Friday Music Focus: 2/17/17

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Here we are in 2017… seven songs for a new edition of Friday Music Focus. Whether you’re like “Duckie” (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in Pink (1986) and you have a history with these songs, or you are a newcomer to any of these artists, there will be melodic food for thought.

Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley, “Chained to the Rhythm” (performed live at the Grammy Awards, 2017; single version released in 2017). Katy Perry has said that she hopes to inspire her listeners with “purposeful pop” records. If “Chained” is any indication, her new album will be able to achieve what few pop artists are able to do these days: create catchy music for the masses that is fun to listen to and also explores social and political dilemmas. Add to that the “Persist” armband and Planned Parenthood pin that she wore on her outfit at the Grammys, and the pop-activist look is complete. Let’s hope that the message can strike a deep chord.

Manic Street Preachers, “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (performed live at the Glastonbury Festival, 1994; studio version appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992). This February marks the one-year anniversary of my entry into the universe of Manic Street Preachers, and it is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of their infamous double-album debut, Generation Terrorists. If Katy Perry is the new purveyor of “purposeful pop,” then the Manics are the once and future kings of purposeful rock. Their show at Glastonbury in 1994 needs to be seen to be believed: every instrument plugged in and turned up to 11, James Dean Bradfield’s guitar strings threatening to pop off in the frenzy of his playing, and every song bursting with messages about our strange and often dangerous world. “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (lyrics here) is only one example of the band’s genius for deconstructing the entwined realities of pop culture, consumerism, celebrity and our planet’s violent history, but the song’s first four lines say it all: “You need your stars, even killers have prestige/Access to a living you will not see/24 boredom, I’m convicted instantly/Gorgeous poverty of created needs.”

The Smiths, “What Difference Does It Make?” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Smiths, 1984) and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (performed live on “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” 1986; studio version appears on the album The Queen Is Dead, 1986). Two weeks ago, Marc Spitz, a unique talent in music criticism/journalism who had also published novels and plays, passed away at age 47. Author Chuck Klosterman distilled the essence of Spitz in two sentences written for Spin: “Spitz aspired to be Byronic. He believed life was better if people tried to be interesting, so he tried to be as interesting as possible.” Salon’s Erin Keane recalled in her tribute: “I don’t trust music writers who aren’t sentimental (if you’re not actively engaged in a love affair with the work, try investment banking instead), and I trusted Marc implicitly. As Alan Light, former editor-in-chief at Spin, where Marc made a great name for himself and won many of us over as readers and fans, said in his moving eulogy in Billboard yesterday, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who believed in rock & roll as much as Marc Spitz did. The grand gesture, the adolescent romanticism, the infinite possibilities of identity and sexuality — he bought it all, loved it, needed it.'” One of the most poignant compliments I have seen comes from a guest comment on Keane’s article: “I remember reading his piece on ‘The Boys of Summer.’ I was moved. [Don] Henley may not be one of the greats, but that song sure is! I’ll think of Marc every time I hear it now, for the rest of my days.” I probably will, too.

Marc Spitz was well known for his love of the Smiths, so much so that he wrote a novel titled How Soon Is Never? (2003), in which the protagonist attempts to get the broken-up group back together. In Marc’s honor, the clips embedded above are of two of the band’s best songs. Here’s to those who have a way with words – to answer the question posed by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, it makes a hell of a difference.

Johnny Marr, “New Town Velocity” (performed live at KCRW’s Apogee Sessions, 2013; studio version appears on the album The Messenger, 2013). “Here comes our poetry,” indeed. The former lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the Smiths has continued to make excellent music in the three decades since the band’s dissolution, and “New Town Velocity” is a high point in his solo career. The hook built on Marr’s iconic guitar sound is mesmerizing, winding its way around your brain so deftly that you never want the song to end and you have no choice but to click repeat.

Suede, “The Wild Ones” (appears on the album Dog Man Star, 1994). If the glam rock swagger of Suede’s self-titled debut album from 1993 made anyone wonder whether the band was merely a carbon copy of the equally decadent stylists (David Bowie and Marc Bolan in particular) who came decades before, then Suede’s follow-up, Dog Man Star, assured the quartet’s place in the pantheon of just plain great music. The lyrics of the “The Wild Ones” plead with their subject, “oh, if you stay…” – which is exactly what the band did. I don’t know about you, but I find it heartening that Brett Anderson and co. are still out there, still 100% brilliant.

Associates/Billy Mackenzie, “The Crying Game” (live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), 1984). After rewatching Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game this past week, I thought about Billy Mackenzie’s version of the title song. Mackenzie, who was once the subject of a Smiths song, was the lead singer of the Scottish band Associates. He was born sixty years ago this March, and the twenty-year anniversary of his death was marked this past January. If only he hadn’t had to suffer through depression; if only he could have known that his music would continue to mean something to people for years to come. The Internet gave me the opportunity to discover the Associates; their/Billy’s music affected me deeply when I was a teenager and it still does today. Sitting through lonely lunches in my high school’s cafeteria was so much easier when I could listen to “Party Fears Two” on my iPod, and a few years ago I recall waking up from a dream in which “No” played in the background, the faint echo of it lingering as I opened my eyes. But maybe Billy’s covers were his finest moments; when I see and hear him perform “Gloomy Sunday” (sadly portentous since Billy committed suicide in 1997), “Amazing Grace,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Wild Is the Wind” (a heartbreaking interpretation) and the clip that I am highlighting now, the Dave Berry song “The Crying Game,” an undeniable magic takes place that transforms and transports me. There were entire worlds in Billy Mackenzie’s heavenly voice, and Earth is poorer for no longer being able to hear it in person. If there is an afterlife, I hope he’s wearing one of his favorite berets.

Friday Music Focus: 11/25/16

This week I am focusing on artists based in the UK (hence the photo of Joan Collins, glamorously posed with records).

Placebo, “Nancy Boy” (performed live on “Later… with Jools Holland,” 1997; studio version appears on the album Placebo, 1996) and “Jesus’ Son” (performed live for BBC Radio 6 Music at Maida Vale, 2016; studio version appears on the compilation album A Place for Us to Dream, 2016). Sometime last week, my favorite presenters on BBC Radio 6 Music, Radcliffe & Maconie, started their program with Placebo’s “Nancy Boy.” The band has been on the periphery of my musical tastes for many years, ever since their cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” back in 2003, and I heard “Nancy Boy” and various other singles at different points, but only now is the band’s discography really coming to the fore for me. I like that Brian Molko’s intercontinental upbringing is evident in his singing – although it is arguably even more apparent when he talks, his accent shifting from word to word – and there is something aesthetically pleasing in how his nasal, nationally-ambiguous voice meshes with the heavy, sometimes menacing demeanor of the band’s music.

The Duke Spirit, “Serenade” (appears on the Serenade EP, 2016). “Serenade” has gotten quite a bit of play on the Radcliffe & Maconie show as well, and I appreciate that since this (even after more than a decade) up-and-coming English band’s single has a deep sense of mood and atmosphere, not unlike the music of Placebo.

Honeyblood, “Love Is a Disease” (appears on the album Babes Never Die, 2016). Scottish duo Honeyblood is another constantly-played favorite from the Radcliffe & Maconie show, and this particular song is my favorite track from the band’s newest album. I think that musicians Stina Marie Claire Tweeddale and Cat Myers are relatively new on the scene (Honeyblood was formed four years ago) but after a little more growth, they could become the next Sleater-Kinney.

Meilyr Jones, “How to Recognise a Work of Art” (music video) and “Don Juan” (both appear on the album 2013, 2016). For a different tack, Welsh singer-songwriter Meilyr Jones is a breath of fresh air for those who long for a lovely, feather-light voice and some classical, baroque and folk sounds within their popular music choices. (He apparently studied classical music at some point, either formally or in his spare time, according to this clip.) For years, Jones was the frontman of the band Race Horses, who made more “rock” types of music (see “Pony” and “My Year Abroad”), but I think Jones’s voice is better suited to his solo record’s many delicate melodies.

Hooton Tennis Club, “Lauren, I’m in Love!” (appears on the album Big Box of Chocolates, 2016). I’ll close with perhaps the sunniest song I’ve encountered in some time, an ode (quite fittingly, given the underlying theme of this post) to BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne. Hooton Tennis Club, a band of English fellows in their twenties, have a lot of potential; “Lauren” is the only song on their second album, Big Box of Chocolates, that really stands out to me, but what a song it is – truly delightful stuff.

Friday Music Focus: 11/11/16

Despite this week’s soul-crushing news that Donald Trump is going to be our forty-fifth POTUS, the music-blogging wagon must roll on.

Bash & Pop, “On the Rocks” (music video, 2016; studio version will appear on the album Anything Could Happen, 2017). Bash & Pop is fronted by Tommy Stinson, former bassist for seminal Minneapolis punk/alternative rock band The Replacements; B&P released their first (and also last) album, Friday Night Is Killing Me, in 1992, so their new follow-up has certainly earned the adjective “long-awaited.” The lyrics for “On the Rocks,” which is the upcoming album’s lead single, are largely clichéd but the overall catchiness of the melody and Stinson’s lengthy guitar solo toward the end make this song a lot of fun.

PJ Harvey, “Ministry of Defence” (performed live at Terminal 5 in Manhattan, 2016; studio version appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016). I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: “To Make America Great Again We Need Less Donald Trump, More PJ Harvey.” With the realities of a Trump presidency still sinking in, we need proudly political, saxophone-driven music more than ever. If we could elect a British woman to the highest office in our land, PJ would get my vote.

Angel Olsen, “Never Be Mine” (appears on the album My Woman, 2016). In recent months I have made a habit of reading Pitchfork’s music reviews, and in late August I saw a review by Jenn Pelly for Angel Olsen’s My Woman that was more effusive and praiseworthy than anything I had beheld in ages. I had never heard of Olsen, but the descriptions of this St. Louis-raised singer-songwriter’s new work as “tough and tender at once, a bold rumination on how love and autonomy require one another” and that “My Woman walks a tightrope of love to figure out what it is—how to find it, how to allow it in, how to feel it, how to fight for it, how to let it go—by a person who does not lose herself in the process” made me want to learn more. The song that I love the most from the album, “Never Be Mine,” has an especially great write-up: “My Woman contains soda-pop rippers as pained and distraught and irreducible as any girl-group classic: ‘Heaven hits me when I see your face,’ Olsen sings with wide-eyed optimism that wilts on arrival, ‘But you’ll never be mine.’ So much of My Woman is rock‘n’roll in the traditional sense, from a ’50s or ’60s jukebox, and it is positively electric, a total blast.”

Suede, “What I’m Trying to Tell You” (appears on the album Night Thoughts, 2016). Suede is one of those bands that I’m forever trying to foist on my circle of friends (in the best possible way) since, like my beloved Manic Street Preachers, I’m pretty sure that Suede (or “The London Suede,” as they are legally forced to be called here) never found a wide fanbase in America, just some die-hard devotees scattered in random pockets of the country. Suede’s seventh album, Night Thoughts, was released in January, which earned them high marks from the British music press and – as you might expect – absolutely no fanfare at all in the US, where the band essentially doesn’t exist. (They played at Coachella a few years ago, but otherwise I don’t think they’ve toured here since the late 90s or early 2000s, and the only late night talk show appearance they have ever done here was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” in 1993. For more discussion of Suede’s lack of impact on our nation by a longtime American fan, take a gander at this article: “Trash: The Problems of Being an American Fan of the London Suede.”) Anywho, Night Thoughts is a solid album and “What I’m Trying to Tell You” is just as enjoyable and hook-laden as any of their earlier songs; I’m particularly fond of the fact that “Tell You’s” final minute sounds similar to the “la la la…” outro of 1996’s “Beautiful Ones,” which, incidentally, was the first Suede song I ever heard, when the music video was made available for free on iTunes one day almost a decade ago and I just happened to notice it on the iTunes homepage.

Weezer, “I Love the USA” (music video; single, 2016). When Weezer put out this song over the summer, the band said that it was an honestly patriotic anthem that had to do with NASA, or something. Now that the music video is online (released last month, starring none other than Patton Oswalt), the intent is obvious. While listening to the track again, I’ve had a late-breaking realization: Rivers Cuomo sounds exactly the same at age 46 as he did at 24, the age he was when Weezer released their self-titled debut album back in 1994. Is that good or is that weird?

Rowland S. Howard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (performed live at the Melbourne Public Bar, 1995). I cannot pretend that I am well-versed in the late Leonard Cohen’s discography since I am only familiar with the songs of his which have been covered by my favorite artists. Enough singers have been performing “Hallelujah” (from Various Positions, 1984) for the last couple of decades that the New York Times actually ran an article this past September titled “How Pop Culture Wore Out Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,'” so instead I present you with a different song from Various Positions, a cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Rowland S. Howard. I’m going to end the post with an excerpt of an interview with David Todd that Rowland did shortly before his death in 2009 (the piece was published in Todd’s book Feeding Back: Conversations with Alternative Guitarists from Proto-Punk to Post-Rock, 2012):

Friday Music Focus: 8/19/16

After some time away from Friday Music Focus, I return with a new post concentrating on seven pairs of songs by a variety of musicians from yesterday and today. As always, I hope that you will discover or rediscover an artist or a song that you will want to revisit.

PJ Harvey, “The Orange Monkey” (appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016) and “Guilty” (non-album single, 2016). In lieu of being able to attend either of PJ Harvey’s concerts at New York’s Terminal 5 venue this week, here are two songs by her that I have been listening to a lot in recent days. “Guilty” is driven by the same political themes as the tracks on The Hope Six Demolition Project since the song was recorded during the album sessions; meanwhile, is “The Orange Monkey” about Donald Trump? You decide. Or take Consequence of Sound’s word for it from this headline that ran on the website yesterday: “To Make America Great Again We Need Less Donald Trump, More PJ Harvey.”

case/lang/veirs, “Atomic Number” and “Best Kept Secret” (both appear on case/lang/veirs, 2016). Singer-songwriters Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs have combined to create a new power-trio – purposely spelled in lowercase letters, in case you were wondering – and they put out their self-titled debut album in June. It has immediately become one of my favorite releases of the year, a spirited mixture of folk and pop that works wonders in nearly all of the tracks. If you like the two songs above, I recommend trying “Delirium,” the bittersweet and beautiful “Behind the Armory” and “Supermoon.”

Lee Morgan, “You’re Mine, You” (appears on the album City Lights, 1957) and “All the Way” (appears on the album Candy, 1958). After reading about the new documentary I Called Him Morgan, about the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan (1938-1972) and his murder at the hands of his wife Helen, I knew I had to listen to Morgan’s music. “You’re Mine, You” features Curtis Fuller on trombone, George Coleman on alto saxophone, Ray Bryant on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums, while “All the Way” has Sonny Clark on piano, Doug Watkins on bass and Art Taylor once more on drums.

The Adverts, “New Church” and “No Time to Be 21” (both appear on the album Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts, 1978). Almost lost among the tremendous number of punk bands that emerged in the UK in the mid-to-late 70s, the Adverts might never have appeared on my radar if I didn’t listen to the Radcliffe & Maconie show on BBC Radio 6 Music. Like so many groups from that era, they had a short-lived but exciting burst of energy to fuel their two albums’ worth of anthems for pissed-off youth.

Joy Division, “Transmission” (non-album single, 1979) and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (music video; non-album single, 1980). Disclaimer about myself: Joy Division was incredibly important to me when I was seventeen. Every time I listen to them, I go back to what it felt like to experience them for the very first time, a time-travel device that transports me as soon as I hear the opening notes of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Each time I listen to that song (the first I ever heard by Joy Division) or to Ian Curtis’s sarcastic exhortations in “Transmission” for us to dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the soulless radio, it’s as though I’m a teenager again, dazed and speechless as I try to make sense of uptempo songs about relentless inner torment. Joy Division’s music is the best representation I can imagine for this observation once made by Tom Waits: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

McCarthy, “Red Sleeping Beauty” (non-album single, 1986) and “We Are All Bourgeois Now” (B-side of non-album single “Should the Bible Be Banned,” 1988). Probably forgotten by all but their most faithful fans, the indie pop band McCarthy created some of the loveliest, hookiest politically-minded songs of the mid-to-late 80s. Sandwiched between the rise of U2 and the “baggy” days of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, McCarthy’s socialist serenades (including those on their 1987 album I Am a Wallet) breathed fresh air into the British music scene, if only for a little while.

Chromatics, “Running Up That Hill” (appears on the album Night Drive, 2007) and “Into the Black” (appears on the album Kill for Love, 2012). The Portland, Oregon band Chromatics, fronted by the Nico-esque singer Ruth Radelet, has an extraordinary collective ability to create seductive covers of songs from the 70s and 80s, making them sound sleekly modern. The particular combination of Radelet’s voice, the guitar and synthesizers on Chromatics’ versions of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (1985) and Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (1979) highlight the timelessness of the lyrics while adding a uniquely hypnotic edge to each song.

Friday Music Focus: 7/8/16

Since this will be my last “Friday Music Focus” post for a while – I will be on vacation starting next weekend – I hope I can make this one count. These ten entries form a small percentage of my musical intake. I am constantly listening to new albums, singles, live performances and random, weird stuff; the following list may introduce you to some exciting new sounds. Enjoy!

Glass Animals, “Life Itself” (single, 2016). My favorite new song that I heard on a BBC radio program this week: the first single released from British indie rock group Glass Animals’ upcoming second album, How to Be a Human Being (due out in August). I always like a song that tells a story.

We Are Scientists, “Buckle” (live on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Helter Seltzer, 2016). Seen last week: a catchy song by a band that I have heard of (their first album came out ten years ago) but never listened to; the new album, Helter Seltzer, turned out to be disappointing, but this lead single is really good and I was impressed by what I saw in this TV performance.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dark Necessities” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Getaway, 2016). Much less impressive than the previous number on the list is the first single from the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, The Getaway. (Anthony Kiedis and Flea have been doing this music thing since 1983, so it’s a miracle that they aren’t fossils yet.) The music video was directed by actress Olivia Wilde, which is interesting since the skaters seen in the clip are all women – God knows the Peppers are not the world’s most feminist band, so I guess this is a step forward – and perhaps Wilde contributed some ideas to the concept. I cannot, however, get over the fact that Josh Klinghoffer, the guitarist who joined RHCP after longtime member John Frusciante’s departure in 2009, both plays and sings like Frusciante. Same guitar tone, same high-pitched background vocals. He even has a hairstyle similar to John Frusciante’s funky late 80s/early 90s ‘do. I wish Josh would carve out his own niche instead of being a replacement and a mimic.

Tacocat, “Talk” (music video; studio version appears on the album Lost Time, 2016). If you want to hear and see a real feminist rock band, try Tacocat.

Mick Harvey, “Deadly Tedium” (music video; studio version appears on the album Delirium Tremens, 2016). From Tacocat to a music video co-starring a cat. Mick’s translation/interpretation of this Serge Gainsbourg song has a jazzy, loungy cabaret quality and there is a delightful sense of humor, sort of like an oddball film noir in color, evident in the video.

Pi Ja Ma, “Radio Girl” (music video; studio version appears on the EP Radio Girl, 2016). Utilizing another pop-throwback type of sound, Pi Ja Ma (aka Dominique de Tarragon, a French musician/visual artist) offers a memorable beat and a ton of whimsy.

Meilyr Jones, “Strange/Emotional” (music video; studio version appears on the album 2013, 2016). There is something immensely charming about Meilyr Jones, whether in his music or in soft-spoken interviews. Reviewers have described his style as “chamber pop,” a categorization that aptly describes many of his slow, lushly orchestrated songs but which I think also applies to the more upbeat track “Strange/Emotional.”

The Anchoress feat. Paul Draper, “You and Only You” (music video; studio version appears on the album Confessions of a Romance Novelist, 2016). The Anchoress, aka Catherine Anne Davies (or “Catherine AD”), first appeared on my radar when I saw a review of her debut album in The Guardian this past January. But the Welsh singer-songwriter permanently earned a place in my heart when she wrote a guest column for Q magazine last month, detailing her lifelong obsession with her fellow countrymen, the Manic Street Preachers. One paragraph contains some of what I consider the best assessments anyone has ever made of the group: “…as a Manics ‘groupie’ (and I use the term very loosely here) you were more likely to end up with a PhD than an STD. This was a band that encouraged you to devour books and films and suck in culture; to open your mind, not your legs. They were a band that glamourised the idea of being intelligent – a notion that can be endlessly empowering for a young girl looking for a way to be valued in a world that seems only concerned with the value of appearances. As the working class kid who’d been taught that education is your only route to social mobility, and as that kid who’d been relentlessly bullied for being ‘smart,’ this was a revelation to me. You could be well-read and wear fake leopard print. You could have intellectual aspirations and be glamourous. The two were not mutually exclusive. Wow, I thought. This changes everything.” And now here she is as an artist in her own right, a pop-rocker with a PhD (literature and queer theory, University College London), opening for the Manics when they perform in Cornwall tomorrow.

James Dean Bradfield (of Manic Street Preachers), “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” (live on “The Andrew Marr Show,” 2016). Last Sunday, JDB made a solo acoustic appearance on BBC One to promote the Manics’ beloved Welsh football anthem for Euro 2016. Although the team lost to Portugal in their semi-finals match two days later, “Together Stronger” may yet become a chart-topper in the UK since there was a push for it to happen by both fans and footballers alike (star player Gareth Bale retweeted the Football Association of Wales’ post about getting the song to become a hit). Also on the couch with James, prior to the start of the song: Neil Kinnock, a Labour Party politician who is also from South Wales and apparently recognized the talent in the Manics when they were wee lads at Oakdale Comprehensive School.

Viola Beach, “Boys That Sing” (single, January 2016); Coldplay, “Boys That Sing” (live at the Glastonbury Festival, June 2016). Rather than play David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as has become a standard tribute in the last half-year, Chris Martin and company decided to honor the members of British band Viola Beach, all of whom died in a car crash in Sweden in February. (Their first – and sadly, their last – album, self-titled, will be released on July 29.) I can think of a couple of similar tragedies that befell young bands just starting out; the lead singer, bassist and tour manager of alternative rock band For Squirrels died in a crash right before the release of their major-label debut album in 1995 (which, ironically, had a minor radio hit with a song about the death of Kurt Cobain, “Mighty K.C.”) and three-fourths of the punk/power pop band The Exploding Hearts died in a car wreck only a few months after the release of their 2003 album Guitar Romantic (featuring the wonderful song “I’m a Pretender”). At least nowadays when such a horrible loss happens, the world can talk about it on social media and spread the love so that the band is not forgotten before they even had a chance to begin. The “alternate future” that Coldplay collectively create for Viola Beach by allowing them to “headline Glastonbury for a song” is a beautiful gesture.

Friday Music Focus: 7/1/16

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After Kanye West’s music video for his song “Famous” was released last week and caused a roaring hullabaloo on the Internet for depicting nude likenesses of celebrities sharing one huge bed, I began thinking about songs and videos which connect to ideas of fame, usually in negative, toxic connotations. Here are a few examples from yesteryear which still ring true.

(Pictured above: an ad for one of Nick Drake’s few live gigs, c. 1970.)

David Bowie, “Fame” (appears on the album Young Americans, 1975). David Bowie’s funk classic – his first #1 hit in America – remains the definitive statement on the ridiculousness of celebrity. Bowie was later quoted as saying: “I’d had very upsetting management problems and a lot of that was built into the song. I’ve left all that behind me, now… I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.”

Genesis, “Land of Confusion”  (appears on the album Invisible Touch, 1986). The lyrics of “Land of Confusion” are not concerned with fame per se, but the music video is the closest approximation to Kanye’s “Famous” clip that I can think of, displaying puppet representations of politicians and celebrities which, frankly, are terrifying in their grotesqueness. The gathering of these self-obsessed, self-congratulating celebrities for a “We Are the World”-style singalong at the end further shows Genesis’s sense of satire while still rallying around the straightforward sociopolitical message in the band’s song.

Kirsty MacColl, “Fifteen Minutes” (appears on the album Kite, 1989). In three short minutes Kirsty pleasantly – because you can imagine her singing with a grin – takes down the extensive network of types who become famous without deserving it: “Then there’s always the cash/Selling your soul for some trash/Smiling at people that you cannot stand/You’re in demand/Your fifteen minutes start now…” Icing on the cake: the clarinet solo at the end, a spotlight on a decidedly not-pop instrument.

Note: the user who uploaded this video to YouTube accidentally included a photo of Ellie Goulding in the slideshow at the 0:55 mark; you could view this error as extra commentary, confusing one English singer-songwriter for another as though they were interchangeable.

Manic Street Preachers, “Kevin Carter” and “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” (both appear on the album Everything Must Go, 1996). The trappings of fame were often on the Manics’ minds in the early-to-mid-90s. “You Love Us” (Generation Terrorists, 1992), both in audio and video form, observes some of the glamorous yet absurd aspects of being a rock band with a major-label record contract and a presumption by the media that they’re only there to look good (all the while continuing to encourage true believers to maintain their obsessive love for the band); “Archives of Pain” (The Holy Bible, 1994), essentially a song speaking out against the glamorization of serial killers, aligns the band with those criminals by including “Manic Street Preachers” in the list of names sung in the second chorus. Two of the Manics’ most potent examinations of the effects of fame came later, though, in two sets of lyrics penned by Richey Edwards before his disappearance. “Kevin Carter” recounts the life and death of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for an image of a suffering Sudanese child with a vulture hovering nearby. Unable to live with the horror of what he had witnessed and the fame he had attained because of it, Carter committed suicide a few months later. The second song, “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky,” is not explicitly about fame, but I think connections can be drawn between the tale it tells of caged animals and the oppressive nature of celebrity – gawkers looking in and watching your every move. The disturbing lyrics are perfectly offset by James Dean Bradfield’s voice, the delicate strums of his acoustic guitar and the beautiful swirls of the harp.

Britney Spears, “Lucky” (appears on the album Oops!…I Did It Again, 2000) and “Piece of Me” (appears on the album Blackout, 2007). You could look at the difference between these two songs about fame as Before Shave and After Shave since the moment when Britney Spears shaved her hair off in 2007 was probably the ultimate sign that she was no longer the sweet, carefree teen idol she was in 1999 and 2000. “Lucky” can be interpreted as an autobiographical account of Britney’s own life as a pop star, but even if it really is just a generic look at the hollowness of Hollywood success devoid of real love and happiness, it is still a story told effectively. “Piece of Me,” however, is specifically about Britney’s own struggles, told from her point of view. Released only half a year after the head-shaving incident, the song attacks at the destructive nature of tabloids and paparazzi while the video proves that Britney then in her mid-twenties, wasn’t washed up and could indeed rejuvenate her career. The pop queen lives on.

Nick Drake, “Fruit Tree” (appears on the album Five Leaves Left, 1969). I saved this Nick Drake song for the end because his career exists separate from of the usual progressions of fame and time; his mythic ascent to the ranks of the all-time great British singer-songwriters happened posthumously and “Fruit Tree” seems to foretell this. We hear a fragile-sounding man (then only twenty years old) mourning an artist being “forgotten while you’re here/remembered for a while/A much updated ruin/From a much outdated style” (indicating the lack of public interest in Drake’s low-key folk music) and explaining in the chorus that “Fame is but a fruit tree/So very unsound/It can never flourish/‘Til its stock is in the ground/So men of fame/Can never find a way/’Til time has flown/Far from their dying day.” Is it any surprise that happy-go-lucky hippies weren’t flocking to record stores to buy that song? (Although now that I think about it, perhaps the free-love generation wouldn’t have been a key demographic in London then, which I suppose was the only city selling anything by Nick Drake while he was alive.) As Drake sings the final verse – “Fruit tree, fruit tree/Open your eyes to another year/They’ll all know/That you were here when you’re gone” – the after-the-fact parallels with his own career are obvious. No one bought his albums between 1969 and 1974, but after a decade or so, his genius was realized by critics and musicians alike. Nowadays he is a legend. But evidently he knew on some level that that’s what would happen, didn’t he?

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.