Posts Tagged ‘Folk’
05 Jan

Week 243: “re: stacks” by Bon Iver



I used to think falsetto was for chumps.

This might be because the first time someone explained to me what falsetto was, it was in the context of “In the Jungle”, a song that I found extremely irritating at the time.

But falsetto has a long and proud history in popular music. Over the years, male singers have used their falsetto voices in a surprisingly varied array of contexts; sometimes to make us dance, sometimes to make us hurt, sometimes to make us kiss. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the high-pitched male voice is a tool used across the spectrum of popular music. Then I felt an uncontrollably nerdy urge to make a graph to illustrate the point. Here it is:

Falsetto Analysis

So, having spent a mildly embarrassing amount of time making the graph above, I invite you to enjoy what has now been (scientifically?) proven to be the indie-est, heatbreaking-est song of them all.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s so very indie. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I mean that it’s the blueprint for independent music: recorded by one guy in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Recorded with lo-fi equipment. Recorded with no greater ambitions than a small-scale self-release. Recorded independent of the structure and expectations of the music industry.

2. It’s so very heartbreaking. Justin Vernon was fresh off a break-up and the dissolution of his previous band when he wrote this, and it shows; “This my excavation…this is pouring rain, this is paralyzed.”

3. The vocals and the guitar are each recorded twice, one panned left and the other panned right. It gives the impression of someone singing in front of a mirror, the only audience he can find.

Recommended listening activity:

Looking longingly out a coffee shop window.

03 Nov

Week 234: “River Man” by Nick Drake



For someone who’s interested in music, I feel like I’ve overlooked Nick Drake. I was vaguely aware of his existence, thanks to the “Garden State” soundtrack, but vague awareness was about as far as it went. People would rave about his music, and I would put it on my mental to-do list, along with that restaurant I should try, and that TV show I should watch. Just never got around to it. Mental to-do lists have a way of being overlooked.

But I don’t feel bad about it, because being overlooked is one of the themes of Nick Drake’s life.

His music barely registered in the public consciousness during his life. His three records didn’t sell, and he didn’t gain any kind of popularity until a generation after he died. He hated performing live, and as a result, no video footage exists of any of his concerts. Or interviews. Or studio sessions. In fact, there is no known video footage of his adult life at all.

Apart from his music, the only available insights into his life come from the recollections of family and friends in various documentaries about him. And even in those documentaries, one gets the impression that none of the people interviewed really knew him that well. In the aptly-titled “A Stranger Among Us”, his sister comments that Drake “very much compartmentalized his life…one group of friends never got to know another group of friends.” Another person recalls that he was difficult to get to know because “he wasn’t really there. He was the most spectral person I ever met.”

It’s as if he floated unseen between the different people in his life, but never anchored himself to any of them. As if he only existed in audio format, a ghost who managed to sneak into the recording studio and leave us with a few lovely songs before disappearing again.

He died 40 years ago this month. So if, like me, you’ve been overlooking Nick Drake, now might be the perfect time for you to get acquainted with one of the most ethereal figures in modern music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chord progression is wonderful. That first chord change is especially yummy.

2. The string arrangement is gorgeous. It’s the work of Harry Robertson, another forgotten composer, who spent most of his career writing music and scripts for movies.

3. Like Drake’s own life, the song fades out abruptly and unceremoniously. He leaves us with the enigmatic line, “Oh, how they come and go…”

Recommended listening activity:

Finding forgotten items in the pockets of clothing you haven’t worn in a while.

20 Oct

Week 232: “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon (as covered by The Honey Ants)



Because Paul Simon’s Graceland album was a staple of my family’s long road trips, I have heard the original “You Can Call Me Al” many, many times. And, with all due respect to the undisputed songwriting prowess of Paul Simon, this version is better.

Actually, let me rephrase that: this version brings out everything that was good about the song already. The original “You Can Call Me Al” has the quirky and introspective lyrics that are a trademark of Paul Simon’s career. The problem was that it was released in 1986, and so it is stamped with everything that was silly about music in the 80s. Dated synthesizers. Bland-sounding horns. Echoing drum kits. Chevy Chase. Quirky and introspective comes off as campy and fluffy.

Pretty much the only thing it had going for it was the world’s greatest 5-second bass solo.

Okay, I’m being too hard on it. It’s a classic tune from one of the 80s’ best albums. But you’ve got to hand it to The Honey Ants; this is a lovely version of Simon’s song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The synths are replaced by a sweetly plucked acoustic guitar. And even better, they don’t try to imitate the famous synth line from the original.

2. Without all the extra instrumentation, the lyrics have more room to breathe. To be honest, I never realized that the lyrics included the word “bonedigger” until I heard this version.

3. The harmonies, not present in the original, are reminiscent of the Simon & Garfunkel days.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-kindling a connection with a childhood friend.

13 Oct

Week 231: “Home Again” by Michael Kiwanuka


Official site.

One of the weirdest things about growing up is that at some point, in conversations about visiting home, you stop calling the place you’re visiting “my house.” Suddenly, it’s “my parents’ house”.

Suddenly, you realize how dated the décor in their house is. You notice that the way they organize the kitchen doesn’t make sense. And how is it possible that they still don’t have a flat-screen TV?

Like most growing-up-type things, this change happens imperceptibly, and it’s only really obvious after it’s happened. But you can’t let it get to you. After all, one day someone else (who may or may not be born yet) will feel the same way about your house.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The only percussion in the first verse is the tapping of his foot.

2. The shaker that comes in at 1:09 sounds like a tiny train.

3. Something about Michael Kiwanuka’s voice gives you the impression that he’s not singing “to” anyone; he would sing the same way whether he was in a sold-out stadium or the basement of his parents’ house.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-discovering your childhood house’s best hide-and-seek spots.

Tags: , , ,
08 Sep

Week 226: “Waltz #1” by Elliott Smith (as covered by Christopher O’Riley)



I’m usually a bit wary of tribute albums. Tribute albums are the musical equivalent of mandatory staff meetings at work: there are too many of them, and they rarely offer any new information.

My wariness level is even higher if the tribute album in question is paying homage to a recently-dead artist. It’s very tempting to write it off as opportunism. Aren’t you supposed to eulogize someone in your own words? With your own songs? Do we need new versions of classics anyway?

But I don’t get those pessimistic feelings with “Home To Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute”. Pianist Christopher O’Riley doesn’t try to do too much, or add excessive orchestration. His versions of Smith’s songs are simple piano renditions, subtly different but still recognizable. I probably wouldn’t listen to the album all day, but his version of Waltz #1 is perfect.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. O’Riley layers the piano parts in the same way that Smith used to layer his vocals.

2. The notes repeatedly glide up the scale in a way that reminds me of (don’t ask me why) empty ski lifts going up a hill.

3. The chord changes at 2:36 are unexpected and wonderful.

Recommended listening activity:

Framing your favourite photo of you and your best friend.

11 Aug

Week 222: “Dry the Rain” by The Beta Band



I recently read that 1999 was the worst year in the history of music.

It’s not just with the benefit of hindsight that people are saying this. Even at the time, people were proclaiming it to be a forgettable year. And I have to admit, when you look at a list of the top-selling albums of 1999, you get the feeling you’re also looking at a list of albums most commonly found in boxes on the street outside people’s  houses in 2003.

The proliferation of musical mediocrity from that year probably has to do with sheer numbers. These were the last days of an era when people were willing to pay $20 for a CD that had one good song on it. The Internet hadn’t yet become the giant musical quality-control machine that it is today, so record labels could still afford to over-charge and under-deliver. The result was the watered-down quality bemoaned in the articles linked above.

But of course, there were some great albums released in 1999. (Including the album that produced the song featured in this blog’s very first week.)

“The Three EPs” is one of my favourites.  Along with DJ Shadow’s “Entroducing”, I listened to it constantly in 1999, and it’s the perfect end-of-century album. Recorded in 1997 and 1998, and finally released in the US in 1999, this album pulls together influences from previous decades in a way that makes it seem to float above other music of the time. It’s definitely…90s-ish, but it’s connected to that sound by a very thin thread, and it has aged much better than, say, Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The combination of samples and live instruments on this album that nobody (except maybe Beck) has ever done so seamlessly.

2. The slide guitar makes me think of a yawning cat.

3. There’s a really nice laid-back feeling to the whole thing, from the vocals to the bass line to the not-quite-in-tune horns that bring the song to its peak.

Recommended listening activity:

Walking past an empty storefront that used to be a Blockbuster Video.

16 Jun

Week 214: “Hello My Old Heart” by The Oh Hellos



I really like the name of this band. It’s the perfect expression of the small but happy surprises that make life fun.

You’re leaving your house in the morning and (oh, hello!) a neighbourhood cat has decided to greet you by weaving its way around your ankles. You put on a pair of pants you haven’t worn in a while and (oh, hello!) there’s a crumpled $5 bill in the pocket. You make a quick trip to the grocery store and (oh, hello!) the item you were going to buy anyway is on sale for super cheap.

It’s those tiny detours from expectation that can brighten your day.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The “ba-dum bah” vocals at the beginning.

2. The way the guitar counts itself in at 1:18.

3. After three soft-spoken, thoughtful minutes, it suddenly (oh, hello!) turns into a toe-tapping, hand-clapping joy-fest at 3:24.

Recommended listening activity:

Being pleasantly surprised.

26 May

Week 211: “If You Can’t Sleep” by She & Him



Remember when you were a kid, and you’d been at some kind of family event that went so late you had to be carried back out to the car, in a state of semi-sleep?

More specifically, do you remember the way your mother’s voice sounded as she carried you to the car?

It didn’t sound the way it normally did. As she said goodbye to everyone and apologized for her child’s inability to stay awake, her voice sounded strange, because one of your ears was pressed against her chest. It made her voice sound kind of muffled, deeper than usual. You could literally feel her voice as soft vibrations, even if you couldn’t fully make out the words.

Listening to this song (especially through headphones) is the closest you’re likely to get to that unique and fantastically relaxing experience.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening chords are gorgeous. Really reminds me of this sleep-related song by Sarah Slean.

2. There isn’t really a tempo; it slows down and speeds up as it needs to.

3. The cathedral-level of reverb on the voices. Insomnia doesn’t stand a chance.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting comfy. Like this, if possible.

14 Apr

Week 205: “Au Cinema” by Lianne La Havas



If you’re skipping work and you can’t decide what to do with yourself, I would highly recommend going to the movies in the middle of the day.

It doesn’t matter what movie you see, as long as it’s a weekday matinee. The theatre will be mostly empty, you’ll have your choice of seats, you can take your shoes off, put your feet up…it’s like a private slumber party on a Wednesday afternoon. Plus, there’s the surprise of leaving the theatre in full daylight. It feels like you’ve had a night out, but you’ve still got the whole afternoon to yourself.

And then you can go back to work on Thursday and tell everyone about the weird stomach bug that kept you home all day. But it’s okay, you watched a movie and slept it off.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The light guitar at the opening is like rain on a windshield.

2. As the song builds towards the chorus at 1:50, (“no pause, no rewind…”) you get the impression that the chorus is going to be huge. But when the chorus arrives, it’s a gentle, tumbling melody that wouldn’t hurt a fly.

3. La Havas’ voice ranges from a breathy Feist-like whisper to a soaring Janelle Monae-like croon.

Recommended listening activity:

Not checking your email.

Tags: , ,
03 Mar

Week 199: “Advanced Falconry” by Mutual Benefit



I’m not really the type to get excited when the Renaissance Faire comes to town, and I will probably never invest in an outfit made of chainmail.

But falconry? Falconry is cool.

Several years ago, I went to a falconry show in the medieval town of Provins, an hour or so outside Paris. To watch the show, you sit in an open auditorium, surrounded by the castle walls on all sides. You are told that during the show you are not to take any photos, not to speak…in fact, you really should not move at all once they bring out the birds.

This isn’t an empty warning, like you get at the start of a roller coaster. If you make any sudden movements during the falconry show, you may leave with 50% of the eyeballs you arrived with.

As you sit, one of the trainers enters with a bird the size of a toddler, which promptly flies off and sits on a distant turret. The trainer then walks behind you, and dangles a delicious morsel of meat just behind your ear. On the faraway turret, the bird turns. You can tell he’s seen the yummy snack. He shuffles his talons, spreads his wings, and takes off in a graceful trajectory…straight towards you. His eyes lock on their target, with a death stare that could probably melt metal.

It is at this moment that you try to calculate whether it’s possible to stay perfectly still while peeing your pants. Would the eagle notice? Is its sense of smell as acute as its sight?

But before you can answer these questions, the eagle puts on the brakes, stretches out its talons, and flutters its wings, which graze the top of your head while it grabs the piece of meat just behind you.

Never before has peeing your pants been so worth it.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The pattern in the guitar reminds me of the opening of “Sweet Unrest” by Apparat.

2. The strings, especially around the 4-minute mark, are sweeping and graceful. Eagle-ish, almost.

3. The voices that end the song sound like a relieved sigh.

Recommended listening activity:

Adding feathers to an item of clothing.

Tags: , ,
17 Feb

Week 197: “All The While” by Barzin


Available February 24th from Monotreme Records.

With some songs, it’s the melody that gets lodged in your brain. It’s a guitar lick, a little line on the piano, or the catch “na-na-na” of a chorus.

But the part of “All The While” by Barzin that has been running laps in my mind for weeks isn’t a melody, but a lyric – “All the while you wait for your heart to wake up.” Something about that simple sentence really grabbed me, and got me thinking.

This is what it got me thinking: Longing is overrated.

I realize that a large percentage of modern music was written by people whose main motivation was longing for something; longing for the person you let walk away…longing for the childhood you can’t get back…the future you’re worried you won’t be able to live up to…

…but after a certain point, longing stops being romantic. There’s nothing exciting about unrequited love. So you sat there and watched her walk away. How is that romantic? You can’t wait around for things to happen. You have to jump in. Nothing is more romantic than risk.

And that’s what I take from that sentence: All the while you wait for your heart to wake up. I have no idea if Barzin meant it this way, but I hear him saying that if you spend all your time longing for something, your heart might never wake up.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening guitar, delicate and finger-picked.

2. The strings that join in at the first chorus. Nothing fancy, just filling out the sound.

3. The backup vocals on that key phrase in the chorus. So quiet you can barely hear them.

Recommended listening activity:

Replacing your list of things that could have been with a list of things that are.

Tags: , ,
09 Dec

Week 187: “Calico Skies” by Paul McCartney



In August of 1991, Hurricane Bob was born out of an area of low pressure near the Bahamas.

Despite the innocuous, almost friendly-sounding name, Bob was a big one. Within a few days, the storm had ripped up the east coast of the United States, killing 15 people and causing $1.5 billion in damage. At the time, it was the second costliest hurricane in American history. More than 2 million people were left without power.

One of those people was Paul McCartney, who was staying on Long Island at the time. During the extended blackout, McCartney entertained himself by picking up an acoustic guitar and writing several simple, lovely songs, one of which was this one.

So while Hurricane Bob was certainly bad news for the eastern seaboard, grateful McCartney fans might just consider giving Bob a songwriting credit for this little gem.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. When he recorded it years after the hurricane, McCartney decided to keep it simple, and avoided the temptation to over-orchestrate.

2. Like most of his best songs, the melody sits near the top of his vocal range, forcing him to strain just slightly to hit the higher notes.

3. It starts as a love song, but adopts an anti-war sentiment in the last verse.

Recommended listening activity:

Anything, as long as it’s done by candlelight.

Tags: , , ,
14 Oct

Week 179: “Old Welsh Song” by Joan Baez



Wales, as a country, seems to fly under most people’s radar. I can’t help but think of it as the quiet kid in the corner of the class who everyone forgets is there.

Within the United Kingdom, Wales is overshadowed by its neighbours. England tends to get all the glory. Ireland is known around the world as the land of Guinness and leprechauns, and Scotland as the place where Braveheart beat up English people while wearing a skirt. But Wales gets overlooked, a forgotten corner of the British Isles.

It’s a fascinating county. Looking at a map, you’d think that the person in charge of typing in the place names got bored and decided to mash his hands on the keyboard, unleashing strings of unintelligible consonants. Abercynffig. Tan-y-mynydd. Mwynbwll. And this place, which I won’t bother trying to type.

The more I read about Wales, the sorrier I feel for it. Its wonderfully perplexing language is in decline; of the 3 million or so people who live in Wales, fewer than 20% speak the native tongue. Its national holiday, St. David’s Day, gets nowhere near the publicity of St. Patrick’s Day. Even its actors don’t bring the country the fame it deserves. Timothy Dalton took the role of James Bond for two movies before being replaced by Pierce Brosnan, who was seen as “more British” by American audiences…despite being Irish. And I bet you didn’t know Catherine Zeta-Jones is Welsh, did you?

All this brings me to Joan Baez’s 1968 album “Baptism”. The album sets poems to music, and features words by Blake, Joyce, Whitman, Cummings, and many others. With such an all-star roster of poets on the record, I was excited to see that “Old Welsh Song” was given opening track status on the album. “Way to go, Wales!” I thought.

Then I discovered that the poem is by an Englishman.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Baez’ voice, with its distinct, fluttery vibrato.

2. The line about “the house that my father’s hands made” is a nice echo of the title of the Welsh national anthem, “Land of our Fathers”.

3. It’s such a short song. If it were the last song on the album, people would refer to it as a “footnote”. But being track number 1, it feels more like a title page. And Wales deserves to be on a title page.

Recommended listening activity:

Betting on the underdog.

19 Aug

Week 171: “Keep” by Nils Frahm



If I ever visit Germany, the first city I will visit is Hamburg. And when I get to Hamburg, the first place I will go is an exhibit called Miniatur Wunderland.

Miniatur Wunderland (which Wikipedia helpfully points out is German for “miniature wonderland”) is the world’s largest miniature railway. It’s a tiny world all its own, with dozens of landscapes, hundreds of trains, 200 000 tiny human figurines, and more than 12km of track. If it existed when I was 8 years old, there’s a good chance I would have run away from home to live there.

As well as being home to this tiny train-topia, Germany is home to musician/composer Nils Frahm, who creates soundscapes as intricate and captivating as Miniatur Wunderland’s models. So if (when) I make it to Hamburg to visit the world’s biggest model train set, my personal soundtrack for the occasion will be “Keep” by Nils Frahm.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s got all kinds of similar yet distinct sounds; piano, glockenspiel, xylophone…sometimes I think I can hear the persistent ding of a level crossing.

2. It’s got crazy cross-rhythms. Threes and fours overlap like points on a railway.

3. It doesn’t fade in or out; it just starts, happens, and stops.

Recommended listening activity:

Standing on a bridge overlooking the tracks.

27 May

Week 159: “Mexico” by The Staves



People don’t really listen to whole albums anymore.

I’m not trying to sound snooty, because my own listening habits have changed as much as the next person’s. It’s just that technology today makes music consumption less like a three-course sit-down meal, and more like a cocktail party where you make your way from platter to platter eating tiny triangular sandwiches.

When CD technology made it possible for bands to create 70 minutes of uninterrupted music, many artists put together their albums as a logical progression of music. In one way, the digitization of music has brought it back to the days of the 45rpm record, when bands were known for their singles. Only now, the 45rpm record is the viral video or the 99-cent download.

I used to buy an album and really get to know it, to the point where I would know the name, lyrics, and even the length of each track. I would know the transitions so well that hearing the end of one song would trigger the beginning of the next song in my head. That doesn’t happen as much anymore.

But it did with the album “Dead & Born & Grown” by The Staves. And if you have a hammock and 43 minutes to spare, you won’t regret giving the whole thing a listen.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The super quiet guitar. Not sure if it’s just really far back in the mix, or if the guitar strings hadn’t been replaced in a while, but it adds to the song’s delicate feel.

2. The harmonies. If they ever collaborated with The Good Lovelies, the harmonies would be so rich that all the birds in the immediate area would instantly land on their arms.

3. The bridge at 2:55. The Staves are clever songwriters, and in many of their songs they throw in a quick little something for the listener’s ear to feast on before getting back to the chorus again. Sometimes it’s a whistle solo, sometimes it’s an acapella breakdown. In this song it’s just a little ooh and aah, but it’s enough to add a third dimension.

Recommended listening activity:

Starting a cover-to-cover re-reading of your favourite book.

Tags: , ,
13 May

Week 157: “To Hear Still More” by Brian Harnetty and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy



The next time you’re feeling stressed out, go to the library. Hang out there for a while, and I guarantee that you will start to feel better.

Libraries are the perfect place to de-stress. Especially big libraries. They’ve got all the grandeur, reverence, and peacefulness of a church. They’ve got the comfort and warmth of a living room. Everybody’s welcome, especially these days, when the internet has eliminated many people’s need to visit.

A few weeks ago I spent a couple of blissful hours in my city’s biggest library. I found a quiet corner by a window, way up on the fifth floor, and just sat doing nothing for a couple of hours. That’s the other great thing about libraries; they’re all about books, but you don’t have to go there to read. You don’t really have to do anything. It’s not like a store where the staff will start to look at you funny if you don’t buy anything.

For a while I just sat there, enjoying the almost overwhelming silence. It’s a bizarre feeling to be surrounded by stacks upon stacks of words, but not hear anyone speaking. After a while I put in my headphones and listened to some music. This song came on, and it immediately struck me as the perfect library anthem.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Parts of it sound like a music box in slow-motion.

2. Parts of it sound like a sleeping accordion.

3. There’s no real melody, tempo, or structure. Just a couple minutes of peace.

Recommended listening activity:

Picking books at random, and reading their first and last sentences.

18 Mar

Week 149: “Sandrevan Lullaby/Lifestyles” by Rodriguez


The story of Sixto Rodriguez is the most incredible, unlikely, and moving rock & roll fairy tale of all time. You’ve probably already heard it, but in case you don’t, here’s the bullet point version:

  • Working-class guy from Detroit writes some songs in the early 70s.
  • Gets signed to a label, releases two records.
  • They sell terribly. Record label folds in 1975. Career over.
  • Years pass. His two records become incredibly popular in South Africa.
  • He has no idea, because someone else is collecting his royalties.
  • His songs become anthems for the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s and 90s.
  • He becomes a legend in South Africa, literally more popular than Elvis. He has no idea.
  • They assume he’s dead; rumours circulate he killed himself years earlier.
  • After the fall of apartheid, a few devoted fans aim to search him out.
  • They find him, still working manual labour in Detroit.
  • He goes to South Africa and plays in front of thousands of delirious fans who thought he had been dead for decades.

To hear this story told more eloquently than can be done in bullet points, I highly recommend the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”, which finally earned Rodriguez a bit of recognition in his homeland.

The best part is that it’s not just a nice story; Rodriguez is a really good songwriter. His political protest folk ballads are as good as any that were popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Perhaps better.

This song, a two-in-one type of song that showcases both the instrumental and vocal sides of Rodriguez, is probably my favourite, and serves as a good introduction for those who aren’t familiar with his music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening guitar. They use this little lick several times in the movie. Pure plinky sunshiney goodness.

2. The string section. It really helps the song blossom in the chorus. The ascending scale at 3:31 really reminds me of the “oh no, not me” part at 0:46 of “The Man Who Sold The World”.

3. Rodriguez himself. He’s incredibly Zen for a guy who writes protest songs, and I feel like it comes across in his voice. Unsurprisingly, his recent fame hasn’t changed him. He lives in the same Detroit apartment he’s always lived in. Money from his recent tours goes mostly to his daughters. And although he was cheated out of years of royalties, he never instigated any lawsuits. When asked on CNN if he felt hatred towards those who had gotten rich off him, he said, “hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on people you don’t like.”

Recommended listening activity:

Letting go of a helium-filled balloon and watching it float away.

07 Jan

Week 139: “Trouble” by Cat Stevens


By the end of 1967, Cat Stevens was doing pretty well for himself. His first album, Matthew and Son, was doing well, and the title track had risen to #2 in the UK. He had toured with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, and was set to release a new album, optimistically entitled New Masters.

But luck has a funny way of turning around. The new album didn’t chart, and in a strange bout of desperation, he sold the rights to one of its songs to soul diva P.P. Arnold for £30. The song was “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, and it became the biggest hit of her career.

And then, before you could say, “at least you’ve still got your health”, Stevens contracted Tuberculosis. Upon his admittance to hospital, he was near death, and suffered a collapsed lung. Thankfully, he survived. But the experience changed him. His music veered away from pop and towards folk. His lyrics became more thoughtful and personal. During his months of recovery he wrote some of his best songs, including this one, a quiet anthem to survival.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The simple instrumentation in the first verse makes him seem very alone, as if he’s playing guitar to himself on the edge of his hospital bed.

2. The piano that peeks out at 1:42 is like a little ray of hope.

3. It ends abruptly, with the line, “I don’t want no fight and I haven’t got a lot of time.” It’s like he’s decided that enough is enough, it’s time to get on with his life, so he’s up and out of the hospital just like that. Which is kind of what happened. Within two years of his near-death experience, Stevens had released two platinum-selling albums, and was well on his way to becoming one of the most beloved folkies of all time.

Recommended listening activity:

Ripping off a band-aid.

09 Jul

Week 113: “Sit Still” by Christopher Stopa


The first few months of 2012 were pretty strange for Christopher Stopa.

A baker with a passion for music, Stopa had been in a band which, a decade earlier, had played some shows, released some songs, and enjoyed what was at the time a burgeoning music scene in Toronto. Years passed, and the recordings from those early days sat collecting dust.

You can imagine his surprise when he read a story on the internet about a “lost Radiohead recording”, and clicked the link, only to hear one of his own songs played back to him. Somehow, one of those early demos had been leaked, with the completely fabricated backstory that Radiohead had some previously unreleased material from the mid-90s that had only just been uncovered.

The truth came out, CNN got in touch, and Stopa’s saga became one of the stranger overnight success stories in independent music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The brushes on the drums. I love it when drummers play with brushes. It sounds like someone shuffling around in their slippers.

2. Stopa’s voice. It’s no wonder he was mistaken for Thom Yorke; the falsetto in the first chorus, and his delicate, slightly mumbled delivery is worthy of the comparison.

3. He lets it rip in the final chorus. Listen to it two or three times and the temptation to raise a triumphant rock n’ roll hand at 2:49 will become difficult to resist.

Recommended listening activity:

Making a new tea towel out of an old t-shirt.

Tags: , , ,
02 Jul

Week 112: “July Flame” by Laura Viers


Where I live, the seasons are so extreme that when you’re in the middle of one, it’s impossible to imagine that the other ever existed.

In the depths of winter, when you walk in a permanent shrug to keep your scarf pressed up against your cheekbones, you look up at the bare trees and it seems ridiculous that they ever had leaves. You know they looked green once, but it’s difficult to picture it.

But a few weeks of summer is all it takes to experience the opposite effect. You see your comically bulky winter coat tucked in the closet, and you can’t believe there will ever be a time when you will need to wear it. You can’t understand why you ever wore so much clothing.

So to help you enjoy another endless summer that will be over before you know it, here’s a wonderful song by Laura Viers.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Her voice is doubled. Lots of singers do this (John Lennon did it all the time) and for some reason, the resulting sound makes me think of the optical illusion of heat waves rising from the street.

2. The drums. They never really break out into a standard rhythm, sticking instead to a steady heartbeat on the toms.

3. The video. It’s done in stop-motion and it features all your favourite summertime animals. If you still need convincing, it’s also got fireworks made of peaches. And what could possibly say “summer” more than fireworks made of peaches?

Recommended listening activity:

Making a drink with a 1-to-1 ratio of liquid to ice cubes.