Song of the Day, February 27: You’re No Good by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtnogoodToday’s song launched Linda Ronstadt’s career as the queen of the chart cover hit. After a solid start with the Stone Poneys, Ronstadt released a string of country-pop albums with moderate success. Her breakthrough album, Heart Like A Wheel, featured a broader mix of sounds tied together by the smart production work of Peter Asher.

As they were wrapping up the disc, Asher suggested that Ronstadt include a song that regularly closed her live shows. You’re No Good was written by Clint Ballard, Jr. in 1963, a soulful takedown of a no-good lover, with the singer recognizing the error of her ways taking up with such a cad. It was originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick; Betty Everett had a Top 5 R&B hit with the song, and the Swinging Blue Jeans went Top 3 in the UK with their interpretation.

Asher and Ronstadt struggled to find the right sound for the song, scrapping the original recording in favor of a dark, haunting rendition. Regular collaborator Andrew Gold layered in moody guitar and keyboard work, and engineer Val Garay made the most of brooding strings arranged by Gregory Rose. Ronstadt turned in a much grittier vocal than usual, nicely suited to the lyrical content. The combined effort resulted in the finest version of the song and Ronstadt’s first Top 10 hit.

It went all the way to #1, setting the stage for a series of well-chosen covers released as Ronstadt singles over the years. In fact, 14 of her 21 Top 40 hits were chart singles for other artists first, although her versions often out-performed the originals.

Enjoy the magnificent moment of classic pop today.

Song of the Day, Febrary 24: Quite Ugly One Morning by Warren Zevon

zevonbaduglyToday’s song is a delightfully charming look at life on the day after nuclear Armageddon. Warren Zevon’s 1991 album Mr. Bad Example is classic Zevon, blending dark tales, wry wit, odd characters, and sinister dealings. The finest moment is Quite Ugly One Morning.

Opening with the ominous “Don’t the sky look funny? Don’t it look kinda chewed-on like?”, Zevon offers a make-the-best-of-it pitch for dealing with the day after. He’s in great voice, with the desperate wink behind the lyric shining through his vocals. While the “flash of light” mentioned in the chorus makes the subject clear, the elliptical nature of the song lets the devastation apply to many kinds of tragedy, a nice Zevon twist. The singer’s regular collaborators provide stellar backing with multi-instrumentalist David Lindley contributing exotic elements on the saz and the cümbüş. The result is wonderfully engaging.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, February 20: I’ll Make Believe by Jeffrey Osborne

osbornestaybelieveToday’s song is a ballad of loss and self-deception. After a successful solo debut, Jeffrey Osborne returned to producer George Duke for his second outing. Stay With Me Tonight is an even stronger disc, blending funky love songs, gorgeous ballads, and quirky stories. The album is held together by Duke’s smart production and Osborne’s amazing voice.

One of the highlights is I’ll Make Believe, written by Osborne with Geoffrey Leib. The theme is simple: a man bereft by broken romance, doing his best to pretend that things are still fine. In lesser hands, it could be trite or treacly. Instead, Osborne’s distinctive phrasing and smart restraint show off the ache and sorrow without over-emoting. The result is poignant and heartbreaking.

Enjoy this sad song today.

Song of the Day, February 17: Crazy Man Michael by Fairport Convention

fapcollcrazyToday’s song sees a challenge result in a masterpiece. Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is best known for pioneering the trad-rock genre. It also includes three smart tracks written by members of the band, songs that capture the traditional folk essence despite their modern composition. One began as a hybrid of the two and emerged as the perfect closer to the disc.

Richard Thompson wrote Crazy Man Michael, a tragic tale of doomed love and dark magic, setting his words to a traditional tune. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick loved the words but thought the tune weakened them. Thompson challenged him to come up with something better, and he rose to the challenge. Composing on piano instead of his usual fiddle, Swarb came up with brooding, haunting tune that suits the lyrics perfectly. The result was one of the handful of Thompson/Swarbrick compositions that mark some of the best of original Fairport.

The band were clearly inspired by the song, turning in one of the tightest performances on the album. Simon Nicol’s acoustic guitar shimmers around Swarb’s magical fiddle lines. Sandy Denny’s vocal is restrained and aching. Daves Mattacks and Pegg support things brilliantly, with a subtle but urgent rhythm. Thompson’s brief turns on electric lead — a solo in the middle and a bright closing figure — provide the perfect note of anguish. The result is a modern song that fits into the traditional settings and a clever closing to a masterful album.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, February 13: Please Be the One by Karla Bonoff

bonoffpleasebeToday’s song is a standout from the catalog of a master pop songwriter. Karla Bonoff rose to prominence collaborating with Linda Ronstadt. She penned three songs on Ronstadt’s Hasten Down the Wind and provided vocal support. She began her own recording career a year later and released sporadic solo albums while writing hit songs for others.

Her third album, 1982’s Wild Heart of the Young, features her finest moment. Please Be the One is a darkly quiet song of need. Honing the smart, aching pop that found success for Ronstadt, Lynn Anderson, Wynonna, and others, Bonoff crafted a wonderful musical package. Filled with hope, tinged with doubt, and sung with just the right mix of reserve and desire, it shows off her skills as singer and writer.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, February 10: Me And That Train by Patty Larkin

larkintrainToday’s song is a powerful metaphor used with smart grace. From 1991 to 1995, Patty Larkin released a trio of stunning albums: Tango, Angels Running, and Stranger’s World. A standout on the third of these powerful discs is Me and That Train. The central image is a treacherous mountain drive in the ice and snow, with Larkin’s car skidding toward an oncoming train. She uses that drama to frame a handful of stories. Romantic betrayal and armed robbery intersperse with the impending traffic tragedy creating a wonderful tapestry.

Larkin’s vocal is restrained but urgent, building in intensity as the song progresses. Her trademark guitar wizardry enhances the tension nicely. The result is a dramatic story told in parts, the conclusion left to the audience’s imagination.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

 

Song of the Day, February 6: Atomic Number by case/lang/veirs

clvatomicToday’s song is a delightful collaboration. Singer k.d. lang was considering retiring from performing, but decided she wanted to “be part of a band, a real collaborative effort.” She emailed Neko Case and Laura Veirs about working together, and both responded quickly and enthusiastically. Their shared alt-country/folk/quirky pop approaches blended nicely — as did their voices. After some time touring together, the trio recorded the album case/lang/veirs.

The opening track sets the stage perfectly. Atomic Number feels a bit like a Neko Case track with its natural imagery, elliptical lyrics, and surging musical energy. The use of each vocalist in sequence on the opening lines, however, makes it clear that this is something special. That pattern repeats, with the trio offering magical harmonies on the chorus. Pondering “why are the wholesome things the ones we make obscene?” over beautiful strings, case/lang/veirs promises a great musical journey, a promise fulfilled over the course of the album.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, February 3: Poor Poor Pitiful Me by Warren Zevon (or Linda Ronstadt)

Today’s song is a surprisingly durable tale of woe. Warren Zevon wrote and recorded Poor, Poor Pitiful Me for his eponymous 1976 album. It’s one of the earliest examples of his wry, dark storytelling. The narrator recounts a series of mistakes, mishaps, and romantic missteps, lamenting the tragic impact of women on his life. Witty, bitter, and funny, it’s classic Zevon. It also features one of the best bizarre similes of all time, comparing a woman who mistreats him to both Jesse James and a Waring blender.

ronstadtpitifulLinda Ronstadt was an early admirer of Zevon’s writing, introduced to her by mutual friend Jackson Browne. She recorded a surprisingly effective version of the song for her #1 album Simple Dreams. She reversed the genders of the characters and toned down the verse that implies an S&M relationship, but otherwise stayed true to the spirit of the song. (She even kept the blender reference!) Ronstadt turned in a delightfully gritty performance, a standout in her catalog and a rare Top 40 hit for writer Zevon [#31, 1978].

Enjoy this wonderful song by its writer and a clever interpreter.

BONUS: For a dark, somewhat twisted tune, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me has had a remarkable number of cover versions. Terri Clark took her version, adapted from Ronstadt’s reading, into the Country Top 5 in 1996; somehow her chipper approach works. Longtime Zevon friend Jackson Browne, who produced the original recording, offered his interpretation on the Zevon tribute disc Enjoy Every Sandwich. He offers a pretty straight Zevon approach, with nice extra crunch added by the harmonies and lead guitar of Bonnie Raitt.

Song of the Day, January 30: Stay With Me Tonight by Jeffrey Osborne

osbornestayToday’s song is a funky bit of seduction with a rock twist. When he left his duties as L.T.D. drummer and vocalist to go solo, Jeffrey Osborne found a sympathetic partner in producer George Duke. The jazz keyboardist understood Osborne’s distinctive phrasing and gorgeous voice, finding just the right songs and players to make the most of his talent. The first result, Jeffrey Osborne, was a partnership reminiscent of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson in its chemistry.

For the follow-up, Duke and Osborne followed a successful formula, mixing R&B balladry, funky pop, and urban dance numbers. The title track, written by Raymond Jones, is a classic seduction song, with a slinky lead vocal, electrifying percussion, inviting synths, and a magical Osborne vocal. He simmers and winks, breaking into the direct title line with just the right urgency. Mixing things up just right, Duke brought in Queen guitarist Brian May, whose solo adds a gritty urgency to the proceedings. The result was Osborne’s fourth pop Top 40 hit and went to #4 on the R&B charts.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, January 27: Jonathan by Christine and the Queens with Perfume Genius

cqpgjonathanToday’s song is a harmonious delight on every level. Héloïse Letissier is a French musician who performs under the name Christine and the Queens, blending music, theatre, dance, and a bit of drag. Her eclectic blend carries over to her first album, which shows off her writing and singing with the help of a number of talented guests.

One of these is Mike Hadreas, better known as singer/songwriter Perfume Genius. Both acts specialize in songs about identity, family, desire, and determination, often told through a queer lens. Fortunately, their voice blend as wonderfully as their musical styles. Hadreas’ fragile, clear vocals blend nicely with Letissier’s gritty alto.

On Jonathan, from Christine and the Queens, they weave musical magic. It’s an elliptical relationship story, one of Perfume Genius’ specialties, blending hope, apology, and ache. By singing half in English and half in French, the duo emphasize the distance between the characters, while their voices emphasize the closeness.

Enjoy this delightful partnership today.

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