Popless Week Eight: The Auteurs That Ain't
After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking the year off from all new music, and instead revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider whether he still needs it all.
"Oh Lonesome Me" by Don Gibson
As I was watching The Oscars last night, I was thinking about how much "awards season" encourages us to compartmentalize—and thereby misapprehend—collaborative art. Because the Academy gives awards in varied technical and creative categories, it seems to support the notion that we need a lot of cooks to prepare a full-course dinner. But within those categories, typically only one or two people get to take home statuettes: One editor (unless it's "Roderick Jaynes"), one cinematographer, one actor or writer. Never mind the assistant cutters, focus pullers, dialogue coaches or punch-up specialists. We're a top-down society here in the States, and we like to pin the wins and losses on a head coach.
Even in music, we prefer to celebrate The Album, as created by The Artist. When I sparred with my friend Nathan Rabin over hip-hop last year, I mentioned that one of my problems with the genre is that it's often unsatisfying for those of us who like to think of one person alone in a studio, obsessively laying down tracks to bring a singular vision to bear. Even though hip-hop is frequently a producer-driven medium, many of the monolithic rap and soul albums of the past decade have featured work by multiple producers, and tracks teeming with guest rhymers and at a certain point, it becomes impossible to identify who's in charge.
But in singling out the muddle that is mainstream hip-hop, I fell into a trap that I've warned others away from in the past. I've argued for years that it's unfair to judge rock acts solely on the quality of whole albums, because a lot of bands are better defined by their collections of singles. And the same could be said of rappers, producers, and all kinds of a-one session men.
Like Chet Atkins, for example.
Atkins—a bona fide legend and visionary—recorded a staggering number of LPs as a solo artist, and performed on or produced countless more. As an executive at RCA, he signed country legends Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, and as a gracious, generous mentor, he helped a healthy number of Nashville pickers get better. (Including my father—more on that later.) But Atkins' individual albums are often little more than sketchbooks, containing one modest hit single and nine or ten variations on that song's theme. Atkins sometimes recorded up to four or five LPs a year, using each one to show off some new recording technique or picking style, or some unusual genre he'd just discovered. In their day, Atkins' albums were essential. Today, they sound kind of dryly explanatory: a series of demonstrations in song form.
Listen to a good Atkins anthology though, and the breadth of what Atkins attempted becomes more impressive. The Essential Chet Atkins includes songs Atkins merely soloed on (including classic singles like Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me") alongside songs that are all his, and it puts his career in a context that makes a lot more sense than if someone were to pass on a copy of Chester & Lester or The First Nashville Guitar Quartet and say, "Listen to this guy play he's a genius."
Atkins' gifts just aren't reducible to one classic LP, or even one indelible single. His gifts are in the recordings he helped facilitate, the guitarists he inspired, and the trails he blazed. Atkins is, without a doubt, a Man In Charge. But it's what he's in charge of that's sometimes hard to define.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1967-present
Fits Between João Gilberto and Burt Bacharach
Personal Correspondence Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her is a good movie, but one of its best moments doesn't really belong to the director. About halfway through the film, Caetano Veloso performs a sweet acoustic ballad, and steals the movie for about four minutes. Almodovar pushes his characters to the margins, and lets us luxuriate in the performance of old master, holding a patio full of people spellbound on a pleasant Spanish night. For decades now, the appeal of Veloso has been the way he allows listeners to imagine that we're on that patio. When critics account for virtuosity in popular music, we often avoid talking about vocals, because we've been conditioned by decades of "the rawer the better" mission statements to think of good singers as show-offs and sell-outs the kind of pop pablum that fills out American Idol, and thus not worthy of serious consideration. But a large part of what Veloso does is sing—beautifully, delicately, with phenomenal nuance.
Enduring presence? Once upon a time, Veloso's music was considered so radical that he was thrown in jail. Those days are gone, but you can still hear traces of what shook up Brazil in "Enquanto O Lobo Nao Vem," from the late '60s Tropicalia era. The song modernizes traditional South American musical forms, adding influences from the avant-garde, psychedelic rock, and even socialist folk art. Veloso sings about clandestine romantic meetings in the wilderness, where "mister wolf doesn't come." It doesn't take too much close reading to find that subversive on all kinds of levels.
"Enquanto O Lobo Nao Vem" by Caetano Veloso
And just because this is the Internet and why not, here's the Talk To Her clip:
Years Of Operation 2000-present (solo)
Fits Between Kelly Willis and Emmylou Harris
Personal Correspondence If the untimely dissolution of Whiskeytown accomplished anything—besides setting Ryan Adams free to dick around with a new genre every week—it gave the band's violinist/vocalist Caitlin Cary the chance to forge her own respectable career as a soft-country-rock troubadour. Cary's solo debut, 2002's While You Weren't Looking, showcased her expressive voice and some elegant restraint, but the songs weren't as effortlessly tuneful as Whiskeytown's. It wasn't until 2003's I'm Staying Out that Cary and her producing partner Chris Stamey cooked up and/or borrowed material better suited to their tasteful version of roots music. At the time I wrote: "Through all the discreet shuffling of styles, the ace in the deck remains Cary's deep, full vocals. Again and again on I'm Staying Out, she guides the songs through verses, over bridges, and into choruses, pitching hard and pitching soft, telling stories of romantic adventure that are plainly understood through her harmonic tone of confidence and ache." To be honest, I have some resistance to music that smacks of "rockin' country:" a non-genre that tends to fail at both halves of its description. But Cary sings with such ease that the pleasure of listening to her croon overwhelms any qualms.
Enduring presence? Cary hasn't made a true solo album in a few years, though she's been involved in a few decent collaborative projects. Still, it would wonderful to hear another record of the classy caliber of I'm Staying Out.
"You Don't Have To Hide" by Caitlin Cary
Camper Van Beethoven
Years Of Operation 1983-1990; 2000-present
Fits Between New Riders Of The Purple Sage and R.E.M.
Personal Correspondence I'm still holding back on my "drugs and music" mini-essay for another couple of weeks, but Camper Van Beethoven would've been a good band to peg it to, because a cloud of marijuana smoke envelops all five of the band's '80s LPs—for good and for ill. Camper Van Beethoven were always a band with too many ideas, and too many strong voices fighting to be heard, but the result was an impressive number of songs where David Lowery's quirky-but-heartfelt singer-songwriter persona met his mates' groovy worldbeat and down-home hootenanny leanings head-on, generating something richer and more surprising than standard-issue low-stakes college-rock. Of course it also produced some abject wankery. Not a lot, but enough to keep the band's albums from crossing over from "cool" to "essential." I love all of CvB's '80s records, but I don't know that I'd be able to recommend any of them whole-heartedly. Still, it kills me that Camper Van Beethoven aren't as well-known now as they once were, because it means that a lot of people are missing out on clever, surprisingly poignant American morality tales like "The History Of Utah," "Jack Ruby" and "Tania"—the latter the sweetest, saddest song ever written about Patty Hearst and the cult of fame. If I had to make a case for one CvB album as a stone classic, it'd be the not-so-well-received-at-the-time Key Lime Pie, which is the band's most focused explication of how life can be at once grand and impossible. Key Lime Pie's key track, "When I Win The Lottery," is a tricky song that comes on like a grotesque white trash lampoon, but quickly changes tone to become a stirring reinterpretation of what it means to be a patriot.
Enduring presence? The band's comeback album a couple of years ago was admirably ambitious but creatively shaky; still, it gave CvB an excuse to get back out on the road again, and introduce themselves to a new potential audience of jam band devotees. When I interviewed Lowery around that time, I suggested that if CvB had stuck it out a couple more years, they could've been a less-noodly Phish. He didn't disagree.
"When I Win The Lottery" by Camper Van Beethoven
Years Of Operation 1968-79 (essentially)
Fits Between Pink Floyd and Neu!
Personal Correspondence I can't pretend to be a Can fanatic, but the "Pieces Of The Puzzle" section is set aside not just for the acts that I've spent a lot of time with, but for the ones whose very existence and ethos intrigue me—either because they're an essential part of the development of the music I love or because they stand for something I believe in. As pioneers of the avant-garde pop movement known as "krautrock," Can's adherence to the philosophy of "do it now, fix it later" meant that their songs were sometimes little more than overextended, sketchy nothings, verging into dissonance whenever they threatened to flatten out. But Can typically didn't switch on the tape machine unless they'd started on something interesting, and while I know some Can-freaks like the probing immediacy of the early albums, I prefer Can from Ege Bamyasi on, after they'd gotten a better sense of what they could do well, and what "interesting" means.
Enduring presence? Wilco's nods to krautrock on A Ghost Is Born didn't spark a genre revival, but Can and their fellow travelers still represent a detour that nearly every serious rock fan has to take eventually. During my own excursions, I've always been surprised by how lush and verdant krautrock can be. The prospect of brainy Europeans exploring repetitive minimalism on long, resolutely amelodic songs doesn't seem like the kind of thing that people would listen to for fun, but as the Can track below should prove, "rigid" doesn't have to mean "flat."
"One More Night" by Can
Years Of Operation 1992-present
Fits Between Nancy Sinatra and Everything But The Girl
Personal Correspondence The first time I heard The Cardigans was when First Band On The Moon's "Never Recover" popped up on the radio in Charlottesville, VA, where I was living at the time. I bought that record shortly before "Lovefool" became a hit (thanks, Baz Luhrmann!) because the frenetic pep-pop of "Never Recover" was right where my head was at in the mid-'90s. On closer inspection, I discovered that much of the shiny happy face of First Band On The Moon (and its predecessor, Life) was intended ironically—a point clarified when I picked up The Cardigans' decidedly moodier debut album Emmerdale, and their icy follow-up to First Band, Gran Turismo. The band took a long break after Gran Turismo and returned with the country-rock-tinged Long Gone After Daylight, a stylistic switch-up that seemed initially jarring, until I noticed that the sophisticated pop arrangements, bleakly ironic lyrics and elegantly semi-detached vocals were all pretty much intact. I was less thrilled by the similarly rootsy Super Extra Gravity, but The Cardigans are still a far more interesting band than their one-hit-wonder status would suggest. (Actually, the same could be said of most one-hit-wonders.)
Enduring presence? Despite all the jumping around The Cardigans have done—and I haven't even mentioned their under-documented stint as a death-metal band back in the early '90s—their best songs fit seamlessly together when gathered in the same place. The Cardigans have a Greatest Hits album that came out in Europe earlier this year; and surely it'll make its way here at some point. In the meantime, I'd stump hard for Life, one of the brightest, most beautiful pop records of the '90s—one that turns "twee" on its ear with fully realized song constructions and a drape of wistful maturity. I was torn between whether to put "Never Recover" or a song from Life as my sample track, but I decided to go in a different direction and put up "Over The Water," which is off Emmerdale originally, but is included on the U.S. version of Life. It's emblematic of what Life is all about.
"Over The Water" by The Cardigans
Years Of Operation 1994
Fits Between Robert Wyatt and Brian Wilson
Personal Correspondence Last week I mentioned the March Madness weekend that Scott Tobias and I spent browsing The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock. Well, Cardinal and its primary songwriter Richard Davies were one of the happy discoveries we made by paging through that book. I was already a fan of Cardinal's other half, Eric Matthews, because my wife had heard one of his songs on our local college radio station, and had convinced me to spring for a cheap used copy of his second solo album, The Lateness Of The Hour. Matthews' story—enfant terrible pop genius who goes AWOL before realizing his potential—will have to wait a couple of months, but it all starts with Cardinal anyway, so it's helpful that the alphabet is organized the way it is. My understanding of the Cardinal story is that Davies—an Australian singer-songwriter who'd left his alt-pop band behind in order to become more folk-rock-oriented—was introduced by a friend to Matthews' supernatural gifts for pop-orchestral arrangements. Davies asked Matthews to help fill in the gaps in some of the ballads he was writing, Matthews agreed, and the twosome produced the album Cardinal, a record of jarring shifts from music-hall ditties to breathy neo-psychedelia, heard by few but loved by those who did. Matthews reportedly wasn't keen on being a supplementary player to Davies, and the two parted not-exactly-amicably, leaving behind one interesting—if not exactly as brilliant as it often promises to be—LP. Cardinal is by no means an essential purchase, but it's one of those under-heard curios that sits around waiting for bored rock fans to find it years later, and get reinvigorated by the discovery.
Enduring presence? Matthews made a belated re-entry into the underground pop world a couple of years back, and seemed apologetic about his role in busting up Cardinal. (He even wrote a moving song about it, "Cardinal Is More.") Davies, sadly, has been off the screen for a while—though his existing solo work was frequently terrific. Cardinal's lone album was reissued not too long ago, and found at least a few new fans. (I know my friend Vadim Rizov is one.) A Cardinal reunion, complete with new material, would be a good way of closing the books on what this duo barely started.
"You've Lost Me There" by Cardinal
Years Of Operation 1976-88
Fits Between Greg Kihn and Roxy Music
Personal Correspondence What's always impressed me about The Cars is how they managed to slip around the music industry's resistance to New Wave by making music that couldn't be pigeonholed as part of any one movement. Songs like "My Best Friend's Girl" sounded instantly familiar, even though they were unlike anything else being played on the radio at the end of the '70s, and The Cars played tightly and cleanly enough that they didn't rub programmers or listeners the wrong way. (For all the arty tinge of the hit single "You're All I've Got Tonight," its guitar solo and hook are easy for any pop fan to enjoy.) The Cars, Tom Petty, Talking Heads, Blondie and a few others all exploited the confusion over punk and its aftershocks, and wormed their way into the mainstream, where they fit right in, and even subtly transformed the acts already in the room. By the time The Cars recorded their massive hit LP Heartbeat City, they were able to share space on the air with acts as disparate as Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis, and not sound out of place. My own connection to The Cars is mainly through the first album and through Heartbeat City. The former came out around the time when I was listening to Top 40 and album rock pretty much equally, and the fact that The Cars showed up on both made them seem kind of heroic to me (at age 9). As for Heartbeat City, it came out a few months before I turned 14, and for all the leaden "state of the art" production and generally half-assed songwriting, I feel a pang whenever I hear any song from that record, because to me the album sounds like adolescence at its brief best moment—when being a teenager meant feeling cocky, not gawky. The first word in the song "Magic" sums up what the Cars mean to me: "Summer."
Enduring presence? The recent Rundgren-as-frontman debacle aside, The Cars have made pretty much nothing but the right moves in their career. Not every Cars album is a winner—ultimately, they're more of a singles band—but they got in early, exited only a few years too late, and left behind mostly happy memories.
"You're All I've Got Tonight" by The Cars
Years Of Operation 1966-78
Fits Between Donovan and Fred Neil
Personal Correspondence For me, it's hard to separate "liking Cat Stevens" from "liking Harold & Maude," because at age 17 I was so devoted to the perverse optimism of the latter that I was willing to accept the dippy folk-pop of the former. I liked the romantic idea of embracing death and learning to look below surfaces so much that if I had to hum along to "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out" in order to take the ride, then I'd gladly pay that price. There's a part of me that's still in touch with that 17-year-old version of myself, from a perspective that's equal parts nostalgic and objective. I can now recognize everything that's sappy and/or deceptively cutesy about both Harold & Maude and Cat Stevens' music, and yet I can also admire how well-constructed both are, and how for many people like myself, embracing what these pop-philosophical artifacts stand for is a necessary part of growing up. (It's this part of myself that also responded so strongly last year to Into The Wild, a movie I know is fundamentally flawed, but is beautiful to me in large part because its so naive.) As an adult, I've returned to Stevens occasionally—usually whenever one of his better pop songs like "Here Comes My Baby" or "The Wind" ends up on a soundtrack. Even at their most fluttery and sentimental, I'm impressed with his recordings' sonic depth, which rarely descends into clutter.
Enduring presence? Stevens' conversion to Islam—and the misunderstandings related to his arguably tepid repudiations of terrorism—did, for a time, damage his reputation among casual pop fans. Of course among critics, he's always been a hard sell, generally dismissed as a soft-rocker with a maudlin worldview and a tendency to over-emote. But he's also a hell of a craftsman, and though I personally have to be in a very specific mood to want to hear Stevens, when I'm in that mood his music is about all that will do.
"Trouble" by Cat Stevens
Years Of Operation 1958-95
Fits Between Elvis Presley and Conway Twitty
Personal Correspondence I went through a long stretch—like from birth to age 28—where about the only country music I was interested in was that recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakum or Lyle Lovett. Only over the past decade have I been adding other legends, piece by piece. The first artist to really guide me into the wider world of country was Charlie Rich, introduced to me by my friend Jim Ridley via the career-spanning Rich anthology he taped for me back in 1999. I was familiar with Rich's schmaltzy '70s hits: "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" and "Behind Closed Doors." But until '99, I hadn't been aware of his roots in rockabilly, or the way he moved from being a mini-Elvis to a pop crooner to a countrypolitan hero. Really, if you're looking for an artist to help explain the ways country music changed from the late '50s to the early '80s, you can't do much better than Rich, who scored hits in different eras and different styles, and strove to stay modern without completely stepping outside the bounds of his chosen genre. The 1969 single "No Home" exemplifies his approach. The soft orchestrations and sophisticated sentiment would sound at home on a Tony Bennett record, and yet the trace of twang in Rich's voice and rippling Floyd Cramer-style piano-playing keeps him yoked to the Arkansas beer halls, too.
Enduring presence? Hearing and understanding Rich's career progression makes even "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" enjoyable again. He's a country music hall-of-famer of course, but I hope those who only dabble in country get to know him too. Pick up a good compilation, and if you don't like one song, wait three minutes. The weather will change.
"No Home" by Charlie Rich
Years Of Operation 1972-present
Fits Between The Move and Billy Squier
Personal Correspondence Here's another band for the "you never know until you look it up" file. My knee-jerk impression of Cheap Trick as a youngster was that they were cartoonish pop hitmakers, about as respectable as The Knack, but still enjoyable. Then I got a little older and encountered Cheap Trick in various rock history books, and learned that just like Blondie and Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick were once dearly beloved by the critical community. Prior to 1979's smash hit album Dream Police, Cheap Trick were considered among the most important remaining stewards of straightforward hooky guitar rock, unencumbered by ideology. But just as limousine liberals often over-idealize the working poor—ignoring that, if they had their druthers, the workingfolk would prefer to be among the idle rich—so rock critics sometimes latch onto the "native simplicity" of small-town bashers, and forget that sometimes those bands create likeably crude versions of mainstream music because that's all they can afford to do. Once Cheap Trick had the money and the chart cachet to make they records they'd always wanted to make, they made the kind of glossy, vulgar arena-rock that their earlier champions assumed the band was supposed to provide an alternative to. So on the credibility front, Cheap Trick were punished for being what they'd always aspired to be; and they didn't get their cred back until radio no longer had any use for them. The legacy game can be perverse.
Enduring presence? To be honest, I've always wanted to like Cheap Trick more than I actually do. All those '70s albums are studded with gems, but each has its drawbacks too, from inappropriate production to a surfeit of filler. If the songs Cheap Trick wrote when they started could've been recorded with the polish the band enjoyed the early '80s, then Cheap Trick really would've been the supreme power-pop act. Ah well. At least we'll always have "Surrender."
"Surrender" by Cheap Trick
Years Of Operation 1942-2001
Fits Between Django Reinhardt and Floyd Cramer
Personal Correspondence According to family legend, my father played bass guitar on a Chet Atkins session before I was born, when he and my mom and my older brother were still living in Nashville. My dad was touring around with The Compton Brothers Band, and one night Atkins called our home while Dad was out, and my mom initially didn't believe it was Atkins (who was easily my dad's favorite guitarist). When Dad got back into town, he went into the studio, and his strongest memory is that at one point, Atkins tried to demonstrate a chord progression that my dad just couldn't master. "Only one person in the whole city could've played those chords," Dad said. "And he was sitting in the booth."
Enduring presence? When lumped together, Atkins' genteel instrumentals tend to wash out, but when they come up on my iPod shuffle, they make for nice palate-cleansers. Which is only right, because that's how they were intended to be heard in the first place: on the radio, as buffers between the blunter songs by other artists. Without writing manifestos about it, Atkins understood the value of negative space.
"Blue Ocean Echo" by Chet Atkins
Cactus World News, "Years Later" From the era of The Alarm, The Call, U2, Big Country and Simple Minds—bands I lump together as "The Big Music," after a song by The Waterboys—comes the largely forgotten Irish act Cactus World News, who were discovered by Bono back in the early '80s, put out one reasonably acclaimed album, Urban Beaches, and then pretty much faded from view. They had two semi-hit album tracks, "The Bridge" and this never-fails-to-floor-me anthem of loss. Hey, movie directors who are roughly my age and have shared roughly my same pop-culture experiences? Can one of you please put this song over the opening credits of some '80s period piece and revive its fortunes? Because there's just so much to love about this song: the "ah-oooo" non-chorus, the wiggly guitars, the escalating bridge, the earnest spoken-word interlude this song just drips with sincerity and emotion, and if you can't handle that, fine. But if you're cool with the grandiose, and you've never heard "Years Later" before, well I'm glad Popless could introduce it to you.
"Years Later" by Cactus World News
The Cairo Gang, "Resist" It's awfully hard to record something as abstract as "texture" or "mood," but for artists that can pull it off, it almost doesn't matter whether they've got the songs to back up the sound. There's not much to this sliver by Chicago DIYers The Cairo Gang, but the feeling of the song provides the substance. Back in 2006, I wrote: "Bandleader Emmett Kelly relies on plucked strings, shimmering sound, and his own 'up all night' guitar style, which on 'Resist,' sounds like a fusion of David Crosby, Yes, and a plume of smoke."
"Resist" by The Cairo Gang
Cake, "Thrills" This Cake obscurity may not be the truest representation of the band's usual mix of skeletal funk and fervent rock, but the ease of the song does approximate how it felt to hear Cake on the radio back in the '90s, during the onslaught of grunge and post-grunge. I'm not as crazy for Cake as some—unless you're talking about actual cake, which I enjoy beyond measure—but songs like "The Distance" and "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" were refreshing then and are still likable now. In a way, Cake had the career that Camper Van Beethoven might've had if they'd emerged a few years later. So good for Cake.
"Thrills" by Cake
The Call, "The Walls Came Down" Of all the promising post-U2 modern rock bands kicking around the US and UK scenes in the '80s, The Call is probably one of the last ones that anyone would've expected to survive the decade and land multiple songs on AOR playlists. But while I like mid-period Call songs like "I Don't Wanna," "I Still Believe" and "Everywhere I Go," I don't think The Call ever topped their lone Top 40 pop hit, "The Walls Came Down," a fist-pumper if there ever was one, with a pungently politicized twist ending. (By the way, I wasn't aware that Call frontman Michael Been's son is the frontman for my nemeses, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But I'll try not to hold that against him.)
"The Walls Came Down" by The Call
Camera Obscura, "Let Me Go Home" It's hard to know what to do with bands that sound almost exactly like other bands—especially when I'm a fan of the bands they resemble. But a little time and reflection often helps. I don't knock the late '60s garage bands that tried to sound like The Beatles or The Kinks; if anything, I think they're kind of charming. To be fair to Camera Obscura, they don't only sound like Belle & Sebastian. They mainly draw from the same well of melancholy Britpop and sunny '60s singles as Stuart Murdoch and company. But it's hard to deny the similarities between "Let Me Go Home" and B&S; classics like "The Boy With The Arab Strap" and "If You're Feeling Sinister." But since I love those songs, there's no reason for me not to love "Let Me Go Home" too.
"Let Me Go Home" by Camera Obscura
Candi Staton, "Get It When I Want It" Some of the more obscure funk, soul and freak-folk acts who've become belatedly popular based on reissues get by more on novelty than merit. I'm not saying they're bad, but sometimes the sudden surge in reputation has as much to do with critics' exhaustion with the same old classics than with the music's actual quality. Not so Candi Staton. The soul shouter scored one major hit in the disco era ("Young Hearts Run Free") before turning to gospel, and left behind a vast body of stunningly gritty and heartfelt R&B; recordings from the late '60s and early '70s, which were collected in 2004 on the simply titled (and essential) Candi Staton. "Get It When I Want It" is pretty typical of early Staton, in that it takes an earthy, frank approach to sexual desire, over a popping track that Mark Ronson would kill to re-create.
"Get It When I Want It" by Candi Staton
Carole King, "So Far Away" I heard the fictionalized version of the Carole King story via the underrated Alison Anders' film Grace Of My Heart, a few years before I heard King's best-selling LP Tapestry. The legend of a talented, kicked-around pop songwriter and her coming-out party as a performer definitely informed my understanding of one of the most popular albums of all time. In the context of Grace Of My Heart, Tapestry struck me as more personal and less monolithic, and songs like "So Far Away" revealed themselves as the product of a superior craftswoman with a strongly beating heart.
"So Far Away" by Carole King
Cat Power, "He War" True Confession time: I have a Cat Power Blind Spot. In the abstract, I understand why so many people love Chan Marshall's music. She has unique vocal intonations and a gritty tone, and a devotion to the kind of bluesy rock and R&B; that strikes many as being more respectable than, say, arena-rock or smartass indie. But I rarely hear why people love Cat Power so much. Marshall's voice has always struck me as a little flat and emotionally removed, and her songs a little undercooked. Nevertheless, I've dutifully bought every Cat Power album, hoping my mind will change; and I typically do respond positively to about three or four songs per record. This driving, ropy number from You Are Free is pretty much what I'm looking for from Cat Power: rumbly guitars and a vocal line that makes good use of her distinctive range.
"He War" by Cat Power
Catherine Howe, "It Comes With The Breezes" This Canadian chanteuse obviously owes debts to Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, and she's a spiritual ancestor to the current cult folkie Mia Doi Todd. Writing about the Numero Group reissue of her album What A Beautiful Place last year I said that "Howe's pretty, solemn songs couch hard truths in soft clothes," and that her "gentle, windswept ballads that sport their own bruised integrity." That about sums it up. Twice.
"It Comes With The Breezes" by Catherine Howe
caUSE co-MOTION, "Baby Don't Do It" Attention, people who only like The Next Big Thing before it becomes "The Next Big Thing!" There's still time to latch onto Brooklyn indie-rockers caUSE co-MOTION, who are still in their "why not?" phase, combining their favorite elements of American and British DIY art-pop on brisk 7"s like "Baby Don't Do It." Fifteen years ago, a song this winning would be stranded on some limited edition 45 that only college radio DJs and a few connected scenesters would own. Now it goes up on MP3 blogs within hours of its release, and anyone who wants to can hear it. I prefer the new way.
"Baby Don't Do It" by caUSE co-MOTION
Cee-Lo Green, "Gettin' Grown" I like Gnarls Barkley just fine, but I like Cee-Lo Green's two oddball solo albums even more. This sweet, catchy tribute to Green's late mother should've been a hit—maybe not at the level of Gnarls' "Crazy" or Outkast's "Hey Ya," but bigger than it ended up being. Come on it's got a whistling solo. A whistling solo!
"Gettin' Grown" by Cee-Lo Green
Chad & Jeremy, "Before And After" I'll never forget being impressed as a boy that my mom had a Chad & Jeremy album, because I'd seen them once on Batman, sticking their head out a window as the caped crusader scaled a wall. But I don't think I actually heard Chad & Jeremy until Wes Anderson put the very pleasant "A Summer Song" on the Rushmore soundtrack. A couple of years later, I took a chance on a comprehensive Chad & Jeremy anthology, and really enjoyed it. They're such an interesting band. Post-Beatles and pre-Mamas & The Papas—both by just a little—Chad & Jeremy were as popular on the Easy Listening charts in the early '60s as they were on the Pop charts. This dreamy ballad certainly belongs more squarely on the former. It's as though in the first rush of Beatlemania, record companies rushed to put a cap on the well and control it, by signing clean-cut young Brits willing to play the game. This is what the music business does, of course. The suits would rather impose their will on a burgeoning movement or scene than let it flower naturally and reap the rewards. (Fun fact: "Before And After" was written by industry veteran Van McCoy, who had a major hit on his own in the disco era with "The Hustle.")
"Before And After" by Chad & Jeremy
Chaka Khan, "Clouds" This Chaka Khan single is maybe in my Top 5 all-time favorite disco songs, because it represents the potential of the form at its most mature. It falls into the particular category of disco that's not trying to be "arty" per se, but is looking to add some depth to the genre, through sophisticated arrangements and richer emotional content.
"Clouds" by Chaka Khan
Chappaquiddick Skyline, "Solitary Swedish Houses" And now we come to the first appearance in the countdown by Joe Pernice, an artist who five or six years ago I would've said was one my five or six favorite contemporary singer-songwriters. The last couple of Pernice Brothers albums proved to be a little bit of letdown, though—nice, but nothing of the caliber of Joe Pernice in the late '90s and early '00s. It's a measure of what a roll Pernice was on at the turn of the millennium that he could bury one of his best sets of songs under a makeshift name that he'd never used before and hasn't used since. Though the songs on the Chappaquiddick Skyline album are recorded a little more simply than The Pernice Brothers' glittery AM pop, the quality of tracks like "Solitary Swedish Houses"—with its dumbstruck vocal performance and gently twisting melody—is indisputable.
"Solitary Swedish Houses" by Chappaquiddick Skyline
Charlie Parker, "Parker's Mood" As I've said before, I'm relatively weak on jazz, with the exception of the legends: Monk, Coltrane, Miles, etc. The exception to that exception is Charlie Parker. My Parker knowledge is pathetic. I had one anthology in college that I tried over and over again to get into, without much luck, and I've got the soundtrack to Bird, which I never listen to. I'm not sure what it is with me and Charlie Parker and why I'm not wowed by his work the way I am by the post-boppers I cite above. Parker's not abrasive, which can be a deal-breaker for me, and his songs don't drone on. I guess I just always get the feeling that I'm meant to be appreciating some technical or historical aspect to Parker that I just don't have the training to grasp.
"Parker's Mood" by Charlie Parker
Chavez, "You Faded" The music industry was so wide-open after Nirvana that for a couple of years, it seemed like just about every band had a chance to break wide. Heck, Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers and The Flaming Lips were all getting mainstream radio play, which would've been unthinkable when I was following all those bands back in high school. In retrospect, the New York noise-rock outfit Chavez were way too skronky to become big time, but at the time, it seemed like some kind of massive injustice that they weren't better-known. At the very least, Chavez's inability to catch on probably hastened their demise after only three years and a scant handful of recordings—which is a shame, given the potential evident in songs like this blazing rocker, dripping with hooks and sonic leakage. Bandleader Matt Sweeney laid low for years, then re-emerged recently as Billy Corgan's puppet in Zwan, and Will Oldham's worthy partner on a couple of decent LPs. Rumors of another Chavez record have been floating around since they re-formed for a few gigs in 2006. But so far nil.
"You Faded" by Chavez
to, unremarked upon:
C.C. Adcock, C. Gibbs, C. Vason, The Cables, The Caesars, Cake Like, Cal Stewart, Cal Tjader,
Caleb, Calexico, Califone, Call & Response, Call Florence Pow, Call Me Lightning, Calla, The Calling, Canada, Candy & The Kisses, Candy Machine, Canned Heat, Cannon, Canon, Canray Fontenot, The Cansecos, Canyon, Cap'n Jazz, Capitol K, Capitol Studio Orchestra, The Capitol Years, The Capstan Shafts, Carbon Leaf, Carbon/Silicon, Carey Bell, Caribou, Carl Mann, Carl Perkins, Carl Sandburg, Carmen McRae, The Carolina Tar Heels, Caroline Herring, Caroline Peyton, Carolyn Crawford, Carolyn Mark, The Carpenters, Carrie Akre, Carrie Rodriguez, Cartel, The Carter Family, Carter Little, Carter Tanton, Cary Brothers, Cary Hudson, Casey Bill Welson, Casey Neill, Cass McCombs, Cassandra Wilson, Cast Iron Filter, Castanets, The Casual Dots, Catarina Pratter, Catatonia, Catherine Tuttle, Caustic Soul, Cavalier King, Cave In, Celebration, Celebrity, Celibate Rifles, Celine Dion, Cell, Central Falls, Centro-Matic, Cerberus Shoal, Cerrito, Cesaria Evora, Ceumar, Chachi Jones, Chad Rex & The Victorstands, Chakra Bleu, Challenger, The Champs, Chance, Change, Channels, Chantal Kreviazuk, Chariots, The Charlatans, The Charlatans UK, Charlemagne, Charles Brown, Charles Douglas, Charles May, Charles River Valley Boys, Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Charley Pride, Charlie Dowell, Charlie Feathers, Charlie Mars, Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, Charlie Robison, Charlie Sexton, Charlotte Rae, Chatham County Line, Che Arthur, Cheater Pint, The Cheeksters, Cher, The Cherry Tempo, The Cherry Valence and Cheryl Lynn
Next week: From Chet Baker to Common, plus a few words on dilettantism.