Artist: Macy Gray
This sweet bit of R&B is the first single from the American songstress’ debut, 1999’s On How Life Is. Do Something highlights Gray’s scratchy yet intimate voice, the lifeblood of this vividly emotive song about inner resolve and acting in good faith. The sombre, bittersweet backing strings hearken back to Marvin Gaye and his penchant for creating some poignantly elegant moments - no surprise, given how much blue warmth lurks in tong: his soulful little tune.
Song: Rubber Bullets
Rubber Bullets is from 10CC’s debut album, 1973’s 10CC. The stock in trade of the lads from Stockport, England’s was liberally mixing up musical motifs via terrific technical chops and seamlessly glossy production. Routinely they would switch between straight-ahead pop and arty, recombinant mutant creations - either way their musical dexterity shone though, with creamy vocal harmonies and tempos and moods dramatically changing on the fly.
In Northern Ireland rubber bullets were being used to counter rioting; in America, the Kent State massacre had occurred in Ohio only a year previously - the song, with its satirical focus on forceful state intervention, fit right in. For a song about a violent prison riot, it’s decidedly gleeful. Released as 10CC’s first single, the track shot straight to the top of the UK charts. Riffing on the innocent golden Americana of the Beach Boys and using crazy double-tracked guitars, it’s an ambitious slice of crafty pop peppered with pungent vocal commentary. Fantastic vocals and a punchy attack make this track an infectious standout. Check out the live version below.
Band: Mouse On Mars
This sprightly instrumental hails from Mouse on Mars’ second album, 1995’s Iaora Tahiti. The German electronica duo of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma have been collaborating since 1993, revelling in the old school charm of analogue synths and making judicious use of odd, unexpected sound effects and other intangibles while wandering freely between dance, ambient and harder stuff. Kanu is a bright bit of percolating positivity given impetus by guest drummer Dodo NKishi. It’s fairly indicative of the duo’s earlier efforts (primarily abstract, instrumental excursions; in recent years they’ve dabbled more in overtly pop motifs, vocalizing more frequently and playing more live instruments to keep things fresh. Ten albums in, it’s an act well worth investigating. Kanu is an upbeat morning song to gently nudge your brain into gear and get you spun up to speed - it has a certain bustling charm.
Song: Zoot Allures
Artist: Frank Zappa
The late Frank Zappa possessed an incisive mind and rapier wit, especially when it came to social commentary. But for all that, he was often at his best when he simply shut up and played his guitar. His 1976 release Zoot Allures is from the one and only Warner Bros album - a departure from his regular label DiscReet Records, thanks to an acrimonious lawsuit with his former manager. Whatever tensions Zappa was experiencing in his professional musical life are not reflected in the album’s title track, a self-contained, lazy blossom of a piece almost regal in its indifference to the cares of the world. This blissfully exotic instrumental is painted with the striking hues of luscious, complex chords and informed by quintessentially Zappa-esque arrangements - muscular, fluid, ambitious and deeply committed. Stylistically it straddles some fine-grained, invisible line between jazz and lounge. It has all the subtle persuasion of fine ambient music yet it’s packed with detail and nuance; there are plenty of open spaces permeating Zoot Allures, reinforcing the impression of relaxed confidence and, as strange as it sounds, disciplined whimsy. Zappa’s guitar is the star of the show but his emphasis on strong ensemble performance is reflected in the lineup - huge props to his long-time drummer Terry Bozio, Dave Parlato on bass, Ruth Underwood on Marimba and Lu Ann Nel on harp.
A vivid work oozing effortlessly into a mysterious elsewhere.
Song: Casimir Pulaski Day
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens, a Detroit native son, follows his own brilliant path. I'm a little in awe of this prodigious multi-instrumentalist and musical iconoclast. The first time I heard this tune, from Stevens’ 5th studio album Illinois (2005), it got to me; I’ve since come to associate it with the passing of a friend who succumbed to cancer, as does the girl referred to in this song - both individuals taken down by dint of inexplicable circumstance. This is not a despondent song though, it’s something else entirely: an eerily distilled, mysteriously radiant thing. I hear a bit of Neil Young in the gentle loping acoustic guitar introduction and Stevens’ plaintive, earnest voice throughout, but I also hear old timey Americana in its use of banjo and horn. There is, shimmering beneath the deceptively simple surface of this track, a quiet but abiding presence beyond words. The elemental persuasiveness of this tribute is the track’s most mesmerizing trait. You might want to look up the many live variations of this tune on YouTube - the superb studio version can be heard below.
Song: And Then So Clear
Artist: Brian Eno
This grave, gentle song feels like a eulogy delivered up for a some dearly beloved individual whose life was cut short far too soon. Eno sings through a vocoder, pitching his voice eerily upwards; the net effect is reedy and processed, suggesting the spooky image of an alien visitor looking down on a dying planet earth, noting how much promise the place once held, how much was thoughtlessly squandered. It’s an evocative, deeply reflective song, the tenor of which is very much in keeping with its companion tracks on Another Day On Earth, Eno’s 2005 solo studio album (the first one in 25 years in which the hugely influential musician and producer actually sang, and a project which took four years to realize). Eno’s concern for the natural environment and humanity’s impact on it is a prime thematic mover and the result is a series of intricately distilled songs which gracefully navigate around the treacherous shoals of preachiness and eye-glazing cliches. And Then So Clear is an austere, poetic gem of a song which keeps reverberating.
Song: Sweetheart Contract
Another post-punk act that cooked up some great songs. This is from the Manchester band’s third studio release, 1980’s The Correct Use of Soap. Ex Buzzcocks member Howard Devoto, Magaine’s frontman and lead vocalist, always struck me as the weak link in this lineup simply for his excessive sneering theatricality; the man just never sounded even remotely sincere (perhaps that was simply his schtick and I simply never got it). No matter - his delivery was always integral to the band’s vibe. In his own characteristically oblique way, Devoto romps over a tautly-woven, bouncy track. Best line of the song, offered up repeatedly: “I was dominant for hours.”
Yet what really clicked for me was the arrangements and fantastic chops of the lads arrayed behind Devoto. Barry Adamson’s lively bass sets the tone with its stupendous elasticity and energy; Dave Formula was one of the most innovative and melodious keyboard players of the era and guitarist John McGeoch along with drummer John Doyle filled out the roster - this disciplined backing quarter meshed tightly together to forge the band’s signature musical DNA.
Posted by Max MacDonald
Song: Dancing Barefoot (Remix)
Artist: MC 900 Ft. Jesus
I found this buoyant, infectious number on the 1993 compilation Possessed: Nettwerk Sound Sampler, Volume 4. Here MC 900 Ft. Jesus (otherwise known as Mark Griffith, hailing from Dallas Texas) does a remix of his original track Dancing Barefoot (from his second album, 1991’s Welcome To My Dream). It’s wickedly loose, funky, lateral and bubbly, with echoing female vocals doing some kind of uncanny cosmic underwater scat thing, someone skillfully riffing away on cool rhythm guitar, a big phat bass line, beefy, dynamic drums and who knows what else. This ‘lil thing cooks.
Posted by Max MacDonald
Song: Maximum Acceleration
New wave awesomeness that arrived in 1978, from the Manchester band’s third album, Systems of Romance. It was a solid album with interesting moments that piqued the interest of at least some critics, but as a commercial enterprise it was a flop. It was also the last album with lead vocalist John Foxx; the band was to shortly change its sound and go on to achieve greater fame and commercial success with Midge Ure as frontman. Darkly futuristic and synth-heavy yet still sporting nicely abrasive electric guitar, Maximum Acceleration emanates a low-slung, sinister vibe. Call it a triumph of style over substance.
Posted by Max MacDonald