Although we’re still a few weeks away from our winter solstice, I’d say it’s very much in the spirit of the season. Call it a holiday song, one of the few you’ll ever get from me. There’s nothing more I love than good, clean English pastoralia. From Tudor architecture to The Wind in the Willows to Hobbiton to high tea and hot cross buns. And, of course, the stylings of Jethro Tull, who took folk revivalism and took it into unforeseen territory. Although Ian Anderson’s crazed court jester persona and odd taste in pants has tainted the band with a reputation for silliness, I for one take my J-Tull very seriously. For one thing, they’re firmly in the classic tradition of eccentric fuzzy Englishness, right alongside Miss Marple, Mole and Ratty, and Basil Fawlty. Anderson’s songwriting, along with all his posturing, is a nod to popular literary tropes as much as a musical persona per se. There’s a fine line between self-serious silliness and the self-aware kind, and one can’t expect one’s searing indictments of the Anglican Church to be taken without a grain of salt when one is wearing an embroidered codpiece. Ahem. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be charmed by a sincerely affectionate – and sincerely silly – ode to uncool age-old folk traditions like the celebration of the solstice. The English folk revival was part of a young generation’s search for a politically safe cultural heritage, the same thirst for a clean sense of identity that inspires Bavarians to go about their day in full Heidi regalia. It’s a love for all things homey and twee and unhip and reminiscent of grandmother. That’s not exactly what rock star dreams are made of; but Jethro Tull proved that you can be all about all of those things and turn it into a stage persona. That alone is a legacy-making achievement.
Here’s a beautiful Irish folk song by Irish folk revival band Clannad, sung in Irish Gaelic. I literally have not an inkling what it’s about. Gaelic is interesting because it’s almost completely unrelated to English, despite being right next door geographically. It’s not even in the wheelhouse of Germanic languages. For a non-speaker, there’s no shared roots or common vocabulary that would allow them to understand at least a basic gist. English speakers can’t even grasp the phonetics. Which explains a lot about why the English were so eager to wipe out Irish language and culture; it’s much harder to colonize your neighbors when you can’t eavesdrop on their conversations. They failed, of course.
Whatever happened to Sleigh Bells, you ask. Well, they’ve been consistently working and putting out albums. They just released an EP, cleverly titled Kid Khrushchev, a couple of months ago. And they’ve been consistently good albums, too. The reason you’re not hearing hype about it is because in the past seven years, what Sleigh Bells were doing has become what everyone is doing. There are so many groups out there mixing noise pop with grunge rock with feedback with harmony vocals with bad gal attitude. In 2010, Sleigh Bells were the only noise pop grunge duo, and they – for lack of a better word – slayed us with their originality. It’s hard to overstate that. When I first heard Sleigh Bells, it was like nothing else on the radio. Treats was one of my most-played records that year; I couldn’t stop blasting it over and over. It was so fresh, so LOUD, so take it or leave it, so much fun. That’s not an impression that’s easy to make twice, and since then, Sleigh Bells have become just another cool-girl rock-pop band. They’re still good, but they’re not the frontline anymore. But they really kicked off the decade.
This is a song I’ve spend hours of my life listening to, even though I can’t say that I really enjoy it. It pushes my buttons emotionally. I can relate to its anger and love. But it’s also not something I need to hear all the time, which is why I’ve listened to Lucinda Williams much less in recent years. I don’t need emotional crutch music the way that I used to. When you’re inexperienced, young and stupid, you need something that teaches you how you should feel, a guide on how to navigate all of the feelings. Now that I’m not any longer at least two out of those three things, I don’t really care about feelings anymore. Feelings are not longer interesting. But it’s sometimes nice to revisit things that used to be massively important, and in the case of music, maybe learn to appreciate it in a new context.
Insert ‘mind blown’ reaction gif here. This here, this song right here, is the straw that broke up The Smiths. Apparently – and somehow I did not know it until just now – this is a rewrite of song by The Smiths. Not a proper Morrissey/Marr Smiths song that you would have heard of, but an instrumental B-side that Bryan Ferry handpicked as a potential hit, wrote some lyrics for, and then hired Johnny Marr to play session on. (Marr also played on the tour, and is prominently seen in the video.) Marr’s original composition, Money Changes Everything, does in fact sound exactly like a mid-eighties Bryan Ferry song without the vocal. Ferry has a bit of genius touch with picking unexpected things that suit his style, and Johnny Marr’s playing is perfectly suited for a Bryan Ferry album. Now that I think about it, having Marr on board might be part of why Bete Noire was so damn good. Ferry was right about the hit potential too; this was Bete Noire’s biggest single. Not-in-any-way-coincidentally, this was also right about the time that Marr left his day job for a less-illustrious but also probably way less stressful career as a journeyman session player. Obviously, Morrissey was in paroxysms of jealousy that Bryan Ferry would requisition one of the few Smiths songs that he’d had nothing to do with. He doesn’t directly say as much in his autobiography, but it’s heavily implied; he broke up the band because he felt ‘cheated-on’ by his songwriting partner for appearing in a Bryan Ferry video.
What reggae music really needed in 1982 was more vocoder. So thought the members of Black Uhuru, and it turned out they were right. Black Uhuru really took roots reggae into the 80’s and kept it relevant and stayed abreast of new technology, pretty much singlehandedly. They dabbled with synthesizers and electronic effects and studio trickery, vocoders included – just enough to sound timely, but not so much as to lose their sense of rootedness. It sounds like island music, and it recognizably like 80’s music. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Black Uhuru had an amazing run of classic albums throughout the decade and all the way into the 90’s.
Rihanna, EDM queen. Frankly, it’s a pretty generic EDM song; with any other vocalist on duty, you couldn’t pick it out of a playlist. But it’s Rihanna, and when she says we’d better live up while we still have time, she sounds like she means it. That’s a generic-as-fuck platitude, designed to get you bellied-up to the bar for shots, all primed and ready to get out there and make some bad decisions. But, again, it’s Rihanna, and she makes bad-decision-making behavior look like good-decision-making. And face it, you’re never gonna be this young again, so get the fuck out there and do something stupid.