Northern Pikes – I Can’t Compare (September 7, 2021)
Known mainly for rocking, sometimes rather cheeky numbers like She Ain’t Pretty, Kiss Me You Fool, and Girl With a Problem, Saskatoon’s own Northern Pikes peaked around 1990 with their double-platinum album Snow in June, disbanded a few years later, then reformed to release Truest Inspiration in 2001, on which appeared this elegant, lovely, and sadly overlooked story of unrequited love tinged with resignation. Musically, it’s a bit of a mash-up, with a melody that sounds a little (or a lot) like a riff on Hagood Hardy’s The Homecoming, of all things (readers of a certain age will remember the famous soundtrack for the 1972 Salada Tea commercial), with a guitar line borrowed from the Beatles’ It’s Only Love repeated at the end, but it’s all brought together into a lush and mournful whole, the like of which no one who knew the group only from its most popular output would have had any reason to expect from them.
Oh, how he longs for this girl…
I’m kissin’ your eyes as you fall asleep
I’m watching you breath so peacefully
I’m dreaming of what will never be
Over and over again
…but it’s hopeless, she’s not into guys like him, i.e. (one gathers) ordinary schmucks who might be a little light in the wallet. Well then, he tells her, pretending she’s listening, if it all falls apart and he drives you away, go with God and grace, but don’t come looking for love around here, ’cause I sure as hell don’t have what you’re looking for. Bitter? Maybe. A little petulant even? O.K., sure, but look, if you can’t be bitter and a little petulant when you’re struggling with the ugly truth that you just don’t make the cut, and your heart’s breaking, well, then I guess I just don’t know.
Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now (September 8, 2021)
Written and performed live by Joni in 1966, Both Sides Now was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1967, and Mitchell’s version wasn’t released until her album Clouds hit the racks in 1969, the same year this angelic performance was captured on the Mama Cass Show, when she was still just 25, and seemed an ethereal being.
She really was looking at clouds when the inspiration hit her, gazing out the window of an airliner, up in the burning blue, from where they always appear so very white and fluffy, very much, she thought, like ice cream castles in the air. On her lap was a novel by Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, in which she’d just read this evocative, philosophically bitter-sweet passage, also about looking down at the cloud deck from high above: I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily. The mood thus set, Joni wrote a song about disillusion, loss, ambivalence and uncertainty, in a voice too old for her years, drawing on a life experience that already included a few hard knocks, including the giving up of her daughter for adoption when she was only 23, a trauma she kept secret for three decades.
It seems like almost everybody recorded a version. Beguiled by the winning melody, artists of every stripe glommed on to what they were sure could land them a hit, including older crooners like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, younger crooners like Neil Diamond, unlikely cover artists like Herbie Hancock and Leonard Nemoy (!), plus Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, and even Doris Day and Nana Mouskouri. Folk singer Judy Collins had the most success with it, reaching #3 on the Easy Listening chart, with a rather over-arranged pop-toonish take that Mitchell herself heartily disliked:
It’s not terrible, I guess, but there’s really no comparison, is there?
The magnitude of Mitchell’s songwriting talent tends sometimes to overshadow appreciation of the beautiful, supple voice with which she graced her compositions, often written specifically to exploit her range and unusual facility with notes in the upper octaves (according to my brief research, she would have been classified as a mezzo-soprano based on her singing above, but later became something closer to a contralto). Her strengths as a lyricist can also distract from her gifts as a melodist and musician, and in particular her expert, innovative guitar playing, in which she employs all sorts of unusual tunings and subtly novel chords. Rolling Stone once ranked her among the best guitarists in history, down at #72, which seems a little low (though she was the highest-placing woman on the list – harumph), but the competition in this category is, after all, fierce.
Both Sides Now may seem rather an obvious choice from such an extensive, varied, and multi-faceted catalogue, but refocusing attention on the usual suspects, and trying to hear them fresh, the better to grasp how they became standards in the first place, is part of the mission statement here at Songs of the Day. It’s pretty much a perfect song, and a very fine piece of pop poetry, and it never hurts to remind oneself that certain works of art can blend in to the day-to-day until they’re about as familiar as old furniture, yet still remain utterly magical.
Blue Rodeo – Falling Down Blue (September 10, 2021)
A touching, sorrowful, achingly beautiful meditation on loneliness and heartbreak, Falling Down Blue, from the 1997 album Tremolo, showcased the band’s ability to move beyond pure country into something closer to soft jazz, the design of its immersively melancholy arrangement fully realized by immaculate (and immaculately recorded) musicianship, with lovely keyboard work, deft plucking of an upright bass, and subtle brushing of the cymbals putting the listener in mind of weary, sleepless nights spent full of regret in the empty rooms still haunted by her former presence. The story’s an old one, and the lyrics are all the more elegant for being so straightforward:
All right I miss you tonight
And I’m not really sure what to say
It keeps rolling in like a slow moving train
It gets harder and harder each day
Each time I think that the worst of it’s through
I am stopped in my tracks by some vision of you
All right I miss you tonight
I admit that I’m falling down blue
No hidden agenda here, and not a lot of subtext, save that you get the sense that the singer, bereft and probably knocking back his ninth shot of bourbon at three in the morning, understands deep down that this is all his own damned fault.
However it happened, and whoever’s to blame, when she left she took along with her a piece of him that was too big to lose. It’s not just that he’s lost. He’s never finding his way back home.
K.D. Lang – After the Gold Rush (September 17, 2021)
Neil Young’s haunting, mysterious, weirdly compelling title track from his epochal 1970 album, lushly arranged and sung here with delicate assuredness by K.D. Lang, who’s one of many to cover it, perhaps without understanding it any better than most of her contemporaries, Young himself included, if you were to believe some of his statements over the years. When Dolly Parton set out to record her own version on a dream team album with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, she decided to grab the bull by the horns, and simply phoned Neil for the explanation. This is from Wikipedia:
“When we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what (the song) meant, and they didn’t know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn’t know. We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.'”
This was, of course, baloney – Neil was either being forgetful, or was simply too weary to give her the straight answer – because After the Gold Rush is actually quite straightforward under its surrealist patina, and concerns exactly what you’d expect from taking in its giveaway line, Look at Mother Nature on the run in the Nineteen-Seventies: it’s a vision of planetary evacuation in the wake of environmental catastrophe, based on the script for a science fiction movie for which Neil hoped to compose the score. Nobody seems to remember how Young got ahold of the now long-lost draft for After the Gold Rush, authored by actor Dean Stockwell, which was written as a sort of Dennis Hopper-inspired hippie cautionary tale about the last days of a doomed California (a state largely formed out of the masses who flocked west in the gold rush of 1849). Of course the movie was never produced, but the script really struck a chord in Young, perhaps in part because its final apocalyptic scenes were set in the Corral, a favourite hang-out of Neil’s in Topanga Canyon, California, where both Young and Stockwell had homes at the time.
Viewed through this lens, the song’s generally mournful tone, and its Noah’s Ark-like imagery of the interplanetary space vessels being loaded to take Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the great beyond, don’t sound at all like the fevered hallucinations of a drug-addled mystic; it’s simply Neil’s dreamy vision of a lost golden age, and what environmental death leading to the end of the world might look like, which these days, as California burns and the East goes underwater, seems almost beyond prescient, and into Nostradamus territory.
The much more spartan original, with its delicate piano and sad, graceful flugelhorn accompaniment (supplied by session player Bill Peterson), remains a thing of pristine beauty, and is attached below.
Hard to believe, but for some, the writing was already that clearly on the wall over 50 years ago.
XTC – The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead (September 18, 2021)
Another of Andy Partridge’s acerbic little pop masterpieces, off the excellent 1992 album Nonsuch. The inspiration for The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead was, believe it or not, provided by an actual pumpkin, a carved Hallowe’en Jack-O-Lantern that Andy had set on a fencepost outside his home. As the days went by, the sagging gourd decayed to the point that he started to feel sorry for it, as if he’d personally victimized the poor, innocent thing, and he began thinking of a song about somebody who’d be cruelly mistreated, somebody about as harmless as that pumpkin had been before he cut an ugly face into its side and left it outdoors to rot like a crucified victim of Roman justice. What sort of person might suffer such a fate? Well, being Andy, he figured that the surest way to attract the deadly wrath of entrenched powerful interests would be to show up somewhere and start doing good works, helping the needy, spreading the truth, preaching charity and kindness, that sort of thing – a guy like that would be utterly intolerable to the key beneficiaries of the status quo, and they’d move quickly to crush him before people started getting bright ideas about equity and consent of the governed, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they just, and they’d be quick about it, too.
So, in comes Peter, like a new sort of Messiah, spreading wealth, happiness, and God’s truth, with no apparent axe to grind, and of course folks eat it up:
Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all
Emptied churches and shopping malls
Where he spoke, it would raise the roof
Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
…and, after various attempts to discredit and smear him (including by cooking up a phony sex scandal, impliedly one involving homosexuality, which Peter defuses by declaring, simply, that any kind of love is all right ), they go for the big hammer solution and “nail him to a chunk of wood”, crucifying him on live TV, thus putting a stop to the subversive nonsense.
There’s nothing more quintessentially XTC-like in their entire oeuvre than that spare, brutal little couplet about making enemies “of the people who would keep us on our knees”. That’s Andy Partridge in a nutshell, right there.
It’s perhaps surprising to hear such upsetting themes and acid observations delivered in such a glossy, jaunty, tuneful little package, but you know, that’s XTC all over too. Just ’cause you’re telling it like it is doesn’t mean you can’t sugar-coat the bitter pills, right?
Shaye – Godspeed (September 19, 2021)
A relatively short-lived Canadian trio formed by Kim Stockwood, Damhnait Doyle and Tara MacLean, Shaye, named in honour of MacLean’s late sister, produced just a couple of albums in the 2000s before folding after Lake of Fire in 2009. Their first release, 2003’s The Bridge, included Happy Baby, which charted well, and today’s selection, my own favourite, which went little noticed. Compact, disciplined, tuneful, well-arranged, and expertly recorded, there’s an emotionally honest, philosophical, almost hymn-like quality to Godspeed that always appealed to me, as does the lovely blended harmony of the womens’ three strong voices.
The group reformed last year to record God, a rather pretty acoustic number written by Jeen O’Brien that was a staple of their live shows back in the day, but which for one reason or another never made it on to an album:
Aimee Mann – Wise Up (September 22, 2021)
Cameron Crowe commissioned Wise Up for his film Jerry Maguire, but for some reason, despite loving the demo, he didn’t much care for the finished version and wound up not using it in the theatrical release, a decision he later came to regret – it’s on the official soundtrack album, and Crowe later told Mann that he didn’t know what he was thinking, being as the polished studio version is so lovely. It wound up as a prominent, indeed definitive, element of the soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
One tends to perceive a lot of Aimee’s deeply personal songs as expressions of essentially feminist abhorrence of the pain women suffer in abusive relationships with men, partly because that’s often actually the case (see You’re With Stupid Now ), and was the express theme of the song through which all of us first got to know her back in 1985, when her old band, Til Tuesday, broke with Voices Carry. Most of the guys I hung with immediately fell in love with the elfin lead singer, and felt like cheering wildly when first viewing that final scene of the video, when Aimee stands up disruptively in the middle of a performance at Carnegie Hall to shout out her pain and indignation to the whole world:
It still gets me, the way she practically wails, as if she can’t quite wrap her mind around being with somebody who’d deny her dignity and autonomy, or bear any longer the humiliation and dismissiveness:
Hush, hush, he said shut up
He said shut up
Oh God, can’t you keep it down?
He told her to shut up. She really made you feel the sting of it, the emotional cruelty.
Wise Up always seemed to me like it was of a piece, sounding like exasperated pleading with a friend to smarten up, for the love of God, and extricate herself from a toxic relationship before it’s too late. Upon reflection, though, I’m not so sure; is it written as speaking to somebody else, or is the singer reproaching herself? Is it about getting out of a relationship gone bad, or some other sort of abuse, or even some sort of self-destructive behaviour? It’s really quite enigmatic:
What you thought
When you first began it
What you want
Now you can hardly stand it though
By now you know
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
‘Til you wise up
What’s not going to stop? Really, it could be anything, from drug addiction to wasting away as a soulless hedge fund manager on Wall Street. Within Magnolia, the song is featured in a sequence in which the film’s many characters, all embroiled in their own complicated storylines, sing along as if having their own epiphanies about their own peculiar struggles:
In selecting Wise Up for the emotional climax of his film, Paul Thomas Anderson understood that it needn’t be interpreted specifically, that it wasn’t about anything granular at all, or at least didn’t have to be. It’s about personal crisis, painful introspection, and those rare moments of self-awareness when we realize, whatever our circumstances, that we’ve been sleepwalking through a tragedy that’s mainly of our own creation, shuffling toward the edge of the cliff that we’ve always been able to tell ourselves isn’t really there, always, that is, until right this minute. Just now, just for a moment, we see it clearly. Maybe at that point some of us make changes, though I’m reminded of the closing line of Eliot’s Prufrock: Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The Lumineers – Ho Hey (September 24, 2021)
A minor miracle of a modern Country song, this one grabbed me by my collar while riding in the car on the way to the grocery store – there’s nothing like that ecstatic moment of hearing a great song for the first time, is there? It’s the sort of pop tune that becomes an old friend about a minute into your very first listen, and the video, showcasing light streaming into interior spaces at low angles, strings of electric lights pulsing in time to the rhythm, and illuminated strips of coloured paper falling like confetti, as befits a band called “Lumineers”, is warm, happy, and full of positive energy. I just love that delicious chord shift that occurs near the end of each verse (during the words “I been sleepin’ in my bed”, “but I can write a song”, and so on), and I’m also taken with how it feels like a real love song, filled with genuine passion – when he sings “my sweet-har-art”, you really feel like he means it, that he just knows he’s the one who’d do right by the object of his affections, not that lout she’s with now:
I don’t think you’re right for him
think of what it might’ve been if we
took a bus to Chinatown
I’d be standin’ on Canal
she’d be standin’ next to me
The reference to the intersection of Canal and Bowery, at the heart of New York City’s Chinatown, seems curiously urban and Northern, given the musical context. Both streets are familiar to anyone steeped in the culture and mythology of the Big Apple, which is to say pretty much everyone, yet in looking it up I half-expected to find it was also some place in Nashville, or Memphis, maybe. Not at all. So why this corner in lower Manhattan? It used to be the epicentre of the city’s famed Diamond District, though it isn’t anymore, so that’s not it (maybe he was talking about buying an engagement ring, was my theory). Its most prominent landmark these days is a beautiful old bank building, now designated a historic site, built in the 1920s, which likewise doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. According to some chatter I’ve found on the internet, the area is also the terminus for several out-of-town bus routes, and the song is an autobiographical expression of regret at having to leave Manhattan without the woman he loves: Imagine what could have been, if only you’d come with me instead of staying with him. That’s a nice way of looking at it, but who knows, really? Speaking to American Songwriter magazine, frontman Wesley Schultz did confirm that he wrote Ho Hey in a moment of disillusionment while staying in New York, prior to moving away to Denver, Colorado: That song was an effort to get under people’s skin at shows in Brooklyn, where everyone is pretty indifferent. And I figured if we could punctuate it with shouts we might get someone’s attention. O.K., but there’s more going on here than a stunt aimed at rousing typically jaded NY concert-goers. During the bridge – a model of its kind, succinct, tuneful, and artfully transitional – he sings straight from his wounded heart: Love, we need it now, let’s hope for some, ’cause, oh, we’re bleedin’ out, which, well, Amen to that, brother.
During the final chants of “ho hey”, you hear the singer instruct the crowd last one, and that’s that, barely more than two and a half minutes in, all wrapped up, crisp and tidy. That’s the best thing about it, I think. This is one of those rare songs that gets in, says what it wants, then gets out before you’ve had enough, leaving you wishing for another verse, and ready to hear it again right away. They hardly ever write them that way any more.
U2 – Where the Streets Have No Name (September 25, 2021)
Here’s a bonus cut from Rattle and Hum, a nice Gospel rendition of Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For:
Tom Waits – Downtown Train / On the Nickel (September 26, 2021)
Downtrain Train, from the album Rain Dogs, was an unexpected hit back in 1985, largely on the strength of a gorgeous black and white video that worked its way into regular rotation on MTV and its international counterparts, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window in the way it peeked into the lives of the different folks living cheek-by-jowl in their high-rise apartments. Life in the big city goes on while Waits dances in the moonlit street below, singing what is, for him, an unusually accessible ballad to broken-hearted yearning, its melodic grace only enhanced, somehow, by the singer’s characteristically gravel-voiced delivery.
Waits was always at his best writing about lonely, heartbroken people mired in the urban underbelly – if you ever need a really good, cathartic cry, have a listen to On the Nickel, his emotionally devastating depiction of the homeless alcoholics littering L.A.’s Fifth Avenue – and Downtown Train, while superficially more pop-oriented than a lot of his output, is very much of a piece, its protagonist a solitary figure, wandering the darkened streets, bursting with repressed energy and love to give (I’m shinin’ like a new dime, he says), while the trains full of Brooklyn girls race by on their way to the hot spots downtown, leaving him unnoticed, unwanted, and wondering when his time will come. While he expresses – feigns? – disdain for the bulk of them:
Well, you wave your hand and they scatter like crows
They have nothing that will ever capture your heart
They’re just thorns without the rose
Be careful of them in the dark
…there seems to be one, in particular, who has captured his heart, and not just his, apparently:
I know your window and I know it’s late
I know your stairs and your doorway
I walk down your street and past your gate
I stand by the light at the four-way
You watch them as they fall
Oh baby, they all have heart attacks
They stay at the carnival
But they’ll never win you back
He doesn’t stand a chance, of course. She’s riding downtown with all the other girls, and as he wonders whether he’ll catch another glimpse of her tonight, when the train rolls by, you get the sense that she aspires to a life someplace he’ll never get to visit, probably full of people more hip and monied than he’ll ever be. You get the feeling, too, that as she tries so hard to break out of her little mundane world, she’s never going to get there, but it’ll be too late for him by the time she figures that out.
As if to emphasize the school-of-hard-knocks ambience, that’s boxer Jake Lamotta, the Raging Bull himself, complaining about the coming serenade at the beginning of the video.
You know what? I’m betting you do need a good, cathartic cry, so here’s On the Nickel, recorded from a live performance in which Waits uses a few strains of Waltzing Matilda as musical preamble – and here I was thinking I was alone in appreciating the inherent sadness of that beautiful melody. Enjoy, and the next time you trip over a derelict drunk, you can think of his mother singing him a lullaby, back when he was just a little boy who never combed his hair.
Edwyn Collins: A Girl Like You (October 2, 2021)
Maybe it’s the relentless rhythm, the infinite weightiness of the low end, and that howling fuzz guitar. Maybe it’s because it sounds like something that would have been played in an underground club in Sixties London, as if the Yardbirds just finished up their set at The Ricky Tick, and now Collins takes the stage; or maybe it’s because it seems the perfect thing to play in some sweaty, darkened, off-the-radar basement hideaway where they’re slinging buckets of the hard stuff without a liquor licence, just the sort of imaginary place where the similarly grungy, dissolute masterpieces off Exile on Main Street always take you; or maybe it’s the way the whole meaning of the thing is wrapped up in that one frustrated, admiring line, and now you come along; plus there’s the way the vibraphone just fits moodily in the mix, you know, it’s just perfect (and played by former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook to boot); but whatever it is, I just love this one. Love love love it. It really gets the party started – it’s all let’s wrap up this frivolous turd-hunt and do something intense. Supposedly it’s a tribute to the style of Iggy Pop, and that hypnotic drum track is actually a sample, extracted from Len Barry’s 1965 hit 1-2-3, but I don’t care how derivative it is, it just grabs you by the cajones and commands you to get with the program. That or get the f*&% outta here, ‘cuz we don’t got time for this.
Take it from me, this one takes some careful song-matching, you have to think about what you’re doing if you want to put it on a mix-tape. Most pop tunes wither up and die from the proximity. You need Jumping Jack Flash, or the Velvets doing Rock and Roll, stuff that digs deep and takes no prisoners, and you wind up with something that sounds coiled up, ready to burst, and serious like a heart attack, which is not suitable for all occasions. Just what the doctor ordered, sometimes, yes?