Here is what I’m listening to today, Sunday 8 March 2020.
With the LPs I’m choosing one side, with the CDs picking some favourite cuts.
Chronological order, by decade (or century) seemed the way to go.
A few words about each choice round out the program.
Spinning the ethereal sounds of Hildegard von Bingen is the perfect way to start today. The 12th century abbess was a visionary, philosopher, writer, linguist and composer. She wrote music of surpassing beauty. Listening to this album is the closest I ever get to faith. Not belief—myths remain myths—but trust that humankind isn’t a total waste of energy.
Bessie Smith was called Empress Of The Blues, born into the deep south of the USA and dying there at age 43. The thirty-two songs collected on this 2-LP set were all recorded between December 1924 and February 1928, roughly mid-career for the legendary singer.
The story of Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos, aka Aunt Molly Jackson, is extraordinary. Her first husband died in a mining accident. A later mine accident blinded her father and brother. Jackson joined the United Mine Workers and wrote songs such as “Hungry Disgusted Blues” and “I Love Coal Miners, I do”. Both songs appear on this 1939 Alan Lomax recording for the Library of Congress. When she was jailed for her union activities, her husband divorced her in order to keep his job.
As a union advocate, folk singer and self-mythologiser, Jackson influenced the nascent folk scene, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, though she received very little acknowledgment during her lifetime.
In the 30s and 40s female singers were often found in front of big bands. Many of the legends of jazz—Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and others—began their careers as the featured vocalist in a travelling orchestra. Sarah Vaughan followed a similar path, becoming the singer for Earl Hines’ band in 1943. Her popularity grew throughout the 40s with Vaughan receiving many accolades, including Esquire’s New Star Award for 1947. Her versions of “Body and soul” and “Black coffee” were part of my introduction to vocal jazz. With a velvet smooth voice, wonderful range and an effortless delivery, “Sassy” deserves her place in the story of popular music. Dinah Washington’s performance of “Willow weep for me” was my first exposure to that wonderful song though in the 40s she was much more blues-orientated.
By 1957 Billie Holiday’s wonderful voice was showing the ravages of a turbulent life (she had relationships with a number of abusive men) and the effects of her self-administered medications: narcotics and alcohol. Yet despite the huskiness and occasional wavers, there is a depth of feeling in these six performances that is touching. In fact “One for my baby” makes you want to cry. [Re-issues usually add more songs to pad out the original thirty-three minute run time]
With a powerful voice equal parts honey and cinders, Bobby Gentry is a singer-songwriter whose biggest hit—the 1967 Southern Gothic classic “Ode To Billy Joe”—often overshadows her talent. The LP opener on her debut album, “Mississippi Delta”, is powerful and raw, its follow-up “I saw an angel die” a plaintive cry. Next is a loping country ballad, “Chickasaw County Child”, drenched in fiddle. Then comes “Sunday Best”, straight out of the Bacharach-David playbook… except it’s not. Other than the last song in side one (the swampy “Kiki Hoeky”), every song was written by Gentry. If you only know the hit single, try to locate a copy of this beautifully crafted record. The whole thing holds up so well I’m going to have to spin side two as well.
When one has all of the releases of an artist, it could be argued that a Best Of collection is entirely redundant. Yet it is fun to spin a compilation now and then, hearing familiar tunes in a different context. This cheap-looking 1976 LP of early Curved Air delivers more than the rather naff cover promises. Fronted by the quicksilver-voiced Sonia Kristina, Curved Air produced an instantly recognisable progressive sound that is still fresh. I love Kristina’s voice and played both sides of this one too.
Talking about distinctive voices, they don’t come much more unique and captivating that that of Elizabeth Fraser, the sound at the front end of Cocteau Twins. The Pink Opaque chose previously released tracks for a 1985 US compilation, aimed at helping them replicate their success in the UK. The Stars and Topsoil 2-LP collection is an alternative primer of this mesmerising music.
With songs by artists as diverse as Gillian Welch, Anna McGarrigle, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, you’d expect 1995’s Wrecking Ball to lack cohesion and focus. Not so. The haunting voice of Emmylou Harris and the unmistakable production style of Daniel Lanois pull this collection of songs together into not only a satisfying album, but an exemplar of how to cover the songs of others and make them your own. That’s the magic of Wrecking Ball and Emmylou. The extra material on the 3-LP re-issue is a trove of riches too.
The first Bangles song I recall noting was the hit ‘Walk like an Egyptian’. As a consequence I wrote them off as vapid popsters. Mistake. The all-female quartet were talented and creative and their albums repay attention by delivering power pop delights and ballads saturated with harmony. When they returned in 2003 with a new album, I was better informed and snapped up Doll Revolution when it crossed my path. Never heard of it? Most people haven’t, but I’m here to tell you it is fabulous. Opening with a pumped version of Elvis Costello’s “Tear off your own head (it’s a doll revolution)”, the album is full of mature ballads, thoughtful reflections and superb harmonies. Favourites include the folk infused pop of “Stealing Rosemary”, the Revolver era jangle of “Ride the ride” and the brilliant “Single by choice”—solo without self-pity is hard to pull off but Vicki Peterson does it. Doll Revolution is highly recommended.
After an interview and review of the last Bevis Frond album, Fire Records kindly sent me some promo copies of albums being released in 2019. The one most fully capturing these ears was the upcoming release of guitarist, singer, songwriter and electronic adventurer Jane Weaver. Loops In The Secret Society re-imagines music from two earlier albums, melding floating, ethereal vocals with sweet synthesiser washes and pulsing baselines. It is a beguiling album where moments of dreamy synth-pop overlap with classic electronica, held together by Ms Weaver’s voice. It is a bit of a stretch, but imagine Hildegard von Bingen collaborating with Stereolab in a glass-domed sound studio on the moon and you’ve got it, give or take some cool motorik beats.
We haven’t often covered nine centuries and ten decades in one post. Hope the concept and the journey were enjoyable.