Favourite “New” Music – July 2022

On a recent evening, I selected “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” by The Waitresses for my drive-home aural accompaniment. I had owned it on vinyl in the ’80s, but never went beyond playing a few favoured tracks. It seemed like a fun way to navigate rush hour traffic, with Patty Donahue’s droll delivery guiding me home. (Also, what was the deal with Akron in the 1950s? How did Donahue and Chrissie Hynde both come out of there?) As the album played, and each familiar tune was followed by another familiar tune, I soon realised that I had played the whole thing before, and probably a few times. How could I have forgotten that? I love The Waitresses: they’re even on my Christmas playlist. I have spontaneously sung the chorus to the title track (“What’s a girl to do? / Scream and screw? (No!) Pretty victories”) in the presence of my then-young children (maybe not the best decision). I was befuddled.

The next morning, I selected “Vivid” by Living Colour (shoutout to Americans for following the Anglicised spelling) to accompany my rituals of cat feeding, dishwasher emptying, lunch preparing and generally getting ready for the day ahead. I had also owned this album (this time on cassette), which had been a critics’ darling in 1988, though much of the coverage had been in the back-handed and highly racist nature of “Can you believe that Black guys can play hard rock?” I was fairly certain this time that I had listened to the entire album, but after the opener “Cult of Personality”, I became less confident with each track, and certain I never had by the end.

I rather enjoyed the surprise that came with both experiences. Mixing the familiar with the unexpected is part of my love for cover versions. A few days ago, I played “Tomorrow the Green Grass” by The Jayhawks. I’d never listened to any of their records, but knew “Blue”, the opener, from its inclusion on Spotify Americana and alt-country playlists. At roughly the midpoint of the album, “Bad Time” started playing, and I almost immediately recognized it. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and saw it was written by Mark Farner, a name I knew but couldn’t place. A few clicks later, I knew it was a 1975 hit for Farner’s band Grand Funk, another group I have never consciously listened to, off an album whose cover photo I remember from album racks of that era. My enjoyment of The Jayhawks’ version had been enhanced by a bunch of things I either didn’t know or knew only subconsciously. Such are the wonders of music.

And so, we come to my list of favourite listens of the month past, including Living Colour in the slot where I expected to find The Waitresses.

  • The Clash – The Clash (1977) (Never listened to a Clash album before. Not sure what was wrong with me for 45 years, but at least I finally got it fixed.)
  • The Kinks – State of Confusion (1983) (Every album I dip into is a fresh revelation with these under appreciated masters.)
  • David & David – Boomtown (1986) (Simply one of the greatest one-album bands ever.)
  • Living Colour – Vivid (1988)
  • N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988) (Easy-E is not mentioned often enough when the best rappers of his era are discussed.)
  • Cub – Betti-Cola (1993) (Further evidence that Canadian content rules failed us: did radio stations really need to play another Bryan Adams or Celine Dion song when this delightful cuddlecore band from BC was waiting for our attention?)
  • Freedy Johnston – This Perfect World (1994)
  • Poi Dog Pondering – Pomegranate (1995) (If there is a genre that they miss on this delightful record, I don’t know what it is. Spotify has much that is wrong about it from the artists’ perspective, but it allows musical nomads like me to discover bands like this, which applies to both the previous name on this list and the next one.)
  • Blake Babies – God Bless the Blake Babies (2001)
  • Mayday Parade – A Lesson in Romantics (2007) (Nothing says you’re in an emo band like titling one of your songs “If You Wanted a Song Written About You, All You Had to Do Was Ask”.)
  • Tyminski – Southern Gothic (2017) (A masterful bluegrass-tinged country-rock album from Alison Krauss’ long-time band mate.)
  • Taylor Swift – folklore (2020) (I am slowly accepting that I need to let go of Swift’s public persona – which may be out of date in any event – and just enjoy her resplendent art.)
  • The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (2020)
  • Leo Nocentelli – Another Side (2021) (It is no slight to say that the story behind this record is even more amazing than the album itself.)
  • Myriam Gendron – Ma délire / Songs of Love, Lost and Found (2021) (This and the next record from a pair of Montrealers made for a magnificent soundtrack to a walk along the beach.)
  • Allison Russell – Outside Child (2021)
  • Leikeli47 – Shape Up (2022)
  • Hollie Cook – Happy Hour (2022) (Maybe the path for me to enjoy reggae is the artist’s own characterization of her sound as “tropical pop”. As a bonus, her dad was a Sex Pistol.)
  • Beach Bunny – Emotional Creature (2022)
  • Tank and the Bangas – Red Balloon (2022)

Pazz and Jop 1974 #1

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark

It’s not a good time to be saying anything less than glowing about Joni Mitchell, with her recent triumphant return to the stage. A lot of people love her music. I am not one of those people. The ones who love her are right to do so. And the rest of us are right not to.

Of course, it’s not allowed to be that simple. We struggle to understand why people don’t share our values and opinions. Is there something wrong with them? Or am I the problem? We are highly irrational about the things we love, and no better about the things we don’t. 

Somewhere, there’s a Rammstein fan asking herself why she should give a shit about some old lady. I’m not quite there, but I can’t fake caring about Joni Mitchell’s music. Oh, it isn’t absolute – there are things on “Court and Spark” that I quite like, as there were on “Blue” (“A Case of You” still gives me chills) and the less-heralded “For the Roses” and “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”. But, for the most part, I have resisted the mighty weight of the Joni Mitchell Critical Complex.

When you read or talk about music, you will run into lots of people telling you that you’re wrong about something like this. They will explain patiently, as if speaking to a well-behaved child, why you are wrong: her intimate confessional lyrics, her melodies, her novel vocal style, her experiments with jazz. None of this is incorrect, but it misses the point. I don’t care how “great” she is, because I don’t care about the sounds she’s making. And if you don’t get enjoyment from what you’re listening to, why are you even listening to it? For all her greatness, give me something I enjoy. This isn’t broccoli, or cardio, or meditation, or any other thing I do (haphazardly) because it’s good for me. Give me cuddlecore, bedroom pop, emo. Give me my 50th play of “Welcome Interstate Managers”, my 100th play of “The Stranger”, my 250th of “My Aim is True”. But also give me artists that I had never even heard of until this very month: give me Cub, Freedy Johnston, Blake Babies, Leo Nocentelli, Leikeli 47, Hollie Cook. I hope you’ll check them out, but I won’t argue if they don’t do it for you. Just don’t tell me why I’m wrong to not love Joni.

Even some of the reasons given for why she is great don’t sit right with me. Does the personal nature of her lyrics make them better than less personal work? “My Sweet Annette” by Drive-By Truckers never fails to move me (pedal steel guitar is one of the most mournful instruments ever invented, and if you pair it with fiddle, I am pretty much done for), and that story absolutely did not happen to the writer. Artists make the personal universal and the universal personal: neither is intrinsically better than the other.

Or her voice. Yes, it’s distinctive, and you would know it anywhere. But what are you to do if you find it so displeasing that it distracts you from the song? This is sometimes what I experience with her work.

Often what I like in her music are the things that seem less like what I expected to hear. The shambling southern rock feel of much of the guitar work in “Free Man in Paris” (which I have been spontaneously singing over the past week). The boogie-woogie rhythms of “Raised on Robbery”. The minimalist funk of “Trouble Child”. The madcap silliness of “Twisted”. There are pleasant smooth jazz-adjacent moments throughout the record, and from what I know of her subsequent career, it turned out to be a sandbox that she quite enjoyed playing in.

“Court and Spark” is a perfectly fine pop record: I just don’t hear whatever it was that made critics decide it was the best album of its year, and I could listen to it one hundred times and probably never hear it. Luckily, I don’t have to: there’s always another play of “Purple Rain” waiting for me if I run out of ideas about what to put on next.