Remember 2008? Duffy was the singing sensation of the year. She got all kinds of glowing press accolades, including some embarrassing honorifics like “the new Dusty Springfield” or ” a more wholesome Winehouse.” Well, that was ten years ago and we haven’t heard a peep from Duffy since 2010. Apparently she didn’t take to fame the way some people do. She wanted to write songs and sing them, not to have every part of herself be turned into a commodity. It’s unfortunate that to succeed as an artist in this day and age, you have to sell a lot more than just your work; you have to be a brand from your eyelashes to your toenails, and not everybody wants to be looked at that intensely. Duffy, for her part, had the gumption to say ‘fuck this’ and just walk away, unlike Winehouse, who also just wanted to write songs and sing them. At least we got Rockferry, which is still marvelous ten years later, and who knows, maybe she’ll have something more to say when she’s lived more life.
David Byrne and Brian Eno really need to hang out more. Every time they collaborate something brilliant comes out. The last Eno and Byrne collaboration was Everything That Happens Will Happen Today in 2008. That record was innovative in a lot of ways, mainly in terms of distribution and promotion; independently produced! independently distributed! It was two old dogs learning new internet tricks, really taking advantage of this new digital age be-your-own-master music business. It was also notable in conception. Eno and Byrne set out to make an album that explored the human condition, as it exists in the digital age, and in doing so tampered down their own natural cynicism and emotional dryness. Cheerful, simple, emotionally direct songs that aren’t about making fun of people in flyover states.
Well, there’s one kind of blues I’ve never had to have. All the other kinds, yes, this one, no. Ahahahaha haha ha *weeping* “Always play to win, always seem to lose” is very true, though. Terry Reid was on it when he wrote that. Reid is one of those underrated talents who never quite got off the sidelines and into the spotlight, but some of his songs have had lives of their own. This one has been around the block. Marianne Faithfull recorded it in 1971, for an album that wouldn’t be released until the mid-80’s. Faithfull was dead on her feet in 1971, and she sounded it, but her song choice couldn’t be more apropos. She lived the blues. Every shade of the blues. However much I love her interpretation of things, in this case, I think it’s a little wobbly. There’s really only one definitive take of this song, and no, it’s not the original. The Raconteurs took it and blew it up. That’s likely where you’ve heard it, and you probably didn’t know it’s not a Jack White original. White is a great songwriter, of course, but he’s a great interpreter too, and when he does a cover, it’s always both unexpected and totally perfect. This duet with Brendan Benson is that, and one of the Raconteurs’ highlights.
Does it always look so gray, before the fall?
It’s been a record year for a lot of things, none of them good. Some of us are making peace with saying goodbye to the world as we know it. We may be witnessing the fall of an empire, not from a safe distance – because there is no such thing – but in the front and center of the world’s arena. And yet, as people are wont to do, we go about our lives amidst catastrophes and insist that our lives are meaningful and our feelings are the most important thing at stake at any given time. It is a wonder, maybe a miracle of some sort, that people in a dying world still believe that their love is not like any other love, or even that they still take the time to love at all. (Don’t get me started on people who still think that passing on their genetic material is somehow a good idea.) The world may still end with a bang, which might just be the best we can hope for, but for most of us, it’s going to end with a mournful song. We may be neck deep in record rainfall but we still want to be told that our feelings amount to a hill of beans in this world. And that’s why we have art, ladies and gentlemen.
Lucinda Williams again, this time in a very different mood. After decades of defining herself as a master of sad songs, she finally had a reason to write something happy. Part of Williams’ persona has always been playing the part of the unlucky-in-love woman who always falls for bad men; she has a long roster of friends and lovers who lived hard lives and died young. In 2008, when Little Honey was being recorded, she had finally found someone who was a keeper. In 2009 she married her record producer live on stage during a show. Her music has been noticeably less bleak ever since. After all that, you really want to root for her – she’s someone who’s paid her dues and earned her success through years of hard work and obscurity. It’s heartwarming to hear her sing something so full of real joy.
CSS is definitely one of the groups of the decade, or even the past two. (I feel so old typing those words!) They never became a household name, which is alright, and they’re past being indie darlings, which is alright too. The best artists don’t aim to sell to millions, and they don’t aim to please fickleness of It-hunters. The best artists aim to please themselves and their fans, and there’s no better legacy than a body of work that people actually go on enjoying. I enjoy CSS as much as I did when I first discovered them. Someday I may have to admit that there’s an element of nostalgia to that, but I’m not that old yet. We’re together through life, the artist and the fan.
If you haven’t heard of or don’t remember Cat Power, just note that today’s music scene owes her a lot. Seventeen years ago she pretty much singlehandedly started the trend of feminizing manly rock songs, thus paving the way for acts like Nouvelle Vague and everybody and their dog’s covers album. In 2000 a girl with a breathy voice covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – without the chorus! Sacrebleu! – was both a novelty and a sacrilege. Now every cock rock anthem is ripe to be reinterpreted as a female lament. Personally, I love this trend. This is one trend I can get behind. Obviously, that’s partly because I love unexpected covers. Every sacred cow needs to be seen with fresh eyes (so to speak) every once in a while, even if the results aren’t necessarily spectacular. I also love that women’s perspectives have come to the forefront in pop music, and co-opting classic male tropes is a particularly cheeky aspect of that movement. Cat Power isn’t about to make me set aside my feelings for The Rolling Stones, and she isn’t going to make anyone forget Hank Williams either. That isn’t the point. The point of these covers is twofold. First of all, these tropes are as old as time; Hank Williams didn’t invent the idea of the rambling man, the rambling man has been a character in the popular imagination for centuries before Hank Williams came along. These tropes are tired because they’ve been repeated over and over by same kinds of people – men in cowboy hats, men with electric guitars, men with mandolins, angry young men with long hair – turning themselves and their stories into cliches. But the second part of what makes a smart cover relevant is the reminder that these tropes that we’re so used to are bigger than the artists that perform them. Underneath the cliches are stories and ideas that have hung on because they’re universal. They don’t have to be told by men in cowboy hats, they can be told by anyone. Is the cover as good or as important as the original? No, and it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes removing the specificity of expected context is necessary to make a piece of art fresh again, to remind us why it’s art and why we cared about it in the first place.