Song: Reality Poem
Artist: Linton Kwesi Johnson
Reality Poem is from the Jamaican-born, UK-based dub poet’s second release, the 1979’s seminal Forces of Victory, which Johnson co-produced with reggae and dub legend Dennis Bovell. Brooding and infinitely sorrowful, it’s an austere yet soulful take on the murky overlap between perception, illusion, mythology and propaganda. There’s some choice electric guitar serving as an eloquent companion to Johnson’s distinctive spoken word phrasings. A substantial song which, despite its darkness, offers an elegant sliver of hope.
Song: Where Are We Now?
Artist: David Bowie
A poignant tune from Bowie and certainly the most restrained and introspective track from his fierce return to form, 2013’s The Next Day.
Where Are We Now? is a deeply personal rumination of what it felt like when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and a comparison to how the same pivotal city feels a quarter century on. There is a sweet frailty and fatalism to this elegant reverie - amid subtle, veiled hints of something more hauntingly enigmatic. Fantastic official release video too, laced with vivid symbolism and historical footage; above all, there’s the 66 year-old iconoclast as one of a pair of wizened, immobilized puppets, his face only occasionally synching with the songs narrative: it's mesmerizing... and infinitely creepy.
Artist: Tanita Tikaram
The veteran UK singer/songwriter with the dark, haunting voice gives us this spookily pensive track from her fifth album, 1995’s Lovers In This City. With its delicate tracery of atmospheric sounds and steady percussive tapestry it’s a sparse yet powerfully resonant work, serving as the glossy delivery vehicle for Tikaram’s formidable voice as she quietly exploes the stark, sombre themes of yearning and loss. Catch the enigmatic fan video below.
Song: Brace Brace
UK muso Simon Green seamlessly weaves warm, vital electronica with real world instrumentation - a skillful, soulful melding which never stoops to sterility or perfunctory mechanics. His fourth album on the Ninja Tune label, 2010’s Black Sands, was a significant milestone in Green’s burgeoning career; two years later Black Sands Remixed came out featuring an array of guest musicians and producers reinterpreting the album and offering some out-takes and fresh tracks - this gem of an instrumental hails from that album. Clean rippling electric guitars and strings are the foundation of an explorative, yearning yet fundamentally uplifting vibe. Its lithe, lean tension and richly evocative delivery stems from deftly interlocking instrumentation and restlessly propulsive energy - and all that’s before the buoyant, swelling strings arrive. Youtube fan vid below.
Artist: Derek Andrew Orford
Derek Andrew Orford is a veteran Toronto composer who has been collaborating with various associates since the early 80s (in more recent years he’s been a member of Kevin Hearn’s Thin Buckle ensemble); most often he’s a solo recording artist and composer. In his own work as a one-man act and restless musical auteur, Orford mines ambient, electronica, progressive rock and whole realms of music I can’t even put a name to. I met the musician socially way back when, and took him for a disciplined guitarist with a penchant for alternate tunings and exotic treatments. Certainly that’s a huge part of his background but Orford's not one to put much stock in facile labels or categorization. On Plagiarist, there’s nary a guitar anywhere - it’s all keyboard. This minimal yet evocative song is a few years old; Orford recently told me he’s thinking of adding some guitar and vocals - meanwhile it stands handily on its own as a vivid instrumental.
Plagiarist creeps up on your ears with a certain low-slung, reverberating stealth conveying subtle menace. Bit by bit its various nuanced layers arise and lock into place as the song blooms into a sparkling soundscape of exotic spaces and intervals swaying over a sinister foundation. Around 1:48 the song kicks into what I've come to feel as its grand melodic refrain - the sounding of a crucial theme, heraldic in its intensity, even as the note progressions revel in a kind of fiercely ecstatic elasticity. In my mind, it’s a bracing call to arms, or an alarm declaring the inevitable coming of some unimaginable calamity. That a single song could summon up all these conflicting notions and emotions is part and parcel of Plagiarist’s compelling essence.
Song: Jynweythek Ylow
Band: Aphex Twin
Englishman Richard D. James, otherwise known as Aphex Twin, is a prodigious composer and keyboardist whose contributions to contemporary electronica are immense. This tiny jewel of an instrumental is from the 2001 double-album Drukqs. A spare, winsome melody is given its spectral edge by the percussive, broken piano sound James mines, teases, extends … it’s a lonely, tentative, broken tune finding its persistent strength amidst chaos through repetition and variation. By virtue of its sheer simplicity the piece is wonderfully eloquent. Check out the fan-created video below.
Song: Walk On By
Band: The Stranglers
This dynamic, hard-charging number was part of a three-song 7” white vinyl disc that came gratis with the first 75,000 copies off of the band’s third studio album, 1978’s Black And White. The song was originally written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and was a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1964. This version, infinitely darker and fiercer, is defined by Jean-Jacques Burne’s thick, meaty baselines and Dave Greenfield’s excellent retro keyboards. In many ways it reminds me of The Door’s Light My Fire - both moody, driving songs with a relatively simple structure, both with winding, extended solos inserted into the body of the song - first a keyboard solo, then a guitar solo (in the case of the Stranglers, it’s lead vocalist and guitarist Hugh Cornwell enjoying the opportunity to show off his chops). Both songs showcased the experienced technical talents of the bands in question. This edgy nod to sixties cool, filtered through a yobbish punk vibe, was something of a one-off for the band; in later years they would morph into more refined pop territory and leave behind the aggro posturing.
This song kicks ass still.
Band: James White and The Blacks
Warning: NSFW! While it’s not so much bluntly explicit as it is lewdly suggestive, this remains quite a rude little number. I’m delighted to have rediscovered its peeling linoleum, low-rent appeal. This lurid song smacks of cheap pulp novels and chemically-induced underground cool. The dubious vibe is heralded by the slithering arrival of a profoundly insolent baseline, followed by dyspeptic horns and intermittent snippets of snaky, bent guitar. James White is the surly protagonist who picks up the insistently ringing phone at the song’s beginning and barks: “who is it and what do you want.”
White’s career began in NYC with the No Wave music scene in the late 70s. The sax and keyboard player staked his claim in free jazz and punk rock, weaving manic connections between the two streams. This vividly blue number is more of an exercise in disjointed punk burlesque than a proper song - there’s no verse, chorus or bridge, just a single modal vehicle bearing all the weight. Stained Sheets is off the White’s 1979 album Off White. He’s joined by Lydia Lunch appearing as Stella Rico: she handles the wordless telephonic female vocals that so define this thing. The mood the track wallows in reminds me variously of Tom Waits, Marc Ribot, Nick Cave… there’s an insinuating, impudent pulse that won’t be denied; the keyboard line that regularly stamps out a jarring atonality, the snotty horn runs, and Stella’s pandering, lust-crazed vocals - well, the net effect is so over the top it’s tough to take it seriously. I have to think there were more than a few nudges and winks recording this one… but then again, White and Co. were never particularly reverent or well-behaved. Thankfully.
Artist: Johnny Cash
I have to say this is one of those instances where a cover handily beats the original. In this case the song is Sting’s, from his fifth studio album, 1996’s Mercy Falling. Fast-forward to 2002 and The Man Comes Around, the fourth release in Johnny Cash’s famed American series and the final one released in his lifetime. By virtue of its disciplined, bare-bones distillation, the late great troubadour simply destroys the original version. The song is so gravely elemental it’s almost impossible to imagine it in any other form; Sting’s fine lyrics take on a staggering significance through Cash’s austere delivery. With Rick Rubin’s masterful production, this song about the cruelties of chance, the fragility of life, infinite remorse and horribly final penalties takes on profound depth. But in the end Cash’s telling of the tale feels like he’s always owned the song.