Song of the Day, May 26: No Blue Skies by Lloyd Cole

Today’s song is a throwaway moment that resulted in a gem. After three solid albums with the Commotions, Lloyd Cole broke up the band and moved to New York. After settling in to his new environs and meeting a number of sympathetic musicians — including guitarist Robert Quine — he recorded his first solo album. His label, Polydor, insisted that the disc as delivered lacked a single, so he quickly put together one last song.

Cole says that he wrote the song in “about fifteen minutes” and that Quine came up with a distinctive guitar line as soon as he heard the song. Even the vocal came quickly; the final version of the song features the first vocal Cole laid down, intended as a scratch vocal. He had planned to write a third verse, but his collaborators convinced him that he’d nailed the vocal and the song was perfect as is. They were right.

In many ways a classic Cole track, it features his wry wit, leavening his somewhat dark stories. “You want to leave me, baby, be my guest. All I’m gonna do is cry.” opens the song. It has a slightly country feel, expanding his musical palette and fitting well with the theme of abandonment. Then he skewers his former love in a perfect Cole chorus.

Baby you’re too well read
Baby you’re too well spoken
Baby you’re too pristine
When I cry, do you feel anything?

While the quick effort may not have given Polydor the chart smash they were hoping for, it did result in one of Cole’s most aching, memorable songs.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

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Song of the Day, January 6: Myrtle and Rose by Lloyd Cole

ColeM&RToday’s song is a standout from a stunning return to form. Lloyd Cole’s 2014 release, Standards, is one of the finest in his catalog, a fun, smart set of songs. A high point is Myrtle and Rose, a classic Cole composition about a breaking relationship. The singer explores the tricks the heart and mind can play, observing “The longer you were gone, the less the longing.” He gets bonus points for working the phrase “Quark and PhotoShop” into a bittersweet love song, the kind of clever wordplay that’s a hallmark of his finest songs

Enjoy this wonderful, wry, pop gem today.

Song of the Day, June 5: Love You So What by Lloyd Cole

LloydCSoWhatToday’s song is Love You So What from Lloyd Cole’s experimental masterpiece Bad Vibes. Cole often writes wry songs of romantic disillusionment and heartbreak. This track finds him more the victim of his own casual approach to a romance, getting as good as he gives. With a surging beat, it’s almost a dance number, a rarity in the Cole catalog and a standout on a disc filled with fascinating moments.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, February 16: California Earthquake

HartfordCAQuakeToday’s entry is a wonderful example of the durability — and flexibility — of a great song. California Earthquake was written by John Hartford, a talented folk / bluegrass singer, performer, and songwriter best known for composing the evergreen hit Gentle On My Mind. A gifted banjo player and fiddler, Hartford also had a clever way with words, crafting songs that blended droll delivery, cliché, serious topics, and witty wordplay. His version of the song is a straightforward country number, making the opening line, “They say they’ve exploded the underground blast,” especially jarring. A celebration of inevitability, it’s a great song with a smart hook and wry detachment. Who else would think to observe of such massive devastation:

That may be, that may be.
What’s gonna happen is gonna happen to me.
That’s the way it appears.

CassEarthquakeMama Cass chose the song for inclusion on her 1968 solo debut, Dream A Little Dream. With a rollicking piano, almost gleeful horns, and driving rhythm section, she transforms the song into a glorious pop epic, three minutes of musical delight. Cass was blessed not only with a magnificent voice but also with a flawless sense of delivery and phrasing. She offers just the right amount of restraint while still digging into the lyrics and having fun with the great construction of the song. Fittingly, she debuted the song on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour, a show which featured regular contributions from John Hartford.

ColeStandardsOver 40 years later, California Earthquake shook back to life in unexpected hands. When wry British singer Lloyd Cole decided to record an album that rocked after years of more stripped-down offerings, he wrote most of the tracks himself. With trademark irony, he called the album Standards, including only one cover, the opening track. Cole had long admired the song, although he mistakenly believed that John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas had written it for Cass. The lyrics are perfect for Cole, noted for his smart writing and devastating deadpan. With a great rocking band behind him, Cole turns the track into an alt-pop masterpiece, proving its lasting relevance and charm. Standard or not, it’s also a perfect opener for his finest album in years.

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year was a good one for music, producing more truly enjoyable albums than I’ve heard in a while. Here are the seven discs that rose above the pack for me — a nice mix of veterans, newcomers, and acts settled into a solid groove.

OysterDiamondThe champ of the year was Oysterband with their stunning Diamonds On the Water. Together in various forms for over 35 years, the Oysters released their 25th album early in the year. I was delighted to hear its energy and power. Maybe reuniting with June Tabor a couple of years ago gave them a shot in the arm; it certainly gave her some great new energy too. Whatever the case, this is the band’s finest work in 20 years. Smart lyrics, tight playing, social commentary, and music with real heart all combine over 12 tracks without anything close to a dull moment. Highlights include the moving Steal Away, the anthemic Spirit of Dust and the haunting Palace of Memory.


The other six offer very different musical approaches, each with its own distinctive charm.

ColeStandardsLloyd Cole – Standards: Another long-time favorite resurfaces with his best album in many years. Cole has turned out a steady stream of quality albums; his more recent offerings have been more acoustic, folky discs. For this ironically titled disc (all but one song are originals), he plugs back in, reuniting with collaborators Fred Maher, Matthew Sweet, and Blair Cowan. The result is a fresh, inspired set that finds the acerbic sage at his witty finest. Highlights include the John Hartford / Mama Cass cover California Earthquake, Myrtle and Rose and Opposites Day.

GEzraVoyageGeorge Ezra – Wanted On Voyage: A fresh new talent from England, George Ezra Bennett moved to Bristol, dropped his surname, and launched a promising career. He landed on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury and parlayed that success into a record deal. After two promising EPs, he assembled a team that helped him pursue his musical vision. Gifted with an almost surreally deep voice, he knows how to use it to great effect, exploring his range while presenting a nice set of pop songs. Highlights include the frustration ode Cassy O’, the gospel-tinged Did You Hear the Rain? and the clever pop gem Blame It On Me.

IngridLightsIngrid Michaelson – Lights Out: Michaelson has been turning out charming, often quirky folk-pop for a decade, working hard to maintain her independence while receiving signficant airplay through TV and other venues. Her sixth album sees her take a quantum leap, with stronger lyrics, more varied soundscapes, and more confident vocals. She invited a number of friends to the party, and the half-dozen co-credits enhance rather than distract. Kicking off the release with the brilliant Robert Palmer inspired video for her best song ever, Girls Chase Boys, Michaelson has emerged as a unique, mature artist. Other highlights are the wistful Stick and the boisterous regret anthem Time Machine.

PerfumeGeniusTooBrightPerfume Genius – Too Bright: Mike Hadreas’ first album was the quietly promising Learning, followed by the stunning Put Your Back N 2 It. For his third release as Perfume Genius, he really diversifies the sound. The result is much more uneven than the previous discs, and that inconsistency almost kept Too Bright off my list. When it’s on, however, it’s a powerhouse, and he deserves praise for stepping out of his comfort zone and experimenting with his sound. It’s also much less introspective, a nice evolution in writing and perspective. Highlights include the bold, angry anthem Queen; the eerie worldbeat tale Longpig; and the stirring, jarring Grid.

RailsWarningThe Rails – Fair Warning: Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have two impressive but very different resumes. She’s the daughter of folk rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson who has eased into her own impressive career. He’s a talented guitarist and songwriter who has been a member of Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Each performer released a fine solo album before they began collaborating. They got married and started a band, and their debut joint effort is stunning, a powerful mix of folk-pop, traditional songs, and grim rock. Highlights include the gripping Panic Attack Blues, an enchanting version of the traditional William Taylor, and the quietly urgent Breakneck Speed.

ThompsonFamilyThompson – Family: Thompson and Walbourne had a busy year, also participating in this aptly named project. Curated by Kami’s brother, Teddy, the album features contributions from all three talented performers as well as parents Richard and Linda (sharing their first full album credit in over 30 years), brother Jack, and nephew Zak Hobbs, plus James’ brother Rob on percussion and occasional moments from other family members. The result is a delightful assortment that is remarkably cohesive. Highlights include Teddy’s rave-up Right, Linda’s fragile Perhaps We Can Sleep, Kami and James’ Careful (which sounds like a brilliant Rails outtake with extra energy from the family), and Richard’s rousing protest number That’s Enough which features a nice singalong chorus from the extended family.

Album of the Week, October 26: Bad Vibes by Lloyd Cole

ColeVibesLloyd Cole was born and raised in Derbyshire in England. He studied philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he met the four men who would join him as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. The quintet played smart, wry, literate, pop with a folk-tinged sound that was part of the British jangle-pop movement. Cole broke up the band after three strong albums and moved to New York. He built a potent backing band with Fred Maher, Robert Quine, and Matthew Sweet, releasing an eponymous solo debut that mined his well-honed lyrical vein with a punchier rock backdrop. The next disc, Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe, had one side of similar songs and a second side of lush, string-laden songs, albeit with his familiar lyrical approach. Dropped by his U.S. label, Cole regrouped, teaming with producer Adam Peters (late of the Triffids) and adding some old bandmates into the mix. The result was a simultaneously slicker and earthier disc that remains his most consistent and intriguing.

Title Bad Vibes
Act Lloyd Cole
Label Rykodisc Release Date October 1993
Producer Adam Peters
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  38
Tracks
  1. Morning Is Broken
  2. So You’d Like to Save the World
  3. Holier Than Thou
  4. Love You So What
  5. Wild Mushrooms
  6. My Way To You
  7. Too Much of A Good Thing
  8. Fall Together
  9. Mister Wrong
  10. Seen the Future
  11. Can’t Get Arrested
  12. For the Pleasure of Your Company [bonus track]
  13. 4 M.B. [bonus track]

The album opens with Morning Is Broken, a nice play on a familiar title that presages the even more darkly ironic lyrical tone of the disc. It opens with a scratchy guitar and mechanical drum line, the bursts into solid 90s power pop. Cole’s first words, “You used to be mean,” start the story of a complicated relationship. His lyrics are still wry and literate, but he’s grown up and his themes are richer and darker. That said, he still enjoys a lark, and So You’d Like to Save the World is a wonderful blend of a barfly pickup and environmentalism. It works strangely well and turns out to be one of his finest moments.

Holier Than Thou slows things down, with a hushed vocal suited to the vestry. Another broken relationship song, it features a braggart of a narrator whose comeuppance looms in the chorus. Love You So What is a delightful romp with our casual Lothario getting as good as he gives. Energetic and fun, it’s a close to a dance hit as Cole ever gets — and that works too. Things get a bit weird with Wild Mushrooms, with the tables fully turned and a mysterious figure taking advantage of the narrator. The eerie music fits the story nicely, saving it from being a throwaway moment.

The lush textures of the previous album return for My Way to You. It’s nice sequencing, moving into a fairly straightforward romantic ballad with a dark edge. It shows off another aspect of Cole’s work and is quite effective, even without his trademark irony. A trip-hop beat opens another nearly danceable song that builds the romantic energy nicely. With a seductive vocal and surging rhythm, it promises that if the lover of the last track welcomes him home, the narrator will make it worthwhile. It’s a good pair of songs and demonstrates Cole’s growing musical and lyrical flexibility.

Fall Together is a dark song built on a familiar theme, borrowing from the Beatles sideways. With a guitar line that could have been on Abbey Road, Cole kicks of a four-song suite about the perils of seeking — and achieving — success. Mister Wrong almost breaks the theme as it plays out a breaking relationship over a folky melody reminiscent of Cole’s Commotions days. The sense of failure, romantic or otherwise, fits in however. Seen the Future is a bleak look at corporate music and a fairly vitriolic questioning of the value of succeeding. The set grinds to a halt with Can’t Get Arrested, as fame passes by and the narrator decides that might be just fine. With a slow burn and a lovely keyboard line, it almost feels like a lost Triffids song and closes out the original album on a note of quiet despair with just a hint of self-respect.

The U.S. release included two bonus tracks. 4 M.B. is a pleasant, straightforward ode to Marc Bolan, a musician whose work Cole has frequently cited and sometimes covered. It’s fine, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings. For the Pleasure of Your Company, on the other hand, is a wonderful song that fits nicely with the romantic sequence earlier in the disc.

Bad Vibes lacks some of the dramatic musical highs of other Lloyd Cole albums. What it offers is a clear sense of transition, with the wryly literate observer growing and taking a more active part in his world. The songs are more varied and overall more consistent. While this disc may not have as many laugh-out-loud or sigh-deeply moments, the overall tapestry is tightly woven and more fully satisfying than any other release in Cole’s rich catalog.

FURTHER LISTENING: The three Commotions discs are all quite good. Even better is the compilation 1984 – 1989, a true best of that shows off the band at its finest from start to finish. Sadly, Cole’s work since then has never been effectively anthologized, with 2004’s The Singles doing the best job but overlapping too much with the Commotions retrospective. The best standalone albums are:
  • Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe (1991): a wonderful look at two musical sides of Lloyd Cole with some very nice songs;
  • Love Story (1995): the beginning of Cole’s long run of label changes and more stripped-down, folky songs and a strong follow-up to the maturity of Bad Vibes;
  • The Negatives (2000): a new, one-off band featuring some young talent reinvigorates Cole’s energy for the many standout tracks, although the whole proceeding drags a bit;
  • Standards (2013): a remarkable return to form with one well-chosen cover and a great set of new songs.

Song of the Day, June 13: Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

ColeHeartbToday’s song is Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. It appears on the band’s powerful debut album, Rattlesnakes. From the beginning Cole has been a master of literate lyrics packed with dry wit. This track, a contemplation of the perils of too-hip irony, is a wonderful example. Cole sings a breathless string of observations, punctuating them with the chorus question at nicely chosen intervals. The Commotions were already a tight unit, providing a nice pop backdrop that underscores the lyrics.

Looking like a born again
Living like a heretic
Listening to Arthur Lee records
Making all your friends feel so guilty
About their cynicism
And the rest of their generation
Not even the government are gonna stop you now
But are you ready to be heartbroken?

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, November 21: So You’d Like to Save the World by Lloyd Cole

Today’s song is So You’d Like to Save the World by Lloyd Cole. It appears on the strongest of his solo albums, 1994’s Bad Vibes. The album is a perfect mix of Cole’s wry wit, literary lyrics, and great sense of melody. Save the World opens with a straightforward reading of the title — sounding like a rhetorical question — followed by the punch line.

So you’d like to save the world
I suggest you take one person at a time
And start with me
Not an ordinary girl
Not someone that I should hit upon
And ask “Hey, what’s your sign baby?”

The song is a beautifully crafted pop gem with just the right trademark Cole tongue in cheek approach. Who knew that global warming could be used in a pickup line? Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, May 31: Unhappy Song by Lloyd Cole

Today’s song is Unhappy Song by Lloyd Cole. Taken from his 1995 album Love Story, it’s classic Cole. He aptly demonstrates how he can be depressed and witty all at once.

He was torn between the romance and the mundane
He was torn every morning
He was surprised or was he horrified to find
The mundane the more rewarding
She was upon him before he even knew it

And anyone who had a hat would surely know:
It only rains when you leave it at home,
And all the umbrellas are broken,
Oh, save yourself a fiver, you’re already soaking

Enjoy a live version of this jaunty unhappy song today.

Song of the Day, January 31: What’s Wrong With This Picture by Lloyd Cole and the Negatives

Today’s song is What’s Wrong With This Picture? by Lloyd Cole and the Negatives. Cole got his start in the early 80s with his band the Commotions, achieving critical acclaim and some minor chart success with three albums of literate pop. Going solo in 1989, he has released a steady stream of smart and varied albums that showcase his great lyrics and smooth voice. In 2000, he assembled a one-off band called the Negatives (including the stellar Jill Sobule of I Kissed A Girl fame). Their one album is a career highlight, featuring a host of great songs. What’s Wrong With This Picture? is a wonderful track in which the singer pokes fun at his tendency to record dark and bittersweet songs. He celebrates a relationship gone right by answering the title question with “Nothing at all.” Lloyd Cole turns 51 today; wish him a happy birthday and enjoy this great song.

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