A PLAYLIST FOR TODAY

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.

 

20 comments

  1. That’s quite a journey. I only know some music from a handful of artists on your playlist.

    Count me among the folks who knew The Bangles from their first run, but didn’t pay attention thereafter. Yes, after listening to “Eternal Flame” on the radio back in Germany for the gazillionth time, you felt like killing the DJ. But generally speaking, I found The Bangles’ harmony singing pretty enjoyable. Based on listening into a few tracks, “Doll Revolution” sounds promising.

    As for Emmylou Harris, I’ve had the fortune to see her open for John Mellencamp a few years ago. That lady is a true class act, which I increasingly realize the more music I hear from her. I’m definitely planning to take a closer look at “Wrecking Ball.”

    BTW, as I’m writing this, I’m listening into “The Pink Opaque” by Cocteau Twins – I had never heard of them before. Spontaneously, I have to agree their music has something! Obviously, I have to give them a more careful listening.

    Good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic responses, Christian. I missed EH when she toured Wrecking Ball, a decision I regret. Delighted something in your CT dabble caught your ears!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Bangles clearly time-warped in from the ’60’s, really well-done and enjoyable pop music. Sometimes on a rainy Sunday, I’ll listen to one of the Susannah Hoffs/Matthew Sweet “Under the Covers” – but I have to say, just like popcorn or other really tasty snackfoods, you can’t exist on Hoffs’ voice as a steady diet, it begins to pall.
    Other than the radio, I’ve only heard Hildegard of Bingen on a disc by Anonymous 4, and it’s wonderful, a pretty otherworldly experience – – you’re right, a bit of evidence for the defense, that humans aren’t just a bunch of particularly nasty monkey-creatures. Wouldn’t it be kind of neat if the Cocteau Twins holed up in the abbey and reinterpreted Bingen’s stuff, they also seem to be able to take off and escape gravity sometimes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    All female artists too I think, for International Women’s Day! Well done, Bruce!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Bill.

      Like

  4. Damn, never heard of Aunt Molly Jackson. She apparently influenced my folk heroes and I never knew it! I’ll start looking for her at the album fairs now, thanks! Also wasn’t aware of the Bangles release you mention (Doll Revolution) — that was released in the year when I sold my stereo and all the vinyl; otherwise known as the Dark Ages. Good stuff here, Bruce. I love the Cocteaus! – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A fine post, Bruce – I don’t know those specific Emmylou & Billie recordings but I know a couple from those approximate time frames.
    from the 1001 list, Billie’s Lady in Satin is a difficult listen (for the reasons you mentioned), but like you said, quite moving.
    And Emmylou’s Red Dirt Girl was new-to-me a few years ago but it has not drifted very far from the listening rotation ever since!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reckon you’d find much to enjoy in Wrecking Ball, Geoff. With Lady Day, early is good, particularly the recordings with Teddy Wilson on piano. Lots of comps out there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bruce – as luck would have it, on the drive home from work, the afternoon show on CBC radio was playing songs that name-checked the city of Ottawa.
        Emmylou’s Where Will I Be was on that playlist!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s a sign, Geoff!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds like you had a fine Sunday, Bruce. Both concept and journey extremely enjoyable! (As is the funky artwork on the Jane Weaver cover). Sarah V is a particular favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is possible I’m showing my age, JDB, but I’ll take Sarah over Shakira and Billie over Beyonce.

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      1. I’m your absolute alliterative ally in that, VC!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Some real good listening Bruce. Common ground on quite a few. The jazz ladies are faves. I was just listening to Dinah Washington a while ago. Her and Esther Phillips could be voice sisters.
    Will have to check out the Curved Air just because you said so. Also curious on the Aunt Molly. I love that kinda music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roots music can be like a palette cleanser, can’t it? Though I tend to listen in small sips.🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Depends who it is. Pretty primitive but lots of hard earned experience goes into it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Agreed, CB. The raw humanity can be very grounding.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I have a few of those Lomax recordings kicking around. Woody Guthrie is one. Just the way he talks to ‘Alan’ . His unique personality comes through. These folks didn’t know much more than hard times. Woody was a walking heartbreak with a sense of humor.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. I listened to the tracks you highlighted on the Bangles’ Doll Revolution. But they will stay in the ‘vapid pop’ bin in the Crotchety archives, I’m afraid. I do like the Jane Weaver album, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah well, a 50% hit rate will have to do. 🙂

      Like

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