Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, February 2: I’m In A Mood by Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight

MarryOliverMoodToday’s song is a wonderful lyrical journey from siblings Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight. After their mother — the great Lal Waterson — died in 1998, Oliver spent a few years tying up the loose ends of her musical legacy. Marry pitched in and gradually renewed her interest in music after a decade or more pursuing other arts. The pair formed a musical partnership, and their second album, Hidden, is a delight.

Marry’s quirky mastery of lyric fits nicely with Oliver’s distinctive soundscapes. Her voice settled into its own groove, pulling the elements together. I’m In A Mood is a perfect opener for the disc. An exploration of darker emotions, it captures the confusion of despair and the unintended consequences of other people’s actions — even when well-intentioned. Relying on nuance rather than emphasis, Waterson and Knight create an evocative, resonant emotional package.

I’m in a mood, I’m in a rage
I’m in a shocking state of grace…
And I’d like you to know
I’m not feeling myself

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, July 13: Once In A Blue Moon by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight

watersonlOnceinaRBHSJDIDBadgeSiblings Lal and Mike Waterson brought the band back together with their stunning one-off project Bright Phoebus. The Watersons, including sister Norma and adding her husband, folk legend Martin Carthy, so enjoyed working together on the project that they restarted their recording career. Over the next two decades they recorded four wonderful albums of traditional music and a number of side projects. In 1996 the extended family produced three amazing albums: Norma Waterson’s transcendent solo debut, the first disc by Waterson:Carthy (featuring Norma, Martin, and their daughter Eliza Carthy), and Once In A Blue Moon. Lal had compiled enough original songs to record a new disc; her son, Oliver Knight, provided flawless musical backing and production, resulting in a disc that rivals Bright Phoebus for originality and sheer brilliance.

Title Once In A Blue Moon
Act Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight
Label Topic Release Date 1996
Producer Oliver Knight with John Boyes (track 3) and John Tams (track 9)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. At First She Starts
  2. Flight of the Pelican
  3. Stumbling On
  4. How Can I Leave?
  5. Altisidora
  6. Dazed
  7. Phoebe
  8. Cornfield
  9. Midnight Feast
  10. So Strange Is Man
  11. Wilsons Arms
  12. Her White Gown
  13. Some Old Salty

The album is less folky and more minimalist than its predecessor. Knight’s production work has always focused on the spaces around the notes, and the uncanny musical connection that he has with his mother makes that approach shine. The only other regular performer on the disc is reed player and occasional singer Jo Freya, a long-time family friend and perfect foil for the stark soundscapes created by Knight’s guitar work.

Things open powerfully with At First She Starts. It’s a typically enigmatic Lal Waterson lyric, evocative and embracing. Charles O’Connor lends a nice fiddle part to the mix, enriching the engaging energy of the song. While all the songs work on multiple layers, the balance of the tracks fit into three categories.

Most like her songs on Bright Phoebus, three of these are naturalistic vignettes. Flight of the Pelican is a yearning song of peace, freedom and love, achingly crafted. Phoebe is a dark, mysterious meditation that shows off Knight’s contributions nicely. It segues into the nostalgic Cornfield, a track that manages to be both wistful and joyous.

Three more tracks are snapshots, self-contained stories that rise above their literal framework. Her White Gown feels like a generational narrative, a sequence of mothers and daughters seen through a singular prism. It features one of Lal’s most subtly compelling vocals. Dazed is the lone track with an outside writer, based on a poem by Rimbaud. Capturing hungry children looking through a baker’s window it’s perfectly structured and the Waterson/Knight arrangement underscores the lines of the poem perfectly — it feels as though Rimbaud wrote it for Waterson to sing. Altisidora has quite a different inspiration, a painting by nine-year-old Laura. Waterson captures the creative energy of childhood delightfully and Freya’s jazzy clarinet work moves things along evocatively.

Five of the songs deal fairly directly with various aspects of romance. How Can I Leave? is a charming amble of need and independence with great contributions from Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. Stumbling On is one of the best suffering-from-a-bad-breakup songs ever written, enigmatically painful and perfectly delivered. It features a great harmony vocal from Marry Waterson, Lal’s daughter. Wilsons Arms blends the naturalism of much of Lal’s work with glimpses of a romantic interlude in one of the most effectively simple presentations on the disc. So Strange Is Man is an aching love song from a mature woman, a perfect glimpse into how lives grow together even with the spaces between us. Midnight Feast is one of the best songs Lal ever wrote, a lusty metaphor that celebrates physical love flawlessly.

The disc ends even stronger than it began, with Some Old Salty. An a capella number with a sea chantey flavor, it draws together all the strands of Lal’s musical approach. Part dance hall nostalgia, part quirky traditional harmonies, part love song, part ode to nature, it’s a joyous romp that wraps up the whole package with a celebration.

FURTHER LISTENING: Lal died before she and Oliver could complete their next collaboration, but they had recorded enough material that he was able to release A Bed of Roses, another strong set that only comes in second because of Once In A Blue Moon‘s haunting power. Since then, he’s built on the musical structure of their work. Mysterious Day, officially a solo album, is a solid set of songs (including more lyrics written by Lal) with a stunning array of guest stars. It included a duet with sister Marry, which led to their forming a musical partnership. Her lyrics and vocals are eerily reminiscent of her mother’s while maintaining a clear identity of their own. The Days That Shaped Me is a bit inconsistent as the siblings work out their family ghosts and find their groove — the high points are very satisfying indeed, however. Hidden is a much stronger, more cohesive offering, promising a wonderful continuation of this family tradition.

Song of the Day, August 20: Russian Dolls by Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight

MWOKHiddenToday’s song is Russian Dolls by Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight. The siblings worked in a number of fields and recorded in a wide variety of formations with their extended musical family before becoming a formal duo in 2011. Their second album, Hidden, is an ambitious exploration of the title, showing off their talents nicely. This track is the standout.

Featuring delightful backing vocals by cousin Eliza Carthy, Barry Coope, and Lester Simpson, the song is structured somewhat like a round. Demonstrating the eclectic musical background of Waterson and Knight, it also incorporates blues and doo-wop, creating a unique sound. The lyrics use the well-known stacking dolls of the title to good effect, fitting with the Hidden theme. Marry sings of fitting in while being independent in a beautifully circular delivery. The vocal work, including some unexpected sound effects, make the whole song a joyous listen from start to finish.

Out popped another one, just like the other one
I’m not a pea in a pod, I’m not a chip off the block
I’m not a bird of a feather, I’m something else altogether

Enjoy this delightful surprise today.

Song of the Day, February 22: The Loosened Arrow by Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight with Eliza Carthy

Waterson Knight DaysToday’s song is The Loosened Arrow by Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight. The son and daughter of folk legend Lal Waterson, the two spent three decades pursuing outside careers and occasionally performing with the extended family before forming a musical partnership. Marry creates lyrical sketches — often reminiscent of her mother’s uniquely original songs — and Oliver creates wonderful sonic accompaniment for them. The Days That Shaped Me, released in 2011, features some stellar contributions including Kathryn Williams and cousin Eliza Carthy.

Carthy provides the lead vocal on this cryptic and powerful song. A meditation on self, time, and relationship, it’s a fascinating lyric delivered beautifully. Marry provides sympathetic harmonies and chants the line “a little afraid of you” in a fragile chorus.

Are you coming or are you going?
What do you mean to do?
Are your new ways for always?
Or just to see you through?

Like to know what’s on your mind
Like to understand your kind
I’m only a little lonely
and a little afraid of you

Enjoy this enchanting family collaboration in song today.

Song of the Day, December 19: Memories by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight

LaliverBedMemoriesToday’s song is Memories by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight. After the mother and son duo recorded their stunning collaboration Once In A Blue Moon, they began work on a follow-up. Sadly, Lal died of cancer before the project was finished, but Oliver was able to use her vocals and assemble a lovely album, Bed of Roses. It’s a strong set of songs that provide a fine coda to Lal’s distinguished career and sets the stage for Oliver’s later work solo and with his sister, Marry Waterson.

The first track is a lovely introduction to the disc and takes on added poignancy with Lal’s passing. It’s a celebration of life, acknowledging that the highs and the lows are both needed to appreciate the whole. It also speaks to the need for companions — especially family — to truly enjoy the journey.

All that is mine is my mother and father’s line
And the day and evening time
It’s such a fine little line
Caught up in the hall of time
Then the day and the evening collide

That’s when your memories catch fire
Without those memories you’d be a soulless child
Pounding on the door
Like a lost lover
Scrounging on the shore

Enjoy this beautiful song today. As an added bonus, here is a live version recorded by Marry Waterson with Oliver Knight and Eliza Carthy at a Lal tribute in 2007. Marry’s vocals are hauntingly like her mother’s in this performance.

Song of the Day, October 1: My Sweet Lullaby by Oliver Knight with Maria Gilhooley

Today’s song is My Sweet Lullaby. Oliver Knight recorded two wonderful albums with his mother, Lal Waterson, before her death in 1998. For his first “solo” album, Mysterious Day, he worked with wide variety of folk legends including members and friends of his family. His sister, Marie Waterson, had done some singing with her mother, aunt, and cousin as the Waterdaughters before focusing on a career as a sculptor using the name Maria Gilhooley. She agreed to provide vocals for one song on the album, Oliver’s composition Mysterious Day.

It’s an auspicious partnership. The lyrics are very reminiscent of Lal’s often cryptic, always fascinating original tunes; Maria’s voice, while distinctive, has a haunting similarity to her mother’s. The overall sense of the song is a tribute to Lal from her children, recognizing her strength, grace, and legacy.

She was holding up the rain
Counting on another game
She was trying to stop the tide
Hoping for another ride
In our haste we’ve missed the place
We could have been
But I won’t deny my sweet lullaby

Since this return to singing, Maria has dived back in full force, now using her childhood nickname, Marry Waterson. She and Oliver have recorded two delightful albums together and she tours as part of Blue Murder, having assumed the slot vacated by her cousin Eliza Carthy. Enjoy this wonderful song and celebrate England’s first family of folk in all its generations.

Song of the Day, July 21: Wilsons Arms by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight

Today’s song is Wilsons Arms by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight. Another track from their stellar mother-son collaboration, Once In A Blue Moon, it’s classic Lal. The tune is simple and jaunty but tinged with mystery. The lyrics are Lal at her enigmatic finest — at once gripping and universal but deeply personal and abstract.

Spent all last night in Wilson’s Arms,
When I got home I was looking straight ahead.
I’ve got a low pain threshold in love,
A common heart fanciful as well.

Didn’t I, didn’t I in my youth,
Under my pillow put a little white tooth.
Haven’t I always had those just in case blues.

Enjoy this delightful conundrum today.

Song of the Day, May 30: How Can I Leave by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight

Today’s song is How Can I Leave? by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight. This lovely tune about insecurity in romance comes from their wonderful album Once In A Blue Moon.

Back to the start, I can’t walk without my walking starts.
I’m in a mood, I can’t do anything
I’m staying put until I’m so light of foot
I’m going down that road like Charlie Chaplin
How can I leave when you will go whilst I’m gone?

The Chaplin reference fits the tone perfectly. Musically the song is reminiscent of show music of Chaplin’s era, including a wonderful clarinet figure by Jo Freya. Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, April 12: At First She Starts by Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight

Today’s song is At First She Starts by Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight. It’s the first track on their marvelous collaboration, Once In A Blue Moon, and has some of Lal’s most evocative, eliptical lyrics.

At first she starts and then she’s startled.
I see that light in her eyes.
Didn’t you realize you wer a bird,
at dawn when you woke with air in your throat.

One of her personal favorites, Lal began reworking the song with a simple piano arrangement. After her death, son Oliver included this lovely interpretation on their second album, Bed of Roses, which he assembled and polished. Enjoy this lovely song today.

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