracks. Since another British singer was making it big with the name Adele, Sandé opted for an alternate spelling of her middle name for her singing career. After a numerous chart collaborations, including the #6 Diamond Rings with Chipmunk, she began work on her debut album, Our Version of Events. It was a UK smash, spending ten weeks at #1 and becoming the biggest-selling British album of 2012. Sandé was invited to sing at the opening and closing ceremonies of that year’s London-held Olympic games.

The pressure took its toll, and her one-year marriage to her longtime boyfriend crashed and burned. After a relentless touring schedule, she went into seclusion to craft her second album. Drawing from her painful experiences and her fearless inspirations, she crafted an amazing set of tracks drawing on an even broader set of musical traditions.

Album Long Live the Angels
Act Emeli Sandé
Label Virgin Release Date November 11, 2016
Producer Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, Mac & Phil, Chris Loco, Mojam
U.S. Chart  41 U.K. Chart  2
  1. Selah
  2. Breathing Underwater
  3. Happen
  4. Hurts
  5. Give Me Something
  6. Right Now
  7. Shakes
  8. Garden
  9. I’d Rather Not
  10. Lonely
  11. Sweet Architect
  12. Tenderly
  13. Every Single Little Piece
  14. Highs & Lows
  15. Babe

Sandé launches Long Live the Angels with a stunning invocation. Selah is a brief, inspirational track, welcoming the listener and setting the soul-searching, ultimately hopeful tone of the disc. Things pick up with Breathing Underwater, a soulful mission statement that finds strength in even the darkest moments. It’s one of her finest songs, and a stirring introduction to the disc. Happen, by contrast, is bare bones. A guitar and vocal number reminiscent of Pops Staples, it holds an eerie tension as she draws out the title, creating a sense of waiting.

The wait breaks with Hurts, another powerful number. Ironically both one of the most danceable and most tragic songs on the disc, it surges forward with rapid handclaps and driving strings. Sandé turns in a gospel-inspired vocal as she declares “my heart’s not made of stone, it hurts.”

Give Me Something is a desperate plea, a search for something to believe in during dark times. It sequences smartly into Right Now, a sort of answer to Happen, with similar guitar-and-vocal structure but a change in pace. Demanding an end to the wait of the previous song, Sandé asks for the love she deserves. The first half of the album wraps up with the stirring, sensuous Shakes, an exploration of passion as a double-edged sword.

Garden is a smart centerpiece, a collaboration with Jay Electronica and Aine Zion that features a rap by the former, smart vocal contributions from the latter, and the most hip-hop sound of the disc.

Part two opens with another standout, the wistful I’d Rather Not. Over beautiful acoustic guitar, Sandé intones a rich bit of irony. “Although I’d love to, I’d rather not,” she observes, noting the pain that giving in to her feelings has caused her. Powerful because it’s understated, it shows off another side of the singer. Lonely picks up from there, almost celebrating the loss she regrets but understands as necessary. On Sweet Architect, she draws strength from relying on the support of a loved one. This trio of songs – smartly placed in the middle of the action – encapsulates the themes, tensions, and hopes of the disc nicely.

Sandé brings in her father and cousins to provide a supporting chorus on Tenderly. It’s a wonderful up-tempo number with a classic gospel-pop feel that celebrates new love and hope after the devastation explored in earlier tracks. That sense of hope informs the closing trio of songs.

Every Single Little Piece explores the complexity of a woman regaining her strength, one piece at a time. That flows seamlessly into the choir-supported anthem Highs & Lows, another of the disc’s standouts. Joyous and infectious, it explores the power one can draw from all experiences in life and features one of Sandé’s finest vocals – no mean feat. The disc wraps up with a celebration of new love in Babe. Rather than an innocent paean, however, it’s a wonderful recognition of the effort needed from both partners to make a relationship work. Ebullient and smart, it’s the perfect conclusion to a brilliant album.

BONUS TRACKS: The deluxe edition of Long Live the Angels features three additional songs that truly enhance the experience. Kung Fu is a bit of smart wordplay centered on an offer to be available for a friend in need. It’s a nice counterpoint to the explorations of the main album, and the fun and sincerity are measured out perfectly. Somebody channels Lady Gaga in the best way, with Sandé insisting “tonight I am a big fucking deal.” A bit of a road song, a bit of insistent independence, it’s a nice little journey. Sandé builds the perfect coda with This Much Is True. It’s a bit of a Joni Mitchell tribute, with acoustic guitar underpinning lyrics that veer from the topical to the romantic in a smart stream. Fundamentally a declaration of love in trying times, it’s a wonderful treat to wrap up the extra moments.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to remember that Emeli Sandé only has two albums to her credit given the dozens of tracks to which she’s contributed writing and vocals. Most of these collaborations are more in the hip hop and rap vein; her rich singing adds a wonderful humanity to them and her sense of fun regularly shines through. The finest is her collaboration with Naughty Boy for his album Hotel Cabana, the exhilarating Wonder. Her debut album isn’t as consistent as Long Live the Angels, but its best moments are amazing and the rest of the tracks are at worst well-constructed soulful pop. If you want stunning vocals in an array of styles, add both Sandé discs to your collection.

Song of the Day, January 1: King Strut by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadStrutSlapToday’s song is a curious story of challenges and success. Peter Blegvad’s recording career has been sporadic, but each release is charming and unique. King Strut and Other Stories is his folkiest offering, and the title track is an epic story song, telling the life of its mysterious titular character. Dwight Strut is a poor orphan who happens upon a man about to breathe his last. The man imparts a secret to Strut, empowering him to become a force for good in the world, albeit through his particular lens.

The lyrics are classic Blegvad, filled with smart observations, clever wordplay, and elliptical references. Each verse opens with a wonderful generalization that allows him to explore Strut’s character and adventures. Two of my favorites:

  • “Imagination, like a muscle, will increase with exercise.”
  • “A man without a moral code is just an appetite.”

His brother, Kristoffer, provides an amazing guitar figure that propels the tale along. It’s a great musical package and a standout in Blegvad’s fascinating career. The message of hope and effort also seems like a perfect way to welcome in the New Year.

Happy 2017! Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, December 30: Different Drum by the Stone Poneys

stonedrumToday’s song is a wonderful collaboration that launched a legendary career. After a semester of college, Linda Ronstadt decided to pursue a music career and moved to Los Angeles. She reconnected with a friend from Tuscon, Bobby Kimmel, who had begun collaborating with Kenny Edwards. The three shared a fondness for folk-tinged pop, and formed the Stone Poneys.

They released three albums in fifteen months, the second of which featured their lone single. Different Drum was written by Mike Nesmith before he joined the Monkees, and it’s a perfect fit for the Poneys. A song of romantic frustration and independent spirit, it finds magic in Ronstadt’s delivery. She retained the reference to her suitor as “pretty”, a nice twist that makes her declaration of the need to find herself even more powerful.

The trio split up after their third album. Kimmel became a successful folk musician, Edwards a strong pop presence who collaborated with many artists before his death in 2010. Ronstadt honed the folk-pop sound the Poneys had started and launched an impressive solo career, culminating with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

Enjoy this classic song today.

Song of the Day, December 26: Breathing Underwater by Emeli Sandé

emeli-sande-breathing-underwaterToday’s song is an amazing burst of growth from a rich musical talent. Emeli Sandé achieved great success with her first album, Our Version of Events, going multiple platinum and logging four Top 10 hits in her native Britain. In the wake of that success, her marriage disintegrated and she buried herself in touring and collaborating on other people’s albums. After a break to re-energize herself, she crafted her sophomore effort, Long Live the Angels, a stunning disc that demonstrates renewed confidence and greater musical complexity.

The standout track is the anthemic Breathing Underwater. Drawing on gospel traditions and the lyrical power of her idol, Nina Simone, Sandé celebrates the power of a spirit tested and renewed. Each challenge she notes is listed as an opportunity for growth. The tone is mature and celebratory, and she makes the most of her powerful voice.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, December 23: Walking Through A Wasted Land by Richard Thompson

rtcrowdedwastedToday’s song is a standout from the album that launched the third phase of Richard Thompson’s career. He left Fairport Convention — a band he helped found — after five albums, moving on to an early solo disc and a series of recordings with his wife, Linda. As their marriage disintegrated, he went solo again for a couple of indie releases.

In 1985, he signed with Polydor and recorded Across A Crowded Room with old friend Joe Boyd producing. It’s a great set that finds him leading a smart band with new confidence. One of the finest moments is the snarling rebuke of Thatcher’s Britain, Walking Through A Wasted Land.

Thompson turns his trademark lyrical smarts toward greed and corruption. He leads the band with one of his finest vocals and a wonderful guitar line. Rollicking horns and energetic backing vocals from Gregson and Collister keep the track moving.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, December 19: Do You Believe In Magic? by the Lovin’ Spoonful

lovinspbelieveToday’s song launched a brief, significant run on the charts by a new band. John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky were both part of a burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 60s. (The same scene that launched the Mamas & the Papas and overlapped with a number of other acts, as documented in the song Creeque Alley.) They formed a group to perform what they called good-time music, fusing folk, pop, and jug-band elements. Adding rhythm section Steve Boone and Joe Butler, they built a quick reputation and landed a deal with Kama Sutra records.

Their first single set the tone for the band’s output. A smart, fun song by Sebastian, Do You Belive In Magic? is pop genius, a sparkling celebration of music, joy, and love. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it features smart lyrics, sophisticated playing, and a wonderful sense of energy. The song blasted into the Top 10, the first of seven consecutive tracks by the band to do so.

By the end of 1966, however, two years of constant recording and touring took their toll. Lineup and management changes, along with shifting radio tastes, ended the Spoonful’s amazing run. They stuck it out for another couple of years, eventually disintegrating after Sebastian launched a solo career.

The song that started it all is not just one of their finest; it’s a standout of 60s pop, showcasing how powerful simplicity can be in the right hands.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.


all contents © Robert Hulshof-Schmidt

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