Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Thursday, Aug 20, 2009

For some acts, even the title of “One Hit Wonder” is too extravagant an honor. For self-proclaimed “scabby witches from Glasgow”, Strawberry Switchblade, OHW status can only be claimed in Europe and Japan—in the US, they didn’t even rate as a blip on the radar screen, unless you were a moody teenager who subscribed to Smash Hits and bought creepers and Communards 12” dance singles at import shops with names like the Berlin Wall.


To such a teenager, however, the heady mix was unbeatable: morose but danceable electronic pop about certifiable anxiety disorders and unrequited love, sung by the Scottish love children of Siouxsie Sioux and Frida Kahlo after an explosion at the squaredance costume factory. Rose MacDowell and Jill Bryson wore getups and hairstyles so massive, so elaborate, it was a wonder they could even stand up, much less strum guitars or shake maracas. They covered songs by the Velvet Underground and Dolly Parton! Their record label (Korova) was named after a reference from A Clockwork Orange! I couldn’t have found a more perfect duo to worship if I had constructed it from whole cloth myself. My favorite subjects were depression, polka dots, dolls, strawberries, fishnet stockings and obscure British pop music. What were the odds of finding such a tailor-made treasure?


Strawberry Switchblade scored a #5 hit in England in 1985 with “Since Yesterday”, but by 1986, collapsing under the weight of all those ribbons, silk flowers and pancake makeup, they were history. Their eponymous album remains one of my favorite of that decade, and one that bears surprisingly frequent listens today. So even if your adolescent fantasy wasn’t to look like Blueberry Muffin working behind the MAC counter… give Strawberry Switchblade a try. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts it was their version of “Jolene” and not Dolly’s that first inspired Jack White to cover it.


“Since Yesterday”


“Jolene”


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Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009
The genius of the early Wedding Present was the tense interplay between David Gedge's heartfelt yet quotidian lyrics of love and loss and Pete Solowka's mad, banjo-like strumming.

The early greatness of Leeds’ the Wedding Present surely must be put down to the magical alchemy that occurs between the witty, contemporary, and yet somehow plainly colloquial songwriting of David Gedge and the blitzoid guitar attack of one Pete Solowka, who appears to be strumming a banjo on speed when he straps on his Fender SG. Unlike contemporaries the Smiths, this chemical interaction—Gedge is to Morrissey as Solowka is to Marr—is not quite so clear cut as Gedge also plays rhythm guitar. Formed as a serious band from the remains of the Lost Pandas, the Weddoes toured local clubs and pubs and issued several singles on their own record label, Reception, before hitting it big with notices and airplay from John Peel and critical acclaim for their debut, George Best.


The Reception Era


Their second Reception single “Once More” demonstrates the “shambling” C86 speedy guitar half of the Weddoes’ formula quite nicely.



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Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009

Richard Thompson - Walking on a Wire: Richard Thompson (1968-2009)
The best box set of the past few months has nothing to do with Woodstock. Walking on a Wire covers the length of Thompson’s rich and varied career, beginning with his days in the influential folk-rock group Fairport Convention and continuing through his work with his wife Linda and into the solo career that continues unabated to this day. Equally revered as a songwriter and guitarist, Thompson is one of the true legends of the 1960s.


Joe Henry - Blood from Stars
Eclectic singer-songwriter Joe Henry offers up a compelling blend of decidedly adult music on his 11th solo release. As always, his music won’t be confined by genre definitions, but suffice it to say, his work has a blues hue and a jazz sensibility. The album also marks the debut of Henry’s son Levon on saxophone. Levon has snagged two soloist awards already from the Monterey Jazz Festival’s honors given to young musicians.


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Monday, Aug 17, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

Nina Simone - “Mississippi Goddam”
Written by Nina Simone
From Nina Simone in Concert (Philips, 1964)
[Videos: Live / Live 2]


As her accompanists bustle along in a brisk show-time tempo, Nina Simone begins this song from her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert by saying “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam”. The drummer then drops a vaudeville thump accent on the kickdrum, and Simone pauses for audience reaction, which is laughter and a smattering of applause. Without changing the timbre of her voice, she quickly adds, “And I mean every word of it.” There is more laughter from the audience after that, but it’s more tentative than the first burst, and this time no one applauds. There’s no possible way the audience could have prepared themselves for what follows. “Mississippi Goddam” is a subversive tour-de-force, a highly sophisticated piece of musical signifying which mixes confrontational anger, point-blank accusation, and deeply felt frustration with a bouncy show-tune melody and a wonderfully expressive vocal by Ms. Simone.


I love “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Change is Gonna Come”, and all the other songs associated with or about the Civil Rights struggle of the American 1960s, but for my money, as powerful and accessible as those songs are, none are as emotionally immediate, or possess more unrelenting spiritual force, than “Mississippi Goddam”. The lyrics are a marvel, unraveling at first in a deceptively lighthearted strut (“Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest”) before turning into the most solemn of lamentations around the middle ( “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We’re all gonna get it in due time”), and then a full-on, unapologetic demand by the end (“You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality!”


The most striking lyric arrives at around 1:44, just as Simone is starting to dig into the real intent of the song. Here, in a single line, Simone captures the dual existential uncertainty of living in a society which repeatedly pronounces you “other”, while also realizing you don’t really have anywhere else to go: “I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” Like the song’s title, these lines are a deeply symbolic statement from a bona fide church girl (Simone’s mother was a minister), both a declaration of painful truth, and a plea for that truth to be heard, understood, addressed. By the time Simone murmurs “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” after the refrain following those lines, the Carnegie Hall audience is dead silent.


Given Nina Simone’s undeniable prowess with bluesy tempos and songforms, demonstrated in countless later recordings, one has to wonder why she chose to deliver her most confrontational message in the vehicle of an upbeat songform more suited to a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical. The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam” lyrically give voice to the contemporary concerns of African Americans, but ironically, there is not a lot of obvious church, blues, jazz, or R&B to be heard in the music here. The result is a somewhat dislocated sonic context, a feeling that you’re hearing something that just might be different than what it appears to be on the surface. Whether the African Trickster in Simone intended this or not is always up for discussion, but clearly, “Mississippi Goddam” is not meant to be comforting, uplifting, or reassuring in any sort of way; on the contrary, it is meant to be confrontational, discomforting, prophetic: a call to wakefulness in a dangerous time, and perhaps an apocalyptic warning of sorts, as well.


We celebrate and cherish songs and songwriters often because their words and music bring us joy, comfort, and feelings of empathy and belonging. In this case, we remember and celebrate Nina Simone and “Mississippi Goddam” because in 1964, amidst great turmoil in the country and unbearable race-related murders and violence, Nina Simone had the courage to stand on the stage of one of America’s most hallowed venues and deliver a song that expresses the dismayed yet indefatigable heart of a prophet.


 



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Friday, Aug 14, 2009
The story of a golden-voiced one-hit wonder who always felt invisible.

Alison Moyet, an incredibly gifted singer with a deep, rich, bluesy voice, first found fame in her early 20s. Joining forces with Vince Clarke, a former member of Depeche Mode, Alison formed Yazoo, a synth-dance band, in 1981.


Yazoo was a major success in England. Their first two albums, Upstairs at Eric’s and You and Me Both, peaked at #2 and #1 respectively on the record charts, and four of their singles became Top 15 hits. In the United States, the duo (renamed Yaz because an American rock band was already using the name) saw three of their singles become number one hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, but they weren’t nearly as successful on mainstream radio.


Alison and Vince decided to disband Yazoo shortly before their second album was released.


Vince Clark went on to form Erasure with Andy Bell and had an astonishing 24 consecutive singles become Top 20 hits in the UK Alison Moyet began a solo career, and while her success hasn’t rivaled that of her former band mate (she’s had nine singles become Top 40 hits in England), she has never particularly strived for success on the radio. Instead, she has gloriously followed her own path.


The only real success Alison Moyet has had as a solo artist in the United States is with a song titled “Invisible” that became a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 4, 1985. But that song was enough to make me a lifelong fan.



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