After two stunning albums and a string of strong EPs, word of mouth ravings had elevated Belle & Sebastian to the deserved status of cult icons. Despite high expectations, fans and critics have every right to be shocked by the higher brilliance achieved by the Scottish septet on their third album, The Boy With The Arab Strap. From the ecstatic “Dirty Dream No. 2″ to the Smith’s-like elegance of “It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career,” leader Stuart Murdoch’s potent mixture of kitch, yearning, innocence, and wit has never been more fully realized. These are fascinatingly catchy songs of the gentlest texture, resonating with delicate vocals and lush melodies of incomparable depth and power. Fellow members Isobel Campbell and guitarist Stuart Jackson are thankfully given room to make their own memorable contributions on three of the albums tracks.
Like the blues itself, Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is a soulful product of the Deep South. Her voice is charged with aching strains of gospel, soul, blues, and country-folk. The Covers Record is her quiet storm, a stripped down affair, featuring nothing more than her captivating voice coupled with a lone piano or guitar. Without any contrived nostalgia, her covers of mostly contemporary songs sound as if they could have come from Alan Lomax‘s Great Depression field recordings.
Aside from the occasional Air song, I don’t consider contemporary French music worth the effort. You can spend unreasonable amounts of time wading through stacks of mindless hip-hop or slick and unsoulful pop in order to find the very few hidden gems of the French music scene. That said, you can imagine my surprise at uncovering such talents as Benjamin Biolay, Keren Ann, Carla Bruni and Coralie Clément all within the space of a year.
The last mademoiselle remains my true favorite of the bunch. Fans and detractors alike cite her whispery voice that can give instant mood to whatever song she sings as the key to her sound. The sexy then twenty-one-year-old first used it to near perfection in “Salle des Pas Perdus”, a jazzy, bossa nova inflected album of sweet, wistful songs that make for perfect listening as you sip your Friday evening apéro.
The ultimate Sixties supergroup, CSN‘s 1969 self-titled debut masterfully ushered in the singer-songwriter era. Comprised of veteran Byrd David Crosby, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, and ex-Hollies vocalist Graham Nash, CSN proved the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With peerless vocal harmonies, song writing and melodic style, the trio (later expanded to include Neil Young) would rightfully become America’s most revered rock group between 1969-1971.
A memorable album filled with folk-tinged psychedelic pop gems by the man once touted as the British answer to Bob Dylan. While Donovan Leitch lacked the depth of Dylan, he certainly was capable of crafting catchy hits that were both cosmic and clever. Hurdy Gurdy Man is a prime example of Donovan’s creative powers. The title track, an enduring classic of the late ’60s, combines loud-guitars with mystical lyrics to great affect. The album’s second major hit, “Jennifer Juniper,” frolicks along with its flowery arrangements, precious melodies, broken French, and bouncing rhythms. This track begs you to dust off your love beads and skip through the forest with your true love holding hands.
Just as our memories of such film stars as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe limit us to experiencing them in the past tense-through their films, through the photographs taken of them at their physical zenith, and before age, slowing careers, or personal hardships diluted their peak intensity — four records are all we can know about Nick Drake. The British folksinger, who died in 1974, has become the object of cult worship since his death: his albums have been boxed, his songs individually analyzed, and his life story told and retold to the point of attaining near-mythology. He has been the subject of a tribute album (Brittle Days, on England’s Imaginary Records, 1992), and even his practice tapes have been studied, analyzed and covered by a guitarist who admired Drake’s instrumental ability (Nine of Swords by Scott Appel, on Kicking Mule, 1988). He is a performer who sold very few albums during his lifetime, whose work never appeared on any album sales chart, but whose influence grows yearly — and isn’t likely to decrease in the future.
On his third and final album, Nick Drake sits alone with his guitar, creating music of haunting purity. Brilliant beyond compare, Pink Moon softly smolders with emotional power. It captures an infinitely talented artist in his most supremely honest moment, stripped of all pretense and orchestration. His songs of loneliness and isolation never sound self-indulgent, but rather innocent and sincere, as he delivers such lines as “Know that I love you/Know I don’t care/Know that I see you/You know I’m not there.” His guitar swirls and chimes in fluid rhythms, building an undercurrent of intensity that perfectly complements his sonorous vocals.
A finely crafted album of diverse and heartfelt songs. With New Morning, Dylan discards obscure and impenetrable lyrics for emotionally accessible songs about love and life. The title track sounds like a blueprint of what would become Van Morrison’s trademark semi-acoustic soul sound of the early 70s. In “Sign on the Window,” Dylan sings about the virtues of settling down and starting a family, which is exactly what he tried to do around this time with the birth of his now famous son, Jakob. “The Man In Me” reveals an openly self-critical side to Dylan, who admits that “it takes a woman like you/to get through to the man in me.” Backed by a soulful chorus of female singers, this song is an absolute classic, and was used to great effect in the Coen brother’s “The Big Lebowski.” Other highlights include the spare “Three Angels,” with its atmospheric organ and gospel-tinged chorus, the comic jazz-blues of “If Dogs Run Free,” and the classic Dylan cynicism of “Went to See the Gypsy.”
“Without doubt one of the most beautiful and soulful recordings I have ever heard.”
I Will Not Be Sad In This World is an album whose gently defiant title should become our mantra in these times of terror. In the days immediately after September 11, 2001, my stereo fell silent as the TV mercilessly blared out its cacophony of bad news, brutalizing us with images of a new world. We held the Medusa’s head up to the mirror, and refused to accept that the image reflected might simply be a human one. In an exhausting marathon, I remained glued to the tube, wondering what in the hell was going on, wondering what happened to love, wondering what I’d tell my children someday–if I lived that long. In the panic, I had abandoned music–my love, my religion. For four days I lived without it, not realizing what I was doing to myself, until finally I heard that first healing note. I turned to this record, and in a brilliant moment, found serenity.
The soundtrack to my most difficult breakup, Neil Halstead’s Sleeping On Roads will always be entangled in my biography. I’m sure that years from now I’ll happen to hear any one of the album’s failed relationship songs, and instantly I will be back in that parked car by the side of the road, struggling to look into the eyes of my longtime girlfriend to say goodbye.
Neil Halstead played in the car for us when things were ending, and, alone now, he plays just for me.
Like a true singer-songwriter, many of Neil Halstead’s songs deal with the dark dimensions of love gone wrong. And like a true masochist, I’ve been listening to these melancholy songs all the time (I should stick with the Buzzcocks), succumbing to their spare and drifting mood. Written with simple honesty and delivered with passion, Sleeping On Roads is loaded with the kind of brutally heartfelt love laments you’d find on an old Van Morrison or Nick Drake record. In song after song, Halstead pours out a broken heart’s worth of feeling. Left homeless after splitting up with his girlfriend, Halstead started Sleeping On Roads while living (and yes, sleeping) in the studio. Out of that pain, these nine songs were born. When they weren’t included on the last Mojave 3 record (his regular band), the idea for a Halstead solo album emerged and these orphaned songs found a home.