In 1988, Sinead O’Connor released The Lion and the Cobra, her critically-acclaimed debut album. Rolling Stone called her one of the women “shattering the boundaries of pop music”, but the album peaked at #36 on the Billboard 200 and none of her singles charted in the United States.
Then she recorded “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a cover of a Prince song originally released on The Family’s self-titled album, and everything changed. The video was mesmerizing, combining gothic imagery with a tight close-up on her face that gave the song a transcendent power. “Nothing” eventually spent four weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and propelled the I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got album to become a double platinum, number one bestseller.
Before Zach Galifianakis’ outstanding breakout roles in The Hangover and Humpday respectively, this comic had a penchant for lyp syncing to saccharine little dities about love such as Anita Baker’s “You Bring Me Joy”.
After this foray, he managed to convince none other than Fiona Apple to be in her whimsical music video for “Not About Love”.
Without a doubt, these ‘inspired’ ventures bore the marks of Zach’s impending success. And it is no surprise that recently, Roger Ebert compared Zach’s Hangover performance to that of John Belushi in Animal House—Kudos indeed!
In classic Radiohead fashion, Thom and the boys unleashed a new track on an unsuspecting blogosphere today: “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)”. The song is a tribute to Harry Patch, the British supercentenarian who was the last living World War I veteran to have fought in the trenches. Patch passed away at the ripe old age of 111 on July 25th and is set to be buried tomorrow at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.
While a fitting tribute, the track is something of an anomaly in the Radiohead catalog—it’s easily the most purely orchestral they’ve ever penned. Built atop a foundation of weepy strings (arranged by Jonny Greenwood), the song marries orchestral sweep with a pronounced undercurrent of existential dread. Structurally, it sounds a bit like a distant cousin of “You and Whose Army?”, were that song’s guitars swapped out for a string section. While the lyrics are all Patch quotes, many of the lines feel like classic Yorke constructions (“They came up from all sides,” “I’ve seen devils coming up from the ground”). Patch, who became an outspoken critic of war late in his life, apparently had a “profound effect” on Yorke, who urged listeners not “to forget the true horror of war” in a post to the deadairspace blog.
“Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” premiered on BBC Radio 4 this morning and is now streaming in its entirety on the BBC website. The track can be purchased from the W.A.S.T.E. shop for £1, with all proceeds going to UK veterans’ charity, the Royal British Legion.
“You” - Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers
From +‘Justments, Sussex Records, 1974
The lead-off track to an oft-forgotten album by master songwriter Bill Withers, “You” is an indignant and accusatory piece of work, wherein Withers lets loose a series of quips and cutting remarks suitable for a serious game of the dozens. Though quite a few Withers songs could be called dark or brooding, there is really nothing in his catalog quite like “You”.
You would have to be completely new to pop music to call yourself unfamiliar with Bill Withers’ work; his songs are well-worn in the American pop canon. Lovingly revered, frequently covered, and noted as an influence on countless important artists of varying genres, Withers’ biggest hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands”, “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”), continue to have a huge impact on listeners and young musicians alike. Withers’ to-the-point writing style, working man’s shout, and distinctive rhythmic approach all make for a singular, engaging style. The intelligence in his intent, the focus he gives to small details, and his succinct way with a catchy phrase make many of his songs almost zen-like in their simple yet precise observations of life, love, and relationships.
Maybe you have to be a jazz aficionado to get excited by an album cover, but come on: How can you not love this? How can an album that looks like this not be brilliant? And here’s the thing: Yes, it was the ’70s (1971 to be exact) and yes, plenty of musicians (and artists) outside of the jazz idiom were fully, if superficially, embracing Eastern (in general) and African (in particular, particularly within jazz) culture. Then, and now, whenever an opportunistic interloper tries to straddle the line between the exotic and the trendy, it’s simple to see through the charade and the results are accordingly painful—for all involved.
Suffice it to say, in Pharoah Sanders’ case, this eastward glance was neither cursory nor commercially-minded. Continuing along the path his mentor John Coltrane strode in the previous decade, Sanders focused less on the shrieking and more on his cerebral side. Although there are some obligatory saxophonic fireworks on Thembi, there are also some extraordinarily peaceful and meditative moments. Arguably, he reached an ideal balance on this effort, which some hail as his masterpiece and others decry as an uneven mess. But even the haters have to recognize that the title track, the ethereal “Astral Travelling” (below) and the astonishing Cecil McBee bass solo “Love” are some of the better recorded moments of the ’70s.
Part Two: Augustus Pablo
Art imitating art (or, to be more precise, album cover imitating album cover)? Perhaps. But just as Thembi is arguably better but less known than Sanders’ enduring classic Karma (which, of course, featured Leon Thomas singing and yodeling and is either hopelessly aged or ageless, depending on one’s tolerance for that peace and love late ’60s vibe; the music, on the other hand, is unassailable), the late, great Augustus Pablo (Horace Swaby) is best known for the masterful King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. But as hardcore reggae enthusiasts are well aware, his shining hour may well be East of the River Nile. Like Thembi (and, again, like a great deal of jazz and reggae from this era) the fascination with African roots is front and center. One reason these albums remain convincing, aside from the obvious genius of the assembled musicians, is the lack of words: the invocation of other places is purely sonic, and is able to impart an authenticity based on acumen and not affectation. You can hear it, as well as feel it. It’s never forced and it’s utterly honest. This is music that these men had to make, and that is how the best art is always created.
Aside from the obvious (and, to me, delightful) similarities of the two album covers, these albums seem to accrue additional layers of meaning and applicability during the summer months. Perhaps that is because I always associate them with the great summer of 2000, when I finally acquired CD versions of both after having made due with crappy cassette copies for entirely too long. To be certain, this is 365-day-a-year music, but if you are going to discover either of these albums for the first time, now is an ideal time to experience some upfull living, summer-style.