Friday Music Focus: 6/23/17

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Friday Music Focus returns with eleven brand-new or recent songs to enrich your sonic experiences in 2017.

Courtney Barnett, “How to Boil an Egg” (single, 2017). From a YouTube user comment: “0/10. recipe was difficult to follow, eggs were terrible.”

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie,”On with the Show” (appears on the album Buckingham/McVie, 2017). It’s not easy to write a good pop song. It’s probably even more trouble for artists who have been around for decades, constantly being compared and contrasted with the entirety of their own lengthy history. To be totally frank about my own music-awareness deficiencies, I don’t know the entire Fleetwood Mac songbook, so I’m not judging Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie’s new duets album (described by The Guardian’s Jude Rogers as “like togetherness put on, not poured out” and by Pitchfork’s Sean T. Collins as “fun—just not fundamental”) against the weight of a half-century-long catalog. I am therefore delighted to be so unbiased as to consider “On with the Show” a pop gem. In fact, it gives me the same joy that case/lang/veirs’ lovely tune “Best Kept Secret” did last year. How could that possibly be a bad thing?

The Dirty Dishes (Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally and Fred Armisen), “Love and Lies” (music video made for the film Band Aid, 2017, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones; studio version appears on the album The Dirty Dishes EP, 2017). The new movie Band Aid, which was written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, stars Lister-Jones and Adam Pally as a couple who tackle the thorny problems in their marriage by writing and performing songs in a band they form in their garage. The trio is rounded out by a neighbor (played by Fred Armisen) as their unendingly kooky drummer. “Love and Lies” is the best of the movie’s original songs, and its music video (also directed by Zoe Lister-Jones) points out the fact that the film had an all-female crew behind the scenes; seeing Armisen pretentiously micromanage the video shoot is icing on the cake.

Feist featuring Stephen Colbert, “Century” (performed on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 6/6/17; studio version, featuring Jarvis Cocker, appears on the album Pleasure, 2017). My favorite track on Leslie Feist’s new album is updated with a contribution with my #1 late night talk show host. From the guitar riffs to the stage setup to the outfit worn by Feist, has there been a more satisfying musical performance than this on TV all spring?

Marika Hackman, “Boyfriend” (music video; studio version appears on the album I’m Not Your Man, 2017). Despite a glaring likeness to Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung,” Marika Hackman’s first single from her sophomore album (after 2015’s We Slept at Last) is an undeniable earworm. It has been called a riposte “to ignorant boys who try to delegitimize and objectify lesbian relationships,” or in Hackman’s words, “payback for all those times I’ve been interrupted mid-snog by some seedy wanker asking to join in.”

Hudson Mohawke featuring Remy Banks, “Passports” (from the “Silicon Valley” soundtrack, 2017). The artists at the helm of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” have an unrivaled track record for choosing the perfect song to play over any given episode’s end credits. “Passports” appeared at the end of last Sunday’s episode, “Hooli-Con,” and if we are to believe the lyrics as foreshadowing, the song points to the possibility that Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper team will need to flee the country in this Sunday’s season finale (long story short: they committed cyber crimes). The “Silicon Valley” gang is usually the least cool bunch of dudes in the room, so the decision as to which song will cleverly underline that basic precept is incredibly important. “Passports” does that to the max in just over two minutes; it even seems to evoke the subplot involving Erlich Bachman’s (T.J. Miller) voyage to Tibet with the somewhat Eastern-sounding instrumentation.

Lorde, “Sober II (Melodrama)” (appears on the album Melodrama, 2017). I don’t hide the fact that I have never really joined in on the Lorde bandwagon. (The world seems to consider her the most talented young singer-songwriter around, but all I see is a Kate Bush wannabe utilizing current pop hooks.) It is therefore no surprise that Lorde’s new album, Melodrama, which is being applauded by journalists on every continent (I wouldn’t dream of making assumptions and excluding Antarctica), doesn’t wow me. The two songs that work for me, however, are the exuberantly upbeat “Green Light,” which has grown on me immensely in the last few months, and “Sober II (Melodrama),” about which I wrote these words after first hearing it: “oddly tantalizing – the strings make me finally feel the emotion that the album claims to be focused on – I wish the song lasted longer.” There may be hope yet for me as a potential Lorde devotee.

Ride, “Lannoy Point” (appears on the album Weather Diaries, 2017). “We’ll be wiser when we fall/Like the dinosaurs before/When we’ve swept ourselves away/A better sense can start again,” sings Mark Gardner on the opening track of Weather Diaries, the new album from British shoegaze/dream pop/Britpop band Ride (returning after a two-decade hiatus). The group takes on modern politics and Brexit, the aftershocks of which are felt throughout the album and give Ride a fresh (though, of course, obviously unwanted) source of inspiration for their new music.

Sigrid, “Don’t Kill My Vibe” (music video; studio version appears on the album Don’t Kill My Vibe EP, 2017). I don’t know much about Sigrid, a twenty-year-old singer-songwriter from Norway, but I was so impressed by her performance of this song on “The Late Late Show” last month that I’ve been replaying the single ever since. It’s a simple and effective pop song, the kind that instantly and happily lodges itself in your brain.

Slowdive, “Don’t Know Why” (appears on the album Slowdive, 2017). Like Ride, British shoegaze pioneers Slowdive spent two decades on hiatus. Their recent return with a self-titled album has garnered stellar praise, and “Don’t Know Why” is a beautiful highlight that pays homage to the shimmering, melting guitar tones of one of the group’s influences, Cocteau Twins. I hope that I get to hear this particular song when I see Slowdive in concert this November; I’m sure the reverb must be heavenly in person.

Texas, “Great Romances” (appears on the album Jump on Board, 2017). Like the critically lambasted Buckingham/McVie album, Texas has been derided for blandness. It’s not clear to me exactly what critics want out of frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri and her bandmates; they first appeared on the Scottish alternative rock scene in the mid-80s, so maybe the British music press is just bored with them. But I ask you: what’s wrong with a song like “Great Romances,” an enjoyable little number that bounces along? Sure, it borrows the beat from the classic Angels hit “My Boyfriend’s Back,” but is that a worse musical crime than Ed Sheeran copying TLC?

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Friday Music Focus: 6/10/16

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Rowland S. Howard with his collection of records and books, photographed in 1999.

Today we look at a few examples of some of my favorite artists doing cover versions of other people’s songs. As Tess Duncan wrote for Paste last year: “There are some songs that you don’t truly appreciate until another artist takes it on and makes it their own. Oftentimes the newer version draws out the original’s complexities in a way you never would have noticed before. Or maybe the first version is equally compelling, but the cover artist reimagined it with such grandeur that many don’t even realize that it’s a new take on an old song. Whether converting dance bangers to melancholic ballads or pop hits to garage-rock anthems, sometimes a complete 180 is exactly what a track was missing.”

Cyndi Lauper, “When You Were Mine” (live at the American Music Awards, 1985 + live on tour, 2016; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) [originally by Prince, 1980]. In honor of Prince’s birthday, which was on June 7, here are two examples of Cyndi Lauper covering one of my favorite songs of his, “When You Were Mine” (from the 1980 album Dirty Mind). Obviously the version from last month has a particular poignancy to it, but even back in the 80s, Cyndi had her own twist on the song that was almost as uptempo as the original while also being more bittersweet. My favorite part of both performances is that she sings the high-pitched electronic synthesizer solo heard in the recording from her debut album, She’s So Unusual.

Manic Street Preachers, “(Feels Like) Heaven” (live on BBC Radio 2, 6/3/2016) [originally by Fiction Factory, 1983]. It was worth sitting through all three hours of DJ Chris Evans’ hideously annoying BBC Radio 2 breakfast show (it airs 6:30-9:30 am, UK time) just to hear the Manics do a few songs from Everything Must Go (which is, as has been mentioned on this blog before, an album currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary) and also this rendition of Scottish group Fiction Factory’s one-hit-wonder single from three decades ago. Speaking of fiction, I thought I would also include a minute-long snippet from an interview with Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire from December 1991, talking about the power of literature. Looking at Edwards’ and Wire’s wonderfully gaudy fake-fur coats, I’m reminded of this quote from musician Danny McCormack: “Richey and Nicky were inseparable at one point – you’d never ever see them alone. It was like two big leopard-skin jackets walking towards you.”

P.S. One of the most fun paragraphs I’ve read all week, courtesy of Wales Online writer David Owens in his review of the Manics’ recent home-turf concert at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea: “Head down and into the home straight, the forecast torrential rain finally arrived at the precise moment Nicky Wire re-emerged after his third costume change of the evening, bedecked in a Welsh flag skirt and musical note knee socks underlining his status as possessing the best pins of any fortysomething man in rock ‘n’ roll – and giving the front row quite the treat into the bargain.” (Photographic evidence here.)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (appears on the album Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986) [originally by David and Jonathan, 1967; popularized by Gene Pitney, 1967]. I did a lot of listening to Nick Cave last Thursday and Friday because of the announcement that a new Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, will be out this September, in addition to the release of a partly-3D documentary about the making of the album (a one-night-only event on September 8 for which I already have my tickets, of course!). But last Saturday I was surprised and delighted to hear the song “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” sung by actors Olivia Colman and Garry Mountaine in the new film The Lobster, which I saw at BAM Rose Cinemas. Even though the song is thought of as a Gene Pitney classic, I know it best from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks, an album comprised solely of covers. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call “Something’s…” one of Nick’s better vocals from his early years; he did a lot of atonal shouting when he fronted the Birthday Party between the late 70s and 1983, so the fact that he could do quite nicely with a good melody probably swayed people who had previously been on the fence about his musical abilities, and nowadays it serves as a good introductory tune for people who have never listened to his work at all.

Rowland S. Howard, “The Passenger” (appears on the soundtrack for the film He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, 2001) [originally by Iggy Pop, 1977]. It is sometimes hard not to think of Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard being joined at the hip since the Boys Next Door/the Birthday Party was really the beginning of making music history for each of them (although to be fair, Rowland’s version of “Shivers,” done with the Young Charlatans in 1978, is still the definitive punk take on that song before Nick turned it into a moody ballad in ’79). Each man has a separate style, so it’s not like their recordings necessarily beg comparison to one another, but one thing that has always amused me in judging their oeuvres side by side is that Rowland had a knack for covering songs in a high-spirited way that Nick has never done. (I don’t expect Nick to start now, particularly with the painful year he has had, but this is an observation based on the entirety of his career with the Bad Seeds. With few exceptions, lightness is not Nick Cave’s specialty.) But Rowland could finesse a rock or pop-rock song into something just as snappy yet in his own inimitable voice, and his interpretation of one of Iggy Pop’s most famous songs is first-rate. There is a sense of humor there. You can hear an unmistakably raised eyebrow.

Courtney Barnett, “New Speedway Boogie” (appears on the compilation album Day of the Dead, 2016) [originally by the Grateful Dead, 1970]. Coming back around to recently released covers, here’s a little something by Courtney Barnett, the best artist to emerge from Australia in the last couple of years (as well as being a fan of Rowland S. Howard, who influenced her guitar-playing and whose song “Shivers” she covered last year). I have never cared for the Grateful Dead, the one exception being their late 80s pop hit “Touch of Grey.” So when I listen to Courtney’s cover of “Boogie,” I hear it as new – a slow-burning but foreboding landscape – rather than as a reworking of the old, which is ideally what you want out of a successful cover anyway.