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, January 9: The Bird by Lal and Mike Waterson

Lal and Mike Waterson in a bar. Mike with guitarToday’s song is an outtake from one of the finest hidden gem albums of all time, Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus. When the siblings got together to record their original material while the full family band was on hiatus, they had more material than they could use. The final result was sublime, but the songs that got left behind — most of which fortunately survive as demos — are magnificent in their own right. The Bird is a distinctly Waterson song. Celebrating the power of nature while acknowledging its darker strength, it’s a masterful distillation. Lal sings of the bird in the tree outside her window, marvelling in its ability to make a home wherever it lands but bemoaning the happy song it whistles in the face of her personal despair. Open, aching, and flawlessly delivered, this is a brilliant song that would have been right at home with its contemporaries.

The bird does wrong, love,
To whistle in the morning
And sing those strange sweet songs in his tree
Isn’t that a wicked little bird
To sing those terrible songs to me?

Enjoy this bittersweet ode today.

Song of the Day, October 10: Song for Thirza

SongForThirzaToday’s song is Song For Thirza, written by the amazing Lal Waterson. Lal and her siblings — Mike and Norma — were orphaned young and raised by their grandmother, Eliza Ward. Helping in the household was a family friend and a fixture in the children’s life, Thirza. Lal wrote this beautiful, haunting tribute while composing songs for what became her brilliant collaboration with Mike, Bright Phoebus. They recorded a demo but did not include it on the album.

Thirty years later, producer David Suff  brought together an amazing array of folk talents to celebrate that album. Shining Bright features smart covers of nine tracks from the 1972 disc as well as interpretations of five songs not included in the original listing. One of the finest moments is a tender treatment of Song For Thirza, sung by Norma Waterson — one of the finest interpreters of her sister’s unique vision — with her husband Martin Carthy, daughter Eliza Carthy, and longtime family friend Ben Ivitsky rounding out the sound.

Enjoy this flawless reading of a touching song today.

Song of the Day, July 23: The Pretty Drummer Boy by the Watersons

WatersonDrummerGarlandToday’s song is The Pretty Drummer Boy by Lal and Norma Waterson. They recorded it for the Watersons’ third album, A Yorkshire Garland. Since the track only features the two sisters, it was re-released on the CD version of their duo outing, A True-Hearted Girl.

An old traditional song [Roud 226], it features a standard motif, the woman who dresses as a man to enlist in the army or navy. This powerful tune, however, avoids the tropes of a secret lover or a tragic pregnancy. The Pretty Drummer Boy carries off her disguise without a hitch, admirably carrying out her duties.

With a fine cap and feathers, likewise a rattling drum
They learned her to play upon the rub-a-dub-a-dum
With her gentle waist so slender, and her fingers long and small
She could play upon the rub-a-dub the best of them all

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, May 1: Midnight On the Water by Waterson:Carthy

WCMidnightToday’s song is Midnight On the Water. Like the Country standard Tennessee Waltz, this is a song about a song. In this case, however, writer Ron Kavana built a beautiful celebration of music and love around a real song. Midnight On the Water is a traditional tune, adapted by and often attributed to Lewis Thomasson, usually played on the fiddle. Kavana used that tune as the basis of his song, adding original lyrics that celebrate the power of music to free us from ourselves and help us enjoy the company of our loved ones.

When Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson formed Waterson:Carthy with their daughter, Eliza Carthy, they included this wonderful song on their first album. Eliza’s friend and frequent collaborator, Nancy Kerr, adds fiddle power along with Jock Tyldesley, emphasizing the significance of that instrument in Kavana’s narrative. With Norma on lead vocals, it’s one of the best songs recorded by this iteration of the extended family and a delightful performance overall.

I never thought much of that fancy dancing
With my two left feet and my roving eye.
But when the band plays that slow air in three-four time,
I could dance with my darling until morning comes.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, February 13: To Make You Stay by Lal and Mike Waterson

LalMikeStayToday’s song is To Make You Stay by Lal Waterson, taken from the brilliant album she recorded with her brother, Mike, Bright Phoebus. The disc is a wonderful sampler of their songwriting skills, filled with stellar guest stars but anchored by the siblings’ powerful talents. Lal sings this unadorned song with backing by Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy on guitars and Ashley Hutchings on bass.

It’s a quiet plea for someone not to leave while also acknowledging the need for independence. With the naturalistic imagery frequent in her songs, it fits the family’s traditional folk mode while being distinctly Lal’s own work.

Don’t you feel happy when it’s all done?
Don’t you feel sad when you’ve lost someone?
Dear, dear stay till the dawn comes in;
Teach me to be a summer’s morning.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, January 17: No One Stands Alone by Blue Murder

Blue Murder - No One Stands AloneToday’s song is No One Stands Alone by Blue Murder. This great assemblage blended the extended Waterson:Carthy family with British folk vocal powerhouses Coope, Boyes, Simpson. The resulting supergroup rarely recorded or performed, but each moment together was magical. This song was the title track from their only album and is a fine testament to their combined power.

Written by Mosie Lister, it’s a spiritual of true hope. The singers blend their voices in unique harmonies, trading off lines and sharing the majestic passion of the song with magical cohesion.

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour, every day
From here to the great unknown
Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone

Enjoy this amazing vocal performance today.

Song of the Day, September 6: Hal-An-Tow

WatersonHalAnTowToday’s song is Hal-An-Tow, a very old traditional song (Roud #1520) associated with the various Spring greening festivals performed in England in May. It is particularly associated with the Helston Furry Dance, one of the oldest British customs still performed today. The title means “calends garland” and refers to the floral abundance of early May. As folk singer and collector A.L. Lloyd notes:

The green calendar of spring has many songs. dances and shows, particularly around the opening days of May. Here and there are clear traces of old cults and superstitions (well-dressing against droughts, etc.) but generally their original meaning is lost. So the customs are transformed into ritual spectacles, festivities, distractions, opportunities for a good time…

It’s a perfect song for the Watersons’ debut album, Frost and Fire, a celebration of the seasons.

Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow
We were up long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer,
To welcome in the May-o
The summer is a-coming in
And winter’s gone away-o

The-Oyster-Band-Hal-an-TowTheir version is stirring and energetic, showing off their unique family harmonies. They also included a wonderful live version on the documentary Travelling For A Living which shows just how much fun they had performing.

Many other artists have recorded the song, perhaps most famously the Oyster Band. It was their first single from the powerful album Step Outside, demonstrating their passion for traditional music and their skill at adapting the old songs to electric treatments. They use similar lyrics to those chosen by the Watersons, demonstrating the stirring power of traditional songs, no matter how they are interpreted.

Noted British traditional singer Shirley Collins also recorded a version of the song. Her first collaboration with her husband, Ashley Hutchings (of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span fame) was the splendid No Roses, featuring over 20  guest musicians under the umbrella name the Albion Country Band. On this track, Richard Thompson provides guitar and Trevor Crosier adds a quirky Jew’s harp line. Collins is in fine vocal form, ably joined by Barry Dransfield, Royston Wood, and Simon Nicol for the rousing chorus. The result is a splendid reading that fits with the experimental but loving touch given all the tracks on the album.

Song of the Day, June 19: Rap Her to Bank by the Watersons

Today’s song is Rap Her to Bank by the Watersons.WatersonsRap The original quartet of siblings Mike, Norma, and Lal with cousin John Harrison burst onto the folk scene in 1965. Their second album, simply titled The Watersons, followed early the next year with more mostly a cappella harmonies on traditional British songs. Rap Her to Bank was recorded live in concert while they were working on the album but not included on the 1966 release. It finally appeared on CD versions of the disc in the 90s and has been included in a number of compilation packages, recognizing the power of the song in the hands of this unique vocal group.

A traditional song (Roud 1786), Rap Her to Bank is a tribute to the dark, dangerous labor of England’s coal miners. The title is a call made by miners waiting to return to the surface in the cage. Legendary folk collector A.L. Lloyd describes it thus:

“Rap ‘er te bank!” is the cry of men at the bottom of the [mine] shaft, waiting to come up in the cage. The onsetter would rap, and the winding man, hearing the signal would draw the cage to the surface (the bank).

This song celebrates that return to light after a hard day’s work, but with a dark twist. Sung by a miner’s son, it also notes the title line as the last words of his father during a mine collapse, an all-too-frequent occurrence. The Watersons nail the vocals, capturing the cries of the miners, the joy at the end of the day, and the proud sorrow of the son.

Rap ‘er to bank, me canny lad!
Wind ‘er right slow, that’s clever!
This old lad he’s taken bad,
He’ll be back here never.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Album of the Week, June 2: Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson

brightphoebusThe Waterson siblings — Mike, Norma, and Lal — grew up in a musical family. They were surrounded by all kinds of songs: classical, jazz, big band, pop, and more. They also heard the traditional English songs of their native Yorkshire. In the late 50’s they toyed with forming a skiffle band, but soon dropped that idea. Joined by cousin John Harrison, they switched to a cappella versions of traditional folk songs. Their harmonies were powerful and unique and their love of the music shone through in every note. They quickly became a major force in the folk revival of the 60s. They released three albums in two years and appeared on many compilations. By 1968, tired of touring and concerned with the uncertainty of raising families on folk wages, they took a break. Norma followed a boyfriend to Montserrat where she became a DJ. Mike and Lal stayed in Yorkshire, where they discovered that each had been writing their own poems and songs while pursuing other jobs. They decided to collaborate on an album of original material; thus was Bright Phoebus: Songs by Lal & Mike Waterson born.

Title Bright Phoebus
Act Lal & Mike Waterson
Label Trailer Release Date September 1972
Producer Bill Leader
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Rubber Band
  2. The Scarecrow
  3. Fine Horseman
  4. Winifer Odd
  5. Danny Rose
  6. Child Among the Weeds
  7. Magical Man
  8. Never the Same
  9. To Make You Stay
  10. Shady Lady
  11. Red Wine and Promises
  12. Bright Phoebus

Once they got started, they assembled a crack team of singers and musicians to join them. Norma was back in Yorkshire; her new beau and future husband Martin Carthy joined the party. Guitarist Richard Thompson contributed to most of the tracks; his former Fairport Convention bandmates Dave Mattacks and Ashley Hutchings were the rhythm section for several songs. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (Hutchings’ and Carthy’s cohorts from their time in Steeleye Span) contributed a number of guest vocals. The all-star approach together with the unique writing of the Waterson siblings resulted in one of the finest underappreciated albums of the 70s.

Things kick off in fine fashion with Mike’s Rubber Band. Rife with wordplay and joyously energetic, it’s a rousing choral tune that rings with lovely harmonies. The full band is in place, making it clear that this isn’t a typical Watersons disc. The addition of a jaunty brass section makes the Yorkshire via New Orleans feel complete. Up next is a distinctly English song, the haunting The Scarecrow written by Lal and Mike together. Its mystical tone and agricultural setting make it seem like a part of their traditional repertoire, with Mike’s aching vocal adding to the timeless quality. It’s one of the finest songs on the album and has been covered many times. Lal’s Fine Horseman is next, keeping with the traditional feel and mystical bent. Mysterious and powerful, it’s one of Lal’s finest vocal moments.

Things shift in tone again with Winifer Odd, a character sketch of an aptly named woman. Lal writes and sings her story, in which nothing ever goes quite right. Poor Winifer is even snubbed by Death, left behind with her sad life. Up next is Mike’s Danny Rose, another fictional biography. This character is a notorious criminal, and the song reads like a 30s crime story from Chicago. It’s nicely crafted and deftly explores the public fascination with flashy ne’er-do-wells. Side one of the original LP wraps up with Child Among the Weeds, a duet between Lal and fellow folk luminary Bob Davenport. A quirky but ultimately uplifting lullaby, it presages her later work with son Oliver Knight.

The second side opens much like the first, with a full chorus number about an entertainer. Magical Man, written by Lal and Mike, is a fun look at stagecraft. Switching narrative point of view between the astounded audience and the supremely confident performer, it’s nicely crafted and delightfully sung. Never the Same is one of Lal’s darkest songs, a look at the many ways that people crush the joyous spirits of children. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. To Make You Stay is a romantic song, a plea for a lover to remain. Lal is in especially fine voice on this track as well, backed by a simple guitar and bass figure.

The final trio of songs are different forms of celebration. Shady Lady is Mike’s entreaty to a woman to make the most of her life and not hide herself away. It’s another choral treat, with all the voices coming together to urge her to “take a chance.” Red Wine and Promises is another true standout, even in this company. Lal composed a magnificent song that June Tabor has introduced in her shows as “a song of somewhat vulgar independence.” That sums it up nicely. Sung beautifully by sister Norma, it’s a declaration of the self, wonderfully rendered.

The siblings saved the best for last with the title track. Mike credits the inspiration to a flash of sun caught out of the corner of his eye. That moment led him to write a powerful, jubilant celebration. With everyone joining in, it’s an amazing song of hope.

Ironically, the album that got the Watersons recording together again was poorly received. Fans wanted traditional, unaccompanied songs. With Martin Carthy replacing John Harrison, the quartet began providing just that, releasing a number of wonderful albums over the years. Mixed with various side projects, the family discography is impressive. Despite — or perhaps due to — its starkly different nature, Bright Phoebus remains a singularly fine element in that canon.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the years, many tracks from Bright Phoebus have been covered by a wide variety of folk, pop, and rock acts. Scarecrow, Red Wine and Promises, and Fine Horseman have had especially robust careers. For the album’s 30th anniversary, producer and graphic artist David Suff assembled a loving tribute collection. Shining Bright features fifteen songs (including two versions of the title track) by a wide variety of friends, family and fans. They cover eight of the original album’s songs as well as six other lovely tracks written at the same time. It’s a great companion piece.


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