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In Memoriam – August 2011

September 5th, 2011 6 comments

The two most notable deaths in August happened on the same day: the 22nd. I’ve already paid tribute to Nick Ashford (HERE); on the same day that great songwriter passed away, Jerry Leiber died. I don’t think it’s necessary to go into detail about the Leiber & Stoller story other than to say that they had a crucial impact on the development of rock & roll. Leiber was the lyricist, and as such got Elvis Presley to sing the great line in Jailhouse Rock: “Number 47 said to number 3,’You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I
sure would be delighted with your company, come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me.'”

Billy Grammer died at 85. Fans of The Originals will appreciate the song in this mix: Grammer’s I Wanna Go Home later became a hit for Bobby Bare as Detroit City. Grammer played at the rally during which the racist Alabama governor and presidential hopeful George Wallace was shot. Grammer apparently wept after the incident, suggesting that his views on race relations were less than entirely endearing.

Akiko Futaba, one of Japan’s most popular singers, had a lucky break in utter tragedy on 6 August 1945. Just as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the train she was travelling in entered a tunnel. The singer, who had started recording in 1936, lived to the age of 96.

In May, we lost Bob Flanigan of the pioneering vocal group The Four Freshmen; this month the last surviving member of the original line-up, Ross Barbour, died at the age of 82. Through many changes in the line-up, Flanigan and Barbour remained Freshmen until the latter’s retirement in 1977.

I don’t often include recored executives in the In Memoriam series, but there are two this month who qualfy. Rich Fitzgerald, who has died at 64, had a massive influence on pop music. In the 1970s he worked for RSO, with whom he helped spearheaded the massively-selling Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks (and, later, that of Fame). After RSO, he ended up via a handful of record companies as vice-chairman of Warner Bros. Along the way, he helped give artists such as The Pretenders, Prince, Madonna and Green Day achieve their breakthrough.

Frank DiLeo was a executive at Epic Records where he nurtured the careers of acts like Meat Loaf, Luther Vandross, Gloria Estefan, Cyndi Lauper, REO Speedwagon and Quiet Riot, as well as the US success of The Clash and Culture Club. He was twice Michael Jackson’s manager, in the late 1980s and at the time of Jackson’s death. And he played Tuddy Cicero in GoodFellas, impressing as Paulie’s brother who executes Joe Pesci’s obnoxious Tommy character. He also appeared in Wayne’s World.

Finally, it’s not at all usual to include non-musicians on account of their being the subject of a song. But in the case of William ‘Stetson’ Kennedy I must make an exception. The human rights activist’s infiltration of the Ku Klax Klan helped bring down the racist organisation and made it his mission to expose racists. Woody Guthrie wrote a song named after Kennedy.

Trudy Stamper, 94, Grand Ole Opry artist relations manager and first female presenter on US radio, on July 30
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Grand Ole Opry Song (1972)
Grand Ole Opry Intro (Prince Albert Theme) (1940)

DeLois Barrett Campbell, 85, singer with gospel group The Barrett Sisters, on August 2

Andrew McDermott, 45, singer of English metal group Threshold, on August 3

Conrad Schnitzler, 74, German musician (Tangerine Dream, Kluster), on August 4

Marshall Grant, 83, country bassist (in the Tennessee Two/Three with Johnny Cash) and manager (Cash, Statler Brothers), on August 6
Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two – Cry Cry Cry (1955)
Leo Mattioli, 39, Argentine cumbia singer, on August 7
Leo Mattioli – Despues de ti (2006)

Joe Yamanaka, 64, Japanese rock singer, on August 7
Joe Yamanaka – Mama Do You Remember

Billy Grammer, 85, country singer-songwriter and guitarist, on August 10
Billy Grammer – I Wanna Go Home (1963)

Jani Lane (born John Kennedy Oswald), 47, frontman of US glam-metal band Warrant, on August 11
Warrant – Cherry Pie (1990)

Richard Turner, 27, British jazz trumpeter (Round House), on August 11
Rich Fitzgerald, 64, record executive, on August 15
Frankie Valli – Grease (1978)

Akiko Futaba, 96, Japanese singer, on August 16

Kampane, 33, New York rapper, murdered on August 16

Ross Barbour, 82, last original member of barbershop band The Four Freshmen,
The Four Freshmen – It Happened Once Before (1953), on August 20
Jerry Leiber, 78, legendary songwriter and producer, on August 22
Elvis Presley – I Want To Be Free (1957, as lyricist)
The Clovers – Love Potion Number 9 (1959, as lyricist and co-producer)
The Exciters – Tell Him (1962, as co-producer)
Donald Fagen – Ruby Baby (1982, as lyricist)

Nickolas Ashford, 70, soul singer, songwriter and producer as Ashford & Simpson, on August 22
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – You’re All I Need To Get By (1968, as songwriter)
Ashford & Simpson – Street Corner (1982)

Glen Croker, 77, singer and lead guitarist of honky tonk band The Hackberry Ramblers (joined in 1959), on August 23

Cephas Mashakada, 51, Zimbabwean sungura musician, on August 23
Esther Gordy Edwards, 91, Motown executive who lent brother Berry Gordy the money to start Motown, and founder of the Hitsville USA museum, on August 24
Rod Stewart – The Motown Song (1990)

Frank DiLeo, 63, music executive, ex-manager of Michael Jackson and actor (GoodFellas, Wayne’s World), on August 24

Laurie McAllister, 53, bassist in The Runaways (post-1978) and founder of The Orchids, on August 25

Liz Meyer, 59, US-born and Netherlands-based blugrass singer, on August 26

William Stetson Kennedy, 94, author who helped bring down the KKK and subject of a Woody Guthrie song, on August 27
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Stetson Kennedy (2000)
Johnny Giosa, 42, drummer of hard rock band BulletBoys, on August 28
BulletBoys – For The Love Of Money (1988)

George Green, 59, songwriter (especially with John Cougar Mellencamp), on August 28
John Cougar – Hurts So Good (1982, as co-writer)

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, 96, Delta blues guitarist and singer, on August 29
David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – West Helena Blues (1988)

Alla Bayanova, 97, Russian singer, on August 30
Alla Bayanova – Wolga
Alla Bayanova – Romance Ya ehala domo

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(Mirror 1 Mirror 2)

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Caught up in the rapture

May 21st, 2011 5 comments

The world is ending today. In fact, it might end before I get to post this, or before you get to download these five songs. It’s the day of Rapture. And we tend to get a lot of those these days. Yesterday Any Minor Dude said to me: “You can’t predict the end of the world.” Like the pedantic shit that I am, I reponded: “Oh, you can predict. You can always make a prediction, but most likely you’ll be wrong if you try and predict the last day of the world.” So whichever crazy cult said the world would end on 21 May will probably have made a wrong prediction. They’ll certainly feel pretty stupid if the world ends on Monday.

In any case, if the world were to end, it would be the Good News, because Jesus would come to save the righteous — and by mere dint of reading this blog, you are righteous. The Rapture thing is really what others call Judgment Day. So here are a few songs riffing on that theme, in lieue of Blondie and Anita Baker.

The Rance Allen Group – There’s Gonna Be A Showdown (1972)
Great stomper by gospel-soul/funk guys who turned The Temptations Just My Imagination into Just My Salvation on Covered With Soul Vol. 5.

Johnny Cash – Redemption Day (released 2010)
Recorded shortly before his death, the devout Christian Cash gets ready for the Judgment. “There is a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gate… And on the way, child and man and woman wait, watch and wait, for redemption day.”

Over The Rhine – The Trumpet Child (2007)
“The trumpet child will blow his horn, will blast the sky till it’s reborn. With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace, he will surprise the human race.”

The Carter Family – When Our Lord Shall Come Again (1939)
The original Carter Family turn up on radio in 1939 to sing a hymn by Johnson Oatman Jr.(1856-1922) with music by R.L. Ferguson. “When upon the clouds of heaven Christ shall come to earth again; will the world be glad to see Him, when our Lord shall come again?”

Arizona Dranes – He’s Coming Soon (late 1920s)
Early gospel-blues legend makes a prediction. If the world ends today, she’ll be just 80-something years late.

Albums of the Year: 2010

December 16th, 2010 8 comments

A few months ago I complained that few albums released this year had grabbed me; suddenly there came an avalanche of quality albums that compensated for my disappointment in sets by some favourite artists that I had looked forward to.

I have not been able to get on with the Ben Folds and Nick Hornby collaboration, much as I am a Folds fan and as I like Hornby’s books. Joshua Radin’s album is decent enough, but it did not attract the affection I had for his debut album. Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with Jonathan Rice bored me. Even the Weepies’ album, which does make it into my top 20, will not become my favourite of theirs.

I am quite sad to leave out of my Top 20 a few albums that could have been contenders in previous years: Shelby Lynne, Josh Ritter, Patty Griffin, Plants & Animals, Krista Detor, Audrey Assad, Belle & Sebastian, Leif Vollebekk, Merle Haggard, She & Him (which I took a while to like) and Bruno Mars.

So, on to my top 20, which is rather dominated by the Americana and country thing. It comprises albums I enjoy playing; it’s not intended to be a list of the year’s best albums, nor are they the most groundbreaking or experimental releases. These albums simply just gave me joy (which is why I listen to music). The songs listed with the album appear in the compilation linked to at the end of this post.

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Lloyd Cole – Broken Record
The music mags’ reviews were respectfully lukewarm to what is a hugely appealing set. This warm and intelligent album is Lloyd’s county record, with slide guitars, banjos and harmonicas. Funny enough, it’s a song called Rhinestone that sounds least like country and most like Cole’s stuff with the Commotions (one of whom turns up in this album). Lyrically, the album is standard Cole with clever turns of phrase and endearing self-deprecations. The vocals of Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman) are much welcome. Homepage
Lloyd Cole – Like A Broken Record
Lloyd Cole – Oh Geneviève

Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
Brian Wilson reports his earliest musical memory as hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue (which bookends this set). It makes sense that the great American songwriter of the ’60s should record an album of music by the great American songwriter of the ’30s. The standards – They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Someone to Watch Over Me, I Got Rhythm, It Ain’t Necessarily So etc – are engagingly recreated, and even the overdone Summertime, so often violated by mannered interpretations, is bearable here. Of particular interest are the previously unrecorded Gershwin songs, completed by Wilson at the invitation of Gershwin’s estate. Wilson’s style is so distinctive that it is difficult to imagine how they might have sounded in interpretations by, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. They are nonetheless quite lovely. One of these originals, The Like In I Love You, sounds a lot like a song from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. Homepage
Brian Wilson – I’ve Got A Crush On You

Caitlin Rose – On The Town
Caitlin Rose is receiving massive buzz, deservedly so. The Nashville native’s debut album recalls Tift Merritt at her country-folkiest: mellow melodies and vulnerable vocals. It’s a mature album that belies Rose’s 23 years – even if some of these songs were written when Caitlin was a teenager. Homepage
Caitlin Rose – Own Side

Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
Mavis and her family are probably best known for soul hits such as Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There, but their primary genre was gospel. Now 71 years old, Mavis continues to work the gospel beat, using the genre’s traditional sounds as well as new approaches. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy — who on tracks such as In Christ There Is No East Or West marries the Wilco sound with the gospel sensibilities which Pop Staples would have approved of with— You Are Not Alone will rightly feature high on many end-of-year lists. Homepage
Mavis Staples – In Christ There Is No East Or West

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses – Junky Star
I know a music journalist who has stated his objection to musicians going by their civilian names if these sound like those of school teachers. My pal might not review Ryan Bingham’s album because of his name, though his interest might be peaked that it also serves as George Clooney’s character’s name in Up In The Air. Or he might listen up because Bingham has won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his song The Weary Kind, the theme song of the film Crazy Heart. Don’t expect Junky Star to be a pure country album; this is Steve Earle and  Tom Waits territory, before Waits’ voice became excruciating. One almost expects Bingham, blessed with a gruff, expressive voice himself, to likewise lose his voice by the end of this powerful album. Homepage
Ryan Bingham – Depression

Dylan LeBlanc – Paupers Fields
If the critics are right, 20-year-old Dylan LeBlanc is the new saviour of the country music heritage. The happy news is that, despite his age and name, this is no male version of Taylor Swift, whose primary relationship with country resides in marketing, nor is he likely to don a black Stetson, wifebeater and sing masculine tunes about the good ole U S of A. LeBlanc is a serious country musician, of the Gram Parsons or Townes van Zandt school (true enough, Emmylou Harris turns up to lend harmonies on one track, which also invites comparison to another much-hyped prodigy, Conner Oberst). His young age is no issue: he sounds much more mature than a lad just out of his teens. Even if he doesn’t sing from experience – if he does, then he has lived the life of a man twice his age – his delivery is credible. Homepage
Dylan LeBlanc – If Time Was For Wasting

Bill Kirchen – Word To The Wise
A veteran musician and guitar maestro who released his first solo record in 1972 and not much else before 2007’s brilliantly titled Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods, Kirchen has issued a fun rock & roll album with the likes of Nick Lowe, Chris O’Connell, Maria Muldaur and Elvis Costello collaborating. It’s unfair, actually, to reduce the album to rock & roll: it draws from the traditions in the melting pot that produced the genre: blues, rockabilly, boogie woogie, honky tonk. It’s an eclectic album: opener Bump Wood sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis, it is followed by a Merle Haggard ballad, which in turn is followed by a blues-rock number with Elvis Costello, and so on. His duet with Asleep At The Wheel’s O’Connell, Roger Miller’s Husbands and Wives, is particularly well executed. Homepage
Bill Kirchen (with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack) – Shelly’s Winter Love

Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise
The reviewers’ meme with this album refers to Neil Young, Harvest era. If so, then I’m grateful that Lamontagne has a raspier voice than whiney Neil. Lamontagne’s fourth album is folk-rock, but heavily country influenced. Maybe a reference to the Byrds would be more apt. And when Lamontagne slows things down (even more), one might recall Joni Mitchell. A most captivating album. Homepage
Ray Lamontagne and the Pariah Dogs – Devil’s In The Jukebox

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer
Regular readers will be in no doubt about my abiding love for the rich repository of soul music, but I have little patience for the current crop of high-pitched auto-tuned R&B gubbins, nor for stylised retro singers like Amy Whitehouse or the frog-voiced Duffy. Even John Legend, who does understand his soul heritage, doesn’t excite me. I am, however, hugely excited by the Gnarls Barkley singer’s album, which draws from different eras of soul. On It’s OK he sounds like namesake Al on Motown steroids, Old Fashioned draws from the 1960s, Bodies recalls Bobby Womack, Cry Baby and Satisfied a nods to ’80s soul-pop. Green has a couple guests on his album, but none are likely to blind him with dental bling, brag about their wealth or threaten to bust caps in his ass. Paradiso Girls’ Lauren Bennett turns up; it’s a delicious irony that the author of the ubiquitous Don’t Cha gets a member of a Pussycat Dolls knock-off band to guest. The other guest is Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, on a song that sounds more contemporary  than most of the material here. It’s also a funny album: when Cee Lo subtitles the title track “Licence To Kill” it seems to be a tongue-in-cheek finger at his cliché-mongering R&B contemporaries, and the Gold Digger reference in the fantastic Fuck You is inspired. Homepage
Cee Lo Green – It’s OK

Raul Malo – Sinners and Saints
The former Mavericks frontman’s sixth solo album is eclectic, to say the least. Opener Living For Today sounds like Little Feat jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd; that’s followed by the mariachi horns and telecaster guitar dominated title track, followed by a Tex-Mex rocker, then a country song performed as if by Springsteen (Rodney Crowell’s Til I Gain Control Again),  later a Spanish ballad, and so on. Raul Malo, a multi-instrumentalist whose powerful voice is full of character, clearly enjoyed making this album. And the result is hugely agreeable. Homepage
Raul Malo – Living For Today

The Watson Twins – Talking To You Talking To Me
Chandra and Leigh Watson (who actually are twins) harmonise the hell out of catchy tracks with shots of experimentation that takes them over the alt.county boundaries of their reputation, at times sounding like Sade if she was an Indie musicians (Savin’ Me, Harpeth River). And, yes, there are songs where they sound like Rilo Kiley, whose frontwoman Jenny Lewis they backed on their fine 2006 collaboration (Savin’ You). Homepage
The Watson Twins – Devil In You

Johnny Cash – American VI:  Ain’t No Grave
Seven years after Johnny Cash died, we get another collection of his Rick Rubin-produced American series, apparently the final release. It is a fine way of going out. There’s nothing new here, but the special poignancy of knowing that Cash recorded these ten songs in the four months between the death of his beloved June in May 2003 and his own in September, with Cash acutely aware of his mortality without descending into morbidity, and to the end insisting on communicating his deep religious faith. Some songs I can live without (Aloha Oe!), and some cannot compete with the previous versions (Kristofferson’s For The Good Times). But the minimalist arrangements and intimacy of Cash’s fragile yet forceful and soulful voice wrap the songs in a warmth and appealing sense of yearning. Buy
Johnny Cash – Redemption Day

Lissie – Catch A Tiger
Lissie Mauros reminds me a lot of Neko Case, with a heavy dose of ’80s pop influence. Or maybe Stevie Nicks, in attitude and voice – In Sleep sounds like Fleetwood Mac ripping off Blondie (Atomic-era). And, seeing as I’m grappling to find comparison to female singers, there’s a hint of Nicole Atkins, if the wonderful Atkins was a folk-rock singer. Almost every song here is utterly catchy, some even exhilaratingly poppy  (Loosen The Knot, Stranger). Homepage
Lissie – Stranger

Carl Broemel – All The Birds Say
As guitarist and some-time saxophonist of My Morning Jacket, Carl Broemel was not an obvious candidate for the release of a solo album, much less such a sweet one. This, his second solo effort after 2004’s Lose What’s Left, is a perfect Sunday morning record; played while one sips the morning coffee, bites into the croissant and opens the newspaper. Think of it as a lighter version of Ron Sexsmith, an artist influenced (and highly rated) by Paul McCartney, as clearly is Broemel. Homepage
Carl Broemel – Enough

Willie Nelson – Country Music
This is a T-Bone Burnett-produced tribute to the country songs that reside in the juke box of Willie Nelson’s memory. Cover albums are a precarious beast. Some artists feel they need to re-interpret, re-invent and update the songs they profess to love. Others will give us the very best in karaoke. Nelson just damn well sings the songs, straight and without bullshit. He knows these songs and their context, and preserves them there. The sound is timeless. And some of the song choices are inspired. Homepage
Willie Nelson – Satisfied Mind

Crowded House – Intriguer
The trouble with Crowded House is that their songs are really made to be heard live. The second post-reunion album is something of a grower. The hooks that at first seem to be absent reveal themselves over time. The album was produced by Jim Scott, who also produced Wilco’s last album. It shows, even as the album is very recognisably a Crowded House effort. Homepage
Crowded House – Twice If You’re Lucky

Walt Cronin – California I Gotta Run
Already in his 50s Walt Cronin’s gravelly baritone and sound reflect the experience of life, wistfully and defiantly. “I would never count the days of my life, but I’ll always let the dawn greet my eyes,” the former medic in the Vietnam war sings in Shinin’ Through, one of several sweet love songs on this most appealing set. Homepage
Walt Cronin – Road I’m Takin’

Tift Merritt – See You On The Moon
I am bound to love an album that kicks off with a song about making a mix-tape (“with home-made covers”). Of Merritt’s three preceding studio albums, two were filled with slow-burning ballads, one was a rootsy affair. See You On The Moon has a bit of both; she is both plugging into the templates of both Harris and Ronstadt (even if she has evidently departed the world of county). I expected that her cover of Loggins & Messina’s Danny’s Song would make me wince; happily it is tender and amiable. Homepage
Tift Merritt – The Things That Everybody Does

The Weepies – Be My Thrill
In this post’s introduction I declared myself vaguely disappointed by Be My Thrill, but this is only in relation to the album’s three predecessors. Like them, Be My Thrill is very likeable. Deb Talan and Steve Tannen are happily married, have a happy family and are (no surprise twist coming up) very obviously happy (“I was made for sunny days,” Talan sings, “and I was mad for you”). The streaks of darkness from the debut have been usurped by all the colours of the rainbow. The album is relentlessly happy (with the jarring exception of Tannen’s “How Do You Get High?”) and unless one’s demeanour is governed by inexorable melancholy, the occasional burst of happiness can be richly welcome. So Be My Thrill is a bit like a double strawberry milkshake.  Homepage
The Weepies – Please Speak Well Of Me

Sahara Smith – Myth Of The Heart
T-Bone Burnett is on a golden streak. Among his protégés is Texan Sahara Smith, a former child prodigy who has been writing songs since she was 14. Blessed with a beautiful and expressive voice, Smith writes smart lyrics set to appealing melodies, some of them very memorable. Train Man sounds much like Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. Smith might have a name that conjures images of pop muppetry, but she is a very talented artist who has created an impressive debut. MySpace
Sahara Smith – Are You Lonely

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Previous Albums of the Year

Murder songs Vol. 3

September 14th, 2010 4 comments

When we read about a vicious crime, our sympathy extends to the victim’s family and we grieve the loss of another fragment of our innocence as humanity’s capacity for cruelty relentlessly chips away at the “heile Welt” of our childhood. But rarely do our thoughts concern those who love the criminal, whose loss of a loved one to the wheels of justice may be compounded by their own incomprehension at the act, the social stigma and indignity of their association with the criminal (the family’s final visit to the condemned man in Dead Man Walking drives that home powerfully), and possibly economic hardship. And with that out of the way, let’s meet some killers.

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Clyde Arnold – Black Smoke And Blue Tears (1961).mp3
In Clyde Arnold’s superb 1961 rockabilly song, the narrator recalls boarding a train to commence his sentence for murdering a man in a gambling dispute (“I didn’t mean to kill him. Why did he have to die?”). On the platform he gives his darling a last kiss goodbye — “I tried to hide my handcuffs, she tried to hide her tears” — before he boarded the train of the black smoke which with the blue tears in his yes obscure his last vision of the girl.

It’s been a while since then, and she has evidently moved on. “Seems like a hundred years have passed since that sad, sad day. I guess by now she’s forgotten me, since I’ve been away.” But he has not forgotten. “Lookin’ through the bars tonight, dark clouds in the sky,remind me of that coal black smoke and blue tears in my eyes.”

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Johnny Cash – 25 Minutes To Go (live, 1969).mp3
We don’t know the crime of Cash’s narrator, but we know that “they’re building a gallows outside my cell; I’ve got 25 minutes to go”. Other than high treason, you presumably get executed only for murder in the US. The narrator counts down the final 25 minutes before his execution. We learn that his last meal was beans, that his appeals are unsuccessful, that he spits a mocking sheriff in the eye (to the delight of the audience at Folsom Prison), that the trap and rope are being checked, that he does not want to die but eventually he must go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o… I’m not sure whether the song is necessarily an anti-capital punishment statement, but the black humour barely masks the inhumanity of a man counting down the minutes till his carefully appointed death.

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Alice Cooper – Killer (1971).mp3
Alice Cooper’s narrator is feeling rather sorry for himself. “What did I do to deserve such a fate?” See, somebody handed him a gun. It’s always somebody else’s fault (except in Johnny Cash’s songs. He always takes the rap). The narrator says he “didn’t really want to get involved in this thing”. But he did, and now he is facing the consequences for his crime, no matter his complaining that nothing ever came easy. Poverty and hardship may explain crime, perhaps even justify petty crimes, but not everybody who is poor becomes a violent criminal. We all have a choice. So much for the lyrics. The sound of the song hints at an alternative reality: it sounds to me as though the narrator is descending into madness. Was he mentally ill when he committed the crime? Is he now committing suicide (“Now I need to escape. Someone near me, calling my name.”).

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More Murder Songs

2010 listening

September 7th, 2010 1 comment

Last year I wrote a series of my ten favourite albums in each year of the past decade. When the ’10s end, I’ll be stuck to produce a list for 2010. I’ve fallen off Planet Latest Releases, encountering the occasional new release by accident or recommendation. I am looking forward to getting my hands on the new album by the lovely Weepies (out 31 August), and I’m intrigued to hear Ben Folds’ collaboration with the writer Nick Hornby, which is scheduled for release later this month. Some albums I looked forward to have disappointed me (Josh Rouse, where are you going?). Here then are a couple of albums from 2010 that made me prick up my ears.

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Willie Nelson – Country Music

Willie Nelson lost me before he could have had me when he did that duet with Julio Iglesias, who was as uncool as uncool would ever get (and collaborator of promiscuous character, Willie has duetted indiscriminately with some pretty dodgy characters). I never liked On The Road Again much, nor his version of Always On My Mind.  It was only when I became familiar with his 1960s output that I began to appreciate Willie Nelson — and how much I missed by writing him off for crooning with greasy grannies’ favourites.

Country Music, his T-Bone Burnett-produced tribute to the country songs that reside in the juke box of his memory may be my favourite Nelson collection. Cover albums are a precarious beast. Some artists feel they need to re-interpret, re-invent and update the songs they profess to love. Others will give us the very best in karaoke. Nelson just damn well sings the songs, straight and without bullshit. He knows these songs and their context, and preserves them there. The sound is timeless. And some of the song choices are inspired, including that of one of my all-time favourites, Al Dexter’s Pistol-Packing Mama (which we’ll revisit in the history of country series, as well as the Delmore Brothers’ Freight Train Boogie). I love Nelson’s version of Merle Travis’ Dark As The Dungeons, which is probably better known in  Johnny Cash’s version on the Folsom Prison album. (Buy it here)
Willie Nelson – Dark As The Dungeons.mp3
Willie Nelson – Pistol-Packing Mama.mp3

Johnny Cash – American VI – Ain’t No Grave

How much is enough? Seven years after Johnny Cash died, we get another collection of his Rick Rubin-produced American series. Did Cash really die, or is he speaking to us from the beyond, the way Tupac Shakur did with such punctual regularity? Apparently this is the final release in the series, and it is a fine way of going out. There’s nothing new here but the special poignancy of knowing that Cash recorded these ten songs in the four months between the death of his beloved June Carter’s in May 2003 and his own in September, with Cash acutely aware of his mortality without descending into morbidity, and to the end insusting on communicating his deep religious faith. Some songs I can live without (Aloha Oe!), and some cannot compete with the previous versions (Kristofferson’s For The Good Times). But the minimalist arrangements and intimacy of Cash’s fragile yet forceful and soulful voice wrap the songs in a warmth and appealing sense of yearning. Like Pistol-Packing Mama, the original of Cool Water will feature in the history of country very soon.
Johnny Cash – Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream.mp3
Johnny Cash – Cool Water.mp3

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Walt Cronin – California I Gotta Run

One of my favourite songs of the last decade was 2005’s A Desperate Cry for Help by the sadly rather obscure and now disbanded alt-country group The Beauty Shop. Walt Cronin’s third album reminds me a lot of the Beauty Shop, right down to his gravelly baritone and lovely Americana arrangements. Already in his 50s — this post so far seems to specialise in grey follicles — Cronin’s voice and sound reflect the experience of life, wistfully and defiantly. “I would never count the days of my life, but I’ll always let the dawn greet my eyes,” the former medic in the Vietnam war sings in Shinin’ Through, one of several sweet love songs on this most appealing set. (Walt Cronin’s homepage)
Walt Cronin – If My Words.mp3
Walt Cronin – Shining Through.mp3

Berry Jones – Tonight

And moving away from silver foxes with guitars, here’s Philadelphia band Berry Jones who wanted to see if “we can try to make Thriller in a basement; like, can we get Quincy Jones-era production techniques on a shoe string budget” (the band’s name pays tribute to Quincy and Berry Gordy). Of course, with modern digital technology it is much easier to produce effects which a Quincy Jones would have to apply his genius to achieve. One need only listen to Sweden’s Loney, Dear to hear what wonderful sounds can be produced by one man in his bedroom (in terms of music, I mean). Indeed, Berry Jones’ opening track, Work It Out, starts a bit like a Loney, Dear song. But quickly it becomes a pop number that recalls the 1980s. It’s all an upbeat stew of different ‘80s influences, from Culture Club and Shalamar to two-tone to indie – and, yeah, Michael Jackson (especially on Philly Nights) — and a dash of Gordy’s Motown.  The vocals call to mind The Cure’s Robert Smith. The album might not quite evoke the genius of Quincy Jones, but the first half of it is a fine set of numbers to play while dressing for a party or on the way to the beach, and the soul-infused second half when coming home from the party or from the beach. (Berry Jones’s homepage)
Berry Jones – Philly Nights.mp3
Berry Jones – Your Old Ways.mp3

Dana Wells – The Evergreen EP

Here I’m cheating a bit: The Evergreen EP came out in 2009. But singer-songwriter Dana Wells is so talented, I want to include her in this selection. Dana may be young — just out of her teens — but this is no Taylor Swift. The Washington Post’s reviewer might need a better sub-editor, but suggested rightly that “there’s a settled maturity to the lyrics and tempered voice of this strummy smartie that’s usually reserved for older artists”. Let’s not be put off by the language of “strummy smartie” (who writes that kind of rubbish, and what editor passes it?). Wells is an engaging singer; one wants to get to know her. Her voice and delivery are very appealing, reminiscent of the lovely Mindy Smith. And, somehow, I really like Dana’s diction. It’s not easy for singer-songwriters to break through, but with her talent and beauty, Dana Wells might just be one who will make it big. (Dana Wells on MySpace)
Dana Wells -Watching Winter Melt Away.mp3
Dana Wells – Leave Me.mp3

Last year I wrote a series of my ten favourite albums in each year of the past decade. When the ’10s end, I’ll be stuck to produce a list for 2010. I’ve fallen off Planet Latest Releases, encountering the occasional new release by accident or recommendation. I am looking forward to getting my hands on the new album by the lovely Weepies (out 31 August), and I’m intrigued to hear Ben Folds’ collaboration with the writer Nick Hornby, which is scheduled for release later this month. Some albums disappointed me (Josh Rouse, where are you going?). Here then are a couple of albums from 2010 that made me prick up my ears, and a couple of songs by a singer-songwriter of whom I will want to hear more.

Willie Nelson – Country Music
Willie Nelson lost me before he could have had me when he did that duet with Julio Iglesias, who was as uncool as uncool would ever get (and collaborator of promiscuous character, he has duetted with some pretty dodgy character). I never liked On The Road Again or his version of Always On My Mind.  It was only when I became familiar with his 1960s output that I began to appreciate Willie Nelson — and how much I missed by writing him off for crooning with greasy grannies’ favourite Iglesias.

Country Music, his T-Bone Burnett-produced tribute to the country songs that reside in the juke box of his memory may be my favourite Nelson collection. Cover albums are a precarious beast. Some artists feel they need to re-interpret, re-invent and update the songs they profess to love. Others will give us the very best in karaoke. Nelson just damn well sings the songs, straight and without bullshit. He knows these songs and their context, and preserves them there. The sound is timeless. And some of the song choices are inspired, including that of one of my all-time favourites, Al Dexter’s Pistol-Packing Mama (which we’ll revisit in the history of country series, as well as the Delmore Brothers’ Freight Train Boogie). I love Nelson’s version of Merle Travis’ Dark As The Dungeons, which is probably better known in  Johnny Cash’s version on the Folsom Prison album. (Buy it here)
Willie Nelson – Pistol-Packing Mama.mp3
Willie Nelson – Dark As The Dungeons.mp3

Johnny Cash – American VI – Ain’t No Grave
How much is enough? Seven years after Johnny Cash died, we get another collection of his Rick Rubin-produced American series. Did Cash really die, or is he ending us messages from the beyond, the way Tupac Shakur did? Apparently this is the final release in the series, and it is a fine way of going out. There’s nothing new here except the special poignancy of knowing that Cash recorded these ten songs in the four months between the death of his beloved June Carter’s and his own, with Cash acutely aware of his mortality without descending into morbidity, and to the end insusting on communicating his deep religious faith. Some songs I can live without (Aloha Oe!), and some cannot compete with the previous versions (Kristofferson’s For The Good Times). But the minimalist arrangements and intimacy of Cash’s fragile yet forceful and soulful voice wrap the songs in a warmth and appealing sense of yearning.
Johnny Cash – Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream.mp3
Johnny Cash – Cool Water.mp3

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Walt Cronin – California I Gotta Run
One of my favourite songs of the last decade was 2005’s A Desperate Cry for Help by the sadly rather obscure and now disbanded alt-country group The Beauty Shop. Walter Cronin’s third album reminds me a lot of the Beauty Shop, right down to his gravelly baritone and lovely Americana arrangements. Already in his 50s — this post so far seems to specialise in grey follicles — Cronin’s voice and sound reflect the experience of life, wistfully and defiantly. “I would never count the days of my life, but I’ll always let the dawn greet my eyes,” the former medic in the Vietnam war sings in Shinin’ Through, one of several sweet love songs on this most appealing set. (Walt Cronin’s homepage)
Walt Cronin – If My Words.mp3
Walt Cronin – Shining Through.mp3

Berry Jones – Tonight
And moving away from silver fixes with guitars, here’s Philadelphia’s Berry Jones who wanted to see if “we can try to make Thriller in a basement; like, can we get Quincy Jones-era production techniques on a shoe string budget” (the band’s name pays tribute to Quincy and Berry Gordy). Of course, with modern digital technology it is much easier to produce effects which a Quincy Jones would have to apply his genius to achieve. One need only listen to Sweden’s Loney, Dear to hear what wonderful sounds can be produced by one man in his bedroom (in terms of music, I mean). Indeed, Berry Jones’ opening track, Work It Out, starts a bit like a Loney, Dear song. But quickly it becomes a pop number that recalls the 1980s. It’s all an upbeat stew of different ‘80s influences, from Culture Club and Shalamar to two-tone to indie – and, yeah, Michael Jackson (especially on Philly Nights).  The vocals call to mind The Cure’s Robert Smith. The album might not quite evoke the genius of Quincy Jones, but the first half of it is a fine set of numbers to play while dressing for a party or on the way to the beach, and the soul-infused second half when coming home from the party or from the beach. (Berry Jones’s homepage)
Berry Jones – Philly Nights.mp3
Berry Jones – Your Old Ways.mp3

Dana Wells – The Evergreen EP
Here I’m cheating a bit: The Evergreen EP came out in 2009. But singer-songwriter Dana Wells is so talented, I want to include her in this selection. Dana may be young — just out of her teens — but this is no Taylor Swift. The Washington Post’s reviewer might need a better sub-editor, but suggested rightly that “there’s a settled maturity to the lyrics and tempered voice of this strummy smartie that’s usually reserved for older artists”. Let’s not be put off by the language of “strummy smartie” (who writes that kind of rubbish?). Wells is an engaging singer; one wants to get to know her. Her voice and delivery are very appealing, reminiscent of the lovely Mindy Smith. And, somehow, I really like Dana’s diction. It’s not easy for singer-songwriters to break through, but with her talent and beauty, Dana Wells might just be one who will make it big. (Dana Wells on MySpace)
Dana Wells -Watching Winter Melt Away.mp3
Dana Wells – Leave Me.mp3

Grooving for God

April 1st, 2010 2 comments

It seems appropriate to have a bit of religious music this week. Of course, there is plenty in that vein in the world of pop, and much of it pretty awful. Featured here are seven religious-themed songs that I think are rather good (especially Atomic Telephone), and one of supreme kitsch value.

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Marlena Shaw – The Lord Giveth And The Lord Taketh Away (1974).mp3
The wonderful Marlena Shaw sang some of the finest soul tracks of the late 1960s and ’70s, and is even more popular among the fans of vocal jazz. The Lord Giveth and The Lord Taketh Away, a Shaw composition, appeared as the shortish closer of the first side of her 1974 album, evocatively titled Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?. The album is mostly a soul affair, though on this jazzy gospel track (preceded by her version of Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Making Love) she does the jazz thing with which Diane Schuur later found greater success. The first side of the album in particular is quite special. It starts off with You, Me And Ethel, a very funny satire of an attempted pick-up in a singles bar, and ends with her nod to Lord-praising.

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Johnny Cash – I Saw A Man (live, 1968).mp3
In 1968, Johnny Cash released a concept album based on his pilgrimage with June Carter to the Holy Land. The same year, Cash performed a concert based on the same premise which would be broadcast on the BBC on Boxing Day 1968. June was not there, it seems. But her mother, Maybelle of the Carter Family —  the massively influential country trio that started its career in 1927 — sings on two songs, as do Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, whose non-religious Flowers On The Wall is rather out of place, great song though it is. A concert of religious songs might seem, well, a bit dull. In Cash’s hands, it’s quite brilliant..You can find a vinyl rip of the studio LP (which does not include I Saw A Man) at this very fine blog.

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The Spirit Of Memphis – Atomic Telephone (1952).mp3
The Spirit of Memphis is usually described as a gospel quartet, even though its ever-changing line-up sometimes exceeded that number. The group was active for half a century, beginning in the 1930s. Atomic Telephone was released on King as the b-side of He Never Let Go Off My Hand in 1952, very much reflecting the zeitgeist of the early 1950s. A white quartet, The Harlan County Four, released a cover of Atomic Telephone soon after. “If you are in trouble, and afraid of all mankind, pick up the atomic telephone and get Him on the line.”

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Sufjan Stevens – To Be Alone With You (2004).mp3
Perhaps the coolest Christian in music today (though his friend Damien Jurado is rather admirable too), Sufjan sings about his faith introspectively. You’ll not find much by way of praising the Lord with Sufjan; his relationship with Christ is an intimate affair, and his faith acknowledges the dark side that resides even in the believer. On his song about serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr, he meditates on the inherent sinfulness — the dark side — of everybody, including and especially himself. To Be Alone With You, from the Seven Swans album, might sound like a sweet love song at first, but Sufjan is not addressing a love interest. He is fooling us at first: “I’d swim across Lake Michigan, I’d sell my shoes, I’d give my body to be back again in the rest of the room, to be alone with you.” But in the second verse it becomes clear that he is addressing the crucified Jesus who “went up on a tree”.

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Blind Willie McTell & Kate McTell – God Don’t Like It (1935).mp3
Willie McTell was one of many 1930s blues musicians who incorporated their blindness in their stagename. An accomplished blues guitarist, McTell has influenced not only the usual suspects — Dylan, Allman, Page & Plant et al — but also many modern performers, including Jack White of the White Stripes and Kurt Cobain. The writer of the 1970s hit Streets Of London changed his name from Ralph May to Ralph McTell in homage of the bluesman.

Blind Willie recorded God Don’t Like It in Chicago on April 25 with his wife Kate, whom he had married a year earlier. It was one of the few tracks they cut for Decca before moving on to Vocalion Records. The song condemns the hypocrisy of Christians, including ministers, who preach temperance while getting drunk on moonshine . Far better to feed and clothe the family than to get drunk: “They say that yellow corn makes the best kind of shine. Well, they better turn that corn to bread and stop that makin’ shine.” God doesn’t like alcohol abuse and hypocrisy, nor do the McTells. And they don’t care who’ll get pissed off at their forthrightness: “ I know you don’t like this song just because I speak my mind, but I’ll sing this song just as much as I please, because I don’t drink shine. Now God don’t like it and I don’t either.”

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David Axelrod – Holy Thursday (1968).mp3
Well, it is Holy Thursday, and while this orchestral jazz track might not feed your pieties, it should at least get your toes tapping. That does not mean that the title is irreverent. Axelrod, son of a leftist activist who grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood, wrote and recorded several musical works referencing religion. In 1971 he arranged a jazz-rock interpretation of Handel’s Messiah and in 1993 he titled a work on the Holocaust a “requiem”. I have read that Holy Thursday also featured in Grand Theft Auto V, a game I’ve never played but the soundtracks of which seem quite excellent.

Axelrod has had a massive influence on jazz, in particular fusion. He produced legends such as Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley (including his big hit Mercy, Mercy, Mercy), as well as avant gardists The Electric Prunes. Axelrod, who’ll turn 74 on April 17, still records and performs. Visit his homepage here.

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Jess Willard – Boogie Woogie Preaching Man (1951).mp3
Willard, named after the boxing heavyweight world champion who in 1915 knocked out Jack Johnson, was an associate of Jack Guthrie, Woody’s cousin and a very influential country figure in the 1940s. After Jack died of tuberculosis in 1948, Willard vowed to continue his friend’s legacy. Alas, Willard himself did not have much time left. Having toured and briefly recorded with Eddie Cochran and his brother Hank in the mid-’50s, he died of a heart attack in 1959 at 43. “Get religion while you can, and get it from the Boogie Woogie Preacher Man!” Willard’s preacher, happily, is a nice guy who won’t fleece you on TV (though I must say, that Creflo Dollar dude at least has an honest name) and won’t try and steal your children with hands that sport LOVE and HATE tattoos on the finger knuckles.

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Red Foley – Our Lady Of Fatima (1950).mp3
Next to a local cinema there is a shop that sells kitsch items. Among the novelty clocks, garden gnomes and lava lamps, there is a small selection of Catholic images depicting the Virgin Mary in various apparitions and what looks like a surfer Jesus with wavy blond hair (actually, it’s the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I think). What the hyper-ironic clientele of the kitsch shop probably don’t know is that the very same pictures are for sale, with no irony and much cheaper, at the back of the local Catholic church. Red Foley’s paean to the Marian apparition at Fatima in Portugal is supreme kitsch, capturing the post-war American Catholicism of Bishop Fulton Sheen and The Bells of St Mary’s. Our Lady of Fatima was recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers, whose voices backed something like half of all records recorded in Nashville in the 1950s; Elvis’ pals, The Jordanaires, appeared on the other half. Red Foley was Elvis’ childhood idol: his Old Shep was the first song Elvis Presley ever performed in public, at the age of 10. Foley featured on the Retro Christmas mix with a lament about the absence of Christ in Christmas, and a year after Our Lady Of Fatima had a hit with There’ll Be Peace In The Valley (another Elvis favourite), thereby ushering in country-gospel as a commercial proposition.

And here’s wishing y’all a happy Easter, whichever way you spend it.

Murder songs Vol. 1

March 9th, 2010 8 comments

A few months ago I posted the Louvain Brothers’ version of Knoxville Girl, in which the song’s protagonist kills his girlfriend. Ever since I have held on to the idea of starting a series of songs about murder. There are many obvious ones, but I hope to include a couple of lesser known murder ballads as well. I think the concept might also incorporate songs about death row inmates, for two reasons. Firstly, in the US, where almost all the songs on the subject are based, the death penalty is applied only to individuals who have been convicted of murder; secondly, capital punishment is, in my view, itself an act of murder. No dead men walking in the inaugural post though. Here we have the song with the most famous line about murder in pop, a murder song that became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a song about mental illness leading to the death of a child. Creepy and chilling.

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Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues.mp3
It is probably appropriate to begin the series with the song that features arguably  the most famous line about a murder in popular music: “I killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Now the narrator sits in the titular jail as he listens to a train running by outside. He imagines the passengers “eatin’ in a fancy dining car. They’re prob’ly drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars”. He is regretting his crime, but evidently not because it was evil (Cash wanted to come up with the worst possible motive for killing a man in Reno), but because he can’t be as free as those highly mobile folk on the train. Famously, Cash later played his groundbreaking concert in the prison he sang about, and from which the recording here comes from.

The song might feature in the Copy Borrow Steal series. Cash borrowed the title from a 1951 movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and the melody from Gordon Jenkins 1953 song Crescent City Blues. Jenkins later sued and was received a settlement amount from Cash.

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Pat Hare – I’m Gonna Kill My Baby.mp3
Sometimes fiction becomes fact. In 1954, blues guitarist Pat Hare (born Auburn Hare!) sang a song — a cover of a 1940s song by Dorothy Clayton —  in which he vowed to kill his woman: “Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby — yeah, I’m tellin’ the truth now —‘cause she don’t do nothin’ but cheat and lie.” Eight years later, Hare had just finished a stint as a guitarist in Muddy Waters’ group when he shot dead his girlfriend and a policeman in Minneapolis. Hare was convicted of the murder and died in jail in 1980 at the age of 49.

Hare is not the most famous music man to have killed. There are Sid Vicious and Phil Spector, and of course Charles Manson, who once co-wrote a Beach Boys b-side. And then there are all those rumours about Jerry Lee Lewis and the wives who widowed him, rumours which imply that the man’s self-proclaimed nickname might be read literally. Other musicians who killed include English producer Joe Meek (in a murder-suicide), Little Willie John (who sang the original of Fever), blues legend  Leadbelly (pre-fame, in 1918), Claudine Longet (whose shooting of skier Spider Sabich was ruled accidental) , drummer Jim Gordon (Derek & the Dominos, who killed his mother), rapper Cassidy (convicted of  involuntary manslaughter), western swing performer Spade Cooley (who kicked his wife to death, in front of their daughter!), two members of The Prisonaires (see The Originals Vol. 29), country singer Charles Lee Guy III , ska man Don Drummond, and blues singers Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams.

Apologies for the poor quality of the sound file, by the way.

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Violent Femmes – Country Death Song.mp3
The title of this song almost could provide the title for this series.  The set up here, apparently based on a true event in 1862, is a father’s murder of his daughter, by throwing her down a well. “I led her to a hole, a deep black well. I said: ‘make a wish, make sure and not tell and close your eyes, dear, and count to seven. You know your papa loves you; good children go to heaven.” Then he gives her gently push, never hearing the impact.  Ashamed of himself, he proceeds to hang himself in a barn. Unlike the narrators of the songs by Cash and Hare, the killer here has a fair excuse: he is mentally ill, and kills to protect his daughter from what he perceives to be the evils of this cruel world. The arrangement of this outstanding 1984 track illustrates the father’s descent into homicidal psychosis. Rarely has the banjo, played here by Tony Trischka, sounded so utterly menacing. And a clottish label executive wanted the song dropped because he didn’t like the banjo break (which he mistook for a piano).

Curious Germany Vol. 3

February 9th, 2010 7 comments

In the previous instalments of Curious Germany we noted the tendency in the 1960s of artists re-recording their hits in European languages, particularly in German to cater for the mainland continent’s biggest market. Here are a few more German re-recordings, plus a Motown-goes-Schlager track, a most unexpected cover, pre-Schlager stardom Krautrock, a slightly strange Beatles cover, and another singing footballer.

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The Beatles – Komm, gib’ mir Deine Hand.mp3
The Beatles – Sie liebt Dich.mp3

The Fabs recorded their first record in Germany. Backing Tony Sheridan on his Bert Kaempfert-produced LP, they sang on a couple of songs (Ain’t She Sweet and My Bonnie) and recorded a self-penned instrumental, Cry For A Shadow, on which George Harrison got a writing credit alongside John Lennon (it was intended to be a parody of The Shadows). And, of course, in St Pauli the boys really grew up. And yet, they did not seem to have much of a sentimental attachment to the country that gave them their first international break. A mini-tour of three cities — Munich, Essen and Hamburg — in 1966 was the extent of their concerts there (with typical teutonic subtlety, the sponsors, teen mag Bravo, called it a “Blitz” tour). And the Beatles really did not want to record any of their songs in German, or any other language.

The idea to do so originated with the group’s German label, Odeon, whose executives thought that German-language singles would sell even better than the orginals in their country. The Beatles resisted the instruction to record in German, going as far as not turning up to the booked session in the EMI Pathe Marconi studio in Paris in January 1964. A stern George Martin (who himself thought the idea was stupid) had to remindhis truant boys of their professional obligations before they gathered in the studio the following day, January 29. Komm gib mir eine Hand was quickly recorded to the backing track sent from London, but the instrumentation of the German She Loves You had to be re-recorded because the tape with the original track had been lost. It took 14 takes to record the song. Once they were done, with a little time to kill, the Beatles started work on a new song written by Paul called Can’t Buy Me Love.

The lyrics for the two German songs had been written by singer and TV personality Camillo Felgen under the pseudonym J. Nicolas. Two other non-Beatles are credited: one Montogue on Sie liebt Dich, and a H. Hellmer on the German version of I Want To Hold Your Hand. These credits have long puzzled Beatles historian. It appears that both Heinz Hellmer and Jean Montague (incorrectly spelled on the credits) were additional pseudonyms employed by Felgen, I would guess as a tax dodge.

These credits appeared on the German single release and the US album Something New, on which the German songs incongruously turned up. Subsequent releases, such as Beatles Rarities and Past Masters, credit only Lennon-McCartney.
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Cindy & Bert – Der Hund von Baskerville.mp3
We previously encountered husband-and-wife duo Cindy & Bert in the 1973 installment of the nostalgia series Stepping Back, with a typically horrible Schlager. The pair epitomised square. My grandmother thought Cindy & Bert were delightful. They reminded us of the nice young couple who rented the apartment on the top floor of her house and always paid the rent on time. So Oma would have been shocked to discover that Cindy & Bert’s catalogue included a cover version of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (it need no pointing out that my grandmother would not have been a big Sabbath fan even if — especially if — she knew who they were). The cover photo of the 1970 single, which is not bad, is entirely misleading. Did I mention that Cindy & Bert were considered squares?
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Howard Carpendale – Du hast mich.mp3
Daisy Clan – Glory Be.mp3

In German Schlager history, Howard Carpendale wrote a particularly successful chapter. Unable to hack it in his home country South Africa as an Elvis impersonator, the former shotput champion moved to Germany, learned to speak the language with just enough of a touch of an accent (as I’ve noted before, German audiences really got off on foreign accents; in entertainment, not in shops, pubs or public transport), and became the leading romantic singer of the 1970s and ’80s Schlager scene, selling some 25 million records. None of those 25 million records soiled my collection, I am pleased to say, for I always thought he was a bit of a drip. His first breakthrough came with the standard Schlager Das Mädchen von Seite 1 (The girl from the front page). The flip side, however, was entire unschlagerish, a rocker called Du hast mich (You Have Me), a cover of the song Glory Be by German psychedelic rockers Daisy Clan which sounds like a heavy fuzz-guitared, organ-hammering Santana number. Thanks to my friend Sky, I can’t consider Carpendale as a drip any longer. The dude actually knew how to rock.

Glory Be was the b-side of Daisy Clan’s 1970 single Love Needs Love, apparently the group’s final English-language single (their final release in 1972 was appropriately titled Es geht vorrüber, which could be translated as “It passes on”). The Daisy Clan apparently were Schlager singer Michael Holm and songwriter Joachim Haider, going by the name of Alfie Khan. Holm had his first chart entry in 1962, but did not really break through until late 1969 with his version of the Sir Douglas Quintett’s Mendocino. It seems that his Schlager success put paid to his career as a psychedelic rock musician; Holm enjoyed a long string of Schlager hits (he featured HERE and HERE). Just to prove that not all Schlagersingers are naff fools with bad hair, Holm also collaborated with the eternally cool Giorgio Moroder in a project named, unappetisingly, Spinach. Holm has even been nominated for Grammys three times as part of the ambient music outfit Cusco.

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Dusty Springfield – Auf Dich nur wart’ immerzu.mp3
Like her contemporaries Petula Clark and Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield did a fair number of German recordings. Auf Dich nur wart’ ich ich immerzu (I’m always waiting for you only) was her German version of I Only Want To Be With You, released as a single in July 1964 with a German rendering of Wishin’ And Hopin’ as the b-side. Like most other songs transcribed from English to German, it was not a hit. It was quite usual for the original performer of a French or Italian song to score big successes with their German versions of these — singers such as Mireille Mathieu and Salvatore Adamo made a career of that — but English pop translations rarely impressed the record-buying public. I suspect the reason for that was two-fold. Firstly, pop sounds better in English, its own language; secondly, the German listener could differentiate between a Gilbert Bécaud’s heavy accent interpreting the lyrics and English-language singers not knowing what they were phonetically singing.
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Marvin Gaye – Wie schön das ist.mp3
Marvin Gaye – Sympatica

Motown had their stars record many versions of their songs in Spanish, Italian, French and German. Curious Germany Volume 2 included German covers by the Supremes and by the Temptations. Marvin chipped in with this take on How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). The vocals were usually sung from phonetic lyric sheets, and most international stars who recorded in German did not pay meticulous attention to the standards of their pronunciation. I have no idea whether Marvin Gaye was a polyglot or whether he just gave more of a shit, but he did a better job of it than most of his peers. Wie schön das ist was the b-side of a song Gaye recorded exclusively in German, Sympatica, which was written by Schlager composers Jonny Bartels (not to be confused with singer Johnny Bartel) and Kurt Feltz. So here we have one instance of Motown going Schlager, sort of.
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Katja Ebstein – A Hard Day’s Night.mp3
Katja Ebstein had a reputation as one of Germany’s more sophisticated Schlager stars. When she represented West Germany in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1980, her song was titled Theater. It got nowhere. Ten years earlier the singer born in Poland as Karin Witkiewicz did somewhat better, coming third with the rather good Wunder gibt es immer wieder, and repeating the trick the following year with the ecological number Diese Welt (see, it wasn’t only Marvin Gaye who was concerned). The international exposure helped her maintain an international career, recording in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, English and even Japanese.

Ebstein’s rather peculiar version of A Hard Day’s Night preceded her breakthrough by a year; she was still something of a leftist activist (she still is; in the 1980s she was arrested for taking part in a blockade of a US nuclear arms depot; in 2003 she demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq). Released in 1969 on the Katja album (the legend Twen on the cover advertises a youth magazine which promoted the LP), the Beatles cover was the set’s only English-language track. In her hands, the hard day was suffered not by her but by a unspecified him, and the whole shebang includes a strong hint of a Harrison-style eastern vibe.  File under “Interesting Beatles Covers”.

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Johnny Cash – Viel zu spät.mp3
Johnny Cash – Wo ist zu Hause, Mama.mp3

Cash’s 1965 German version of I Walk The Line also featured in the second volume of this series. In 1959, Cash recorded two other German versions of his songs, though neither was released until 1978. Viel zu spät (Much too late) is a take on the murder ballad I Got Stripes; Wo Ist Zu Hause, Mama (Where is home, mom) is the allemanic version of Five Feet High and Rising. Both, it seems, were intended to be released as a single, but I can find no record of their release. Cash’s relationship with Germany went back to the early 1950s, when he was stationed as a GI in Bavaria (it was a local girl who damaged his hearing when she stick a pencil in his ear). And it was there that Cash started to become serious about music.

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Radi Radenkovic – Bin i Radi bin i König.mp3
Here’s an example of an idiosyncratic accent helping to create celebrity on the football pitch and in the pop charts. Yugoslav Petar “Radi” Radenkovic was the goalkeeper for the München 1860 football team, which won the German championship in 1966 (the last team playing in blue shirts to do so). The goalkeeper was something of a humorous character on the pitch who had the entertaining tendency to run outside his penalty area to dribble around opponents., He was hugely popular. As one does, he recorded a single to celebrate his celebrity. This frankly quite awful ditty fuses Radenkovic’s guttural Serbian accent with the thick Bavarian dialect which has the rest of Germany (or Prussia, as a Bavarian might counter) amused at its sheer yokelness. The song — literally: “Am I Radi am I king” — does little to suggest that Radenkovic’s parents were in fact fairly successful musicians.

More Curious German

Albums of the Year: 2002

November 4th, 2009 3 comments

Goodness, wasn’t 2002 a dire year for music? Still, there were some highlights, and doubtless a few gems I missed (as always, I can only include those albums I have and like).
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Johnny Cash – American IV – The Man Comes Around

johnny_cashIn 2005, Any Minor Dude had his first guitar lesson. The tutor, a session musician of some repute, asked the 10-year-old what he wanted to play, probably expecting to hear Green Day or Black Eyed Peas. Any Minor Dude responded: “Johnny Cash”. It had nothing to do with my influence; he had seen the wonderful video for Hurt on MTV, and became an instant fan. Soon after, he bought the Highwaymen CD (Cash’s supergroup with Jennings and Kristofferson) and polished up on older Cash music, even buying a live DVD. I suspect that Hurt, which features on The Man Comes Around, may have introduced many young people to the genius of Johnny Cash. It certainly established this album as the best known of the American recordings.

I don’t know whether it is the best of the series. When I hear it, I think it probably is, especially when I consider that this was released only three months before the man’s death, and so stands as a testament (in a prescient bit of sequencing, the traditional ballad Streets Of Laredo, with its theme of death, burial and redemption, closes the set). But when I hear the first or third American albums, I think whichever one I am listening to is the best. American IV has a few songs that did not need to be recorded, such as Personal Jesus and Bridge Over Troubled Water. But then there are those two extraordinary covers, Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt and Sting’s Hung My Head, which Cash entirely appropriates. Those two and the title track eclipse almost anything in this great Rick Rubin-produced series.
Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around.mp3
Johnny Cash – Streets Of Laredo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – When We Were Small

rosie_thomasFew singers achieve such immediate intimacy with her listeners as Seattle’s Rosie Thomas, whose beautiful, vulnerable voice accompanies sweet acoustic melodies. Lovely though her songs may sound, her lyrics are in turn sardonic, sad and dark. On her debut album, childhood is a running thread, with what seem to be random old family recordings linking tracks. As all her subsequent albums (other than last year’s Christmas album), When We Were Small has a sense of deep yearning for absent contentment, fleeting moment of love to fill in long, lacerating periods of loss felt deeply. If that sounds boring, know that Thomas was signed by Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop, the record label that made grunge, who had caught Rosie singing during her stand-up comedy gigs (what’s that about sad clowns?). This is an astonishing debut, and Rosie would get even better yet.
Rosie Thomas – Wedding Day.mp3

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Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

WILCOMy pick of song from this album will alert the Wilco fan which side of the group I prefer: the alt-country Wilco. There’s some of that on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which many seem to regard as a highpoint of ’00s music. Some Wilco purists may hate me for saying it, but my preference resides with this album’s 1999 predecessor, Summerteeth, or the undervalued Sky Blue Sky. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco go experimental, with noise distortion and electronic innovations, which ordinarily are not my bag. Then what, the reader is entitled to demand, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doing on this list? Well, within the Wilco framework, it’s actually very good, and at times exhilarating as the musical dissonance accompanies the discord in the relationships Tweedy is singing about. It may not be my favourite Wilco album, but I’ll concede that it is the Wilco classic.
Wilco – Jesus, etc.mp3

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Ben Folds – Ben Folds Live

folds_liveNo artist I like ever comes to play where I live (other than Missy Higgins, whose gig I missed, and Counting Crows, whose tickets I couldn’t afford at the time); only megastars and superannuated irrelevancies fly in to fleece the South African consumer (a largely ignorant group of people who think that Coldplay is on the sharp end of the cutting edge). Happily, I had my fill of great concerts when I lived in London. But if I could invite one artist to tour South Africa, it would be Ben Folds, alone on strength of two DVDs and many bootlegs I have of Folds in concert — and this album.

It seems a strange decision for Folds to have recorded a solo live album only one album after having split the Ben Folds Five. So the tracklisting incorporates old BFF numbers (such as the astonishing Narcolepsy, Army, Best Imitation Of Myself, The Last Polka, Brick, and Song For The Dumped), which lose little through the absence of his rhythm section, and material from the solo debut, 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, plus a rather good cover of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. The set includes Folds’ two party pieces: directing the audience to provide backing orchestration to the very funny Army (“Well, I thought about the army; Dad said, ‘Son, you’re fucking high”) and spooky harmonies to Not The Same, the song about a friend who climbed up a tree during a party while on an acid trip and had become a born-again Christian by the time he came down.
Ben Folds – Army (live).mp3 (link fixed)

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Alexi Murdoch – Four Songs

alexi_murdochMaybe I’m cheating by including an EP comprising, as the title suggest, only four songs by Murdoch, who is usually compared to Nick Drake, and reasonable so. But those four songs are excellent; why dilute things with mediocre filler tracks? Having said that, Murdoch’s full debut album, 2006’s Time Without Consequence, turned out to be a consistently fine effort with few fillers. That album featured re-recordings of three of the songs on the EP (and those three also appear in re-recorded form on the recently released Away We Go soundtrack, which also recycles a heap of tracks from Time Without Consequence). From the EP, the moody Orange Sky received a fair amount of exposure on several TV shows and soundtracks — which we must not scorn; the licensing fees from TV shows, soundtracks and commercials feed many excellent musicians.
Alexi Murdoch – Blue Mind.mp3

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Tift Merritt – Bramble Rose

tift_merrittLike soul music, country in the past decade or so has been molded and packaged to turn out generic, corporate slush headlined by the regrettable likes of Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. For the most part, it’s pop that is unconvincingly dressed up as country. The cowboy-hatted diehards may have recourse to perennial Grammy nominees such as Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson, or the bluegrass offerings of Alison Krauss or, lately, Dolly Parton. But beneath the surface of commercial prosperity, country remains vibrant.

Tift Merritt is one of those who work from a rich, venerable tradition without being compromised by the dictates of commercialism. Merritt’s quiet, melodious debut is the most traditional country of her three albums, with slide guitars and the sensibilities of such legends of the genre as Emmylou Harris or Jessi Colter (and, on the rockier songs, Linda Ronstadt) much in evidence. Her second album veered towards bluegrass, and the third album is more accomplished, but this is a very creditable debut.
Tift Merrit – Diamond Shoes.mp3

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Joseph Arthur – Redemption’s Son

joseph_arthurThe Indie singer-songwriter has not produced anything I like since 2004’s Our Shadows Still Remain, but the trio of that album, 2000’s Come To Where I’m From and Redemption’s Son should sustain me in those times when I require a Joseph Arthur fix (actually, I’ve sequenced my favourite tracks from those albums on my iPod). Arthur’s strength resides in his introspective lyrics, much on this set of a Christian bent (of the Sufjan Stevens variety, I hasten to add. The man has his fill of inner conflicts). Musically, he is eclectic and experimental, which is certainly commendable and perhaps expected of a Peter Gabriel protégé, though I can do without the kitchen sink production of some tracks. And the album is a few songs too long. But when it hits the sweet spot, it’s gorgeous.
Joseph Arthur – Honey And The Moon.mp3

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Josh Rouse – Under Cold Blue Stars

josh_rouseI know a venerable music journalist who’ll fling all review albums by anyone called Josh or Joshua (or, indeed, Ben) across the floor. It’s safe to say that the man is not a great fan of the often misunderstood and unjustly maligned singer-songwriter label. Still, I have a feeling he’d like Josh Ritter, though I’m not quite sure whether he would take to Josh Rouse. Certainly the music of this Josh would not conform to his expectation of a guitar strumming singer-songwriter. He might be surprised to hear a musician who creates appealing, intelligent pop numbers, many of which would not have been out of place on early Prefab Sprout albums. Under Cold Blue Stars is a fine album; if it was all Rouse would ever record, I’d regard it as a favourite. It was, however, followed by two outstanding albums, 1972 and Nashville. This set can’t compete with those (but it’s better than the two albums that came after those). I’ve had trouble deciding which song to feature, which is a mark of how good an album this is.
Josh Rouse – Feeling No Pain.mp3 (link fixed)

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Iron & Wine – The Creek Drank The Cradle

iron_wineSam Beam, for he is Iron & Wine, recorded the songs on this album, another debut on Sub Pop, as demos at his Florida home on four-track, and it very much sounds like it. Beam’s almost whispered vocals accompany very pretty but not necessarily memorable melodies. But it’s not that kind of album (whereas the follow-up, 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, had a few of those); you put it on to be immersed by a soothing and ultimately engaging atmosphere, aided by some astutely ambiguous lyrics. The deficiencies in sound quality make sense when Beam borrows from old country and bluegrass, as he does on An Angry Blade and The Rooster Moans, which one might well mistake for some old, lost Appalachian recordings. Indeed, the aural imperfections add to the set’s intimacy.
Iron & Wine – Upward Over The Mountain.mp3

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Counting Crows – Hard Candy

counting_crows_hard_candyThe early ’00s suffered from nostalgia trips by people who grew up in the ’90s: Ben Folds Five devotees who refuse to accept the Ben Folds One, Weezer fans who want Pinkerton perpetually recycled (and, to be fair, the latest Weezer album is awful), and Counting Crows devotees who need to compare every new Crows album to August And Everything After. The latter group was hard on Hard Candy. It may not be the (rather overrated) debut’s equal, but it certainly is more upbeat — and Duritz finally stops going on about the heartbreaking Elisabeth. Admittedly, Hard Candy includes some filler material, but this is the age of WinAmp which allows the listener to re-sequence albums (if only to avoid the ghastly American Girls). If some of the album is frustratingly disappointing, the other half comprises some of Counting Crows’ finest moments. Holiday In Spain is gorgeous, even if the album version is rendered entirely redundant by the gorgeous live version on the New Amsterdam album, which was recorded on the Hard Candy tour. Counting Crows have referenced The Band throughout their career; here their heroes get a namecheck by way of noting Richard Manuel’s death (even if The Band’s late, bearded singer serves only as a MacGuffin to a reflection on a relationship).
Counting Crows – If I Could Give All My Love (Or Richard Manuel Is Dead).mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Heads and senses

November 2nd, 2009 1 comment

iris

Very occasionally a group of people get together on the Touchedmix blog and post mixes on a particular theme. Last week, the theme was HEADS, with their features and their functions. I thought readers of this little corner of the music blogosphere might be interested in the two mixes I banged together.

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OVER MY HEAD MIX
1. Aztec Camera – Head Is Happy (Heart’s Insane) (1985)
2. Crowded House – Pineapple Head (live) (1996/2006)
3. Johnny Cash – Mean Eyed Cat (1996)
4. The Dillards – I’ve Just Seen A Face (1968)
5. The Holmes Brothers – Smiling Face Hiding A Weeping Heart (2006)
6. Paul Anka – Eyes Without A Face (2006)
7. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
8. Justine Washington – I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face (1964)
9. The Flamingos – I Only Have Eyes For You (1959)
10. Mississippi Sheikhs – I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes For You (1938)
11. Robert Mitchum – Mama Looka Boo Boo (Shut Your Mouth-Go Away) (1958)
12. Emile Ford & the Checkmates – Them There Eyes (1960)
13. Lewis Taylor – Blue Eyes (2000)
14. Andrew Bird – A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left (2005)
15. Nada Surf – The Way You Wear Your Head (2002)
16. The Sweet – The Lies In Your Eyes (1975)
17. Ben Folds – Doctor My Eyes (2002)
18. Josh Ritter – One More Mouth (2006)
19. Kaki King – Saving Days In A Frozen Head (2008)
20. The Lilac Time – The Darkness Of Her Eyes (1991)
21. Thomas Dybdahl – Pale Green Eyes (2009)
22. Ryan Adams – Halloweenhead (2007)
23. The Cardigans – Give Me Your Eyes (2005)

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Justine Washington is better known as Baby Washington; this is the original version of the song covered to good effect by Dusty Springfield.

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SENSES WORKING OVERTIME MIX
1. David Bowie – Can You Hear Me (1975)
2. Tim Buckley – I Can’t See You (1966)
3. Herman Düne – I Wish That I Could See You Soon (2006)
4. Devics – If We Cannot See (2006)
5. Richard Hawley – Can You Hear The Rain, Love (2001)
6. Scott Walker – You’re Gonna Hear From Me (1967)
7. The Righteous Brothers – See That Girl (1965)
8. Chris Montez – The More I See You (1966)
9. Cass Elliot – I’ll Be Seeing You (1973)
10. Blind Boy Fuller – What’s That Smells Like Fish (1938)
11. Smiley Lewis – I Hear You Knocking (1955)
12. The Supremes – I Hear A Symphony (1965)
13. Jim Messina – Seeing You (For The First Time) (1979)
14. Baby Huey – Listen To Me (1971)
15. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Taste Of Cindy (1985)
16. K’s Choice – A Sound That Only You Can Hear (1995)
17. Mull Historical Society – Watching Xanadu (2001)
18. Ron Sexsmith & Don Kerr – Listen (2005)
19. Rosanne Cash – I Was Watching You (2006)
20. The Magic Numbers – I See You, You See Me (2005)
21. Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit (2005)

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