SONGS TO SEEK
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Keep Me in Your Heart - Warren Zevon [Album: The Wind, Artemis Records, 2003]
What does a man choose to be the closing song on what he knows to be his last album as he is dying of inoperable lung cancer?
It could not possibly be an easy choice, but the late Warren Zevon's decision to close his musical career and bid farewell to the world with his hauntingly beautiful parting words in Keep Me in Your Heart was absolutely impeccable. His faltering yet warm Dylanesque vocals render flawless lyrics that acknowledge his approaching fate but send a condolent message to his loved ones that, rather than focusing on a self-concerned wish not to be forgotten, reassures them by suggesting that he would not be abandoning them as his loving spirit would remain to give them strength if they held his memory in their hearts.
The lyrics could have Scrooge bawling without the benefit of ghostly visits, but somehow the song is more heart-warming than tragic. The tune begins by facing the future's hopelessness head-on: 'Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath' before reassurance immediately follows with, 'If I leave you, it doesn't mean I love you any less.' He regularly repeats his plea to be remembered apparently to continue mutual love even after his passing, and the song is the ideal instrument for drumming that home.
One feels that Zevon added the 'sha-la-la-la-la' part reminiscent of some 60s girl band pop ditty in order to lighten the mood in support of the underlying message of what might have been just a devastatingly sad farewell. With the help of the magical healing qualities of the gentle accompanying music, that message of hope seeps through. Not hope that he will recover--he won't, he didn't--but hope that everyone will be okay even though this sad event was inevitable and his loss might seem unbearable. Through the refrain, he urges his loved ones not to let his loss destroy them, but to keep on living, progress, grow and smile again, because so long as they keep him in their hearts, he will support them and give them strength; everything will be endurable, the sun will shine again. The song is delivered without soppy sentiment. Indeed, there could be none in the circumstances, but its bleak beauty and reassurance ensures that no listener need know that the song was written and sung by a dying man in order to be touched by its brilliance.
One of the loveliest lines that supports the theory that he is entreating his loved ones to find the strength to remember him well rather than break down over his loss is 'Sometimes when you're doing simple things around the house, maybe you'll think of me and smile.' Similarly consoling is the bridge of, 'Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams / Touch me as I fall into view. / When the winter comes, keep the fires lit / And I will be right next to you.'
This stunning acoustic ballad moved me long before I recently had to turn to it for comfort after the sudden death of my beloved father, and its solace was so powerful that I even quoted from it at the end of my father's eulogy. But the song's genius is that you do not have to be in a similar situation--either facing death yourself or reeling from the unexpected or seemingly unsupportable loss of another--to fall for its tender encouragement and winsome grace. Nor are the incomparable lyrics the song's only blessing; its soothing tune is catchy and enchanting. The refrain of 'Keep me in your heart for awhile' will remain on your brain for some time after hearing it, and not in the annoyingly unwelcome, penetrative way of Kylie's performance of Can't Get You Out of My Head. Warren Zevon's final, peaceful number surely would be welcome to stay in your soul for some time.
The song also closes the Warren Zevon tribute album released in October 2004 named after a famous sample of Zevon philosophy: Enjoy Every Sandwich. I was wary of hearing another version as nothing could better Warren's because of his circumstances, because of his touching voice, because of its minimal music contributing to the necessary bleakness of the situation that allows you to grasp the message of hope and remembrance it provides and hold it close.
Any attempts to improve perfection are weak by definition. The version of this song on the tribute album thankfully was, at least, performed by Warren's close friend, collaborator and, in fact, the song's co-writer Jorge Calderón, and there is no disputing its loveliness, although Jorge's clear, faultless voice seems out of place singing words that were so fittingly sung with the heart-wrenching weakness of Zevon's slightly struggling yet smooth delivery on the original. Scarily, Jennifer Warnes is also credited as a performer on the tribute version, and I was bracing myself with dread for an Officer and a Gentleman type sickly 80s-style duet. Fortunately, her role is relegated to providing backing vocals, which are initially almost acceptable in sounding a bit angelic, but after droning on for too long, her 'sha-la-la'-ing eventually becomes intrusive, and one feels that it's time to let go of the song. Though undoubtedly Jorge, who co-produced the album with Zevon's son Jordan, felt that adding two minutes to the original tune was a way to keep Warren in everyone's heart for longer. He even brought the album to a final close by adding a hidden track of nothing but the stunning strings track for his version of the song. Keep Me in Your Heart will be heavenly in any guise, but only Warren Zevon's original version on The Wind gets a Perfect 10.
The tribute album is still a worthwhile purchase, by the way, particularly for Jill Sobule's touching treatment of Don't Let Us Get Sick. Any worries that comic actor Adam Sandler was a poor choice to perform Zevon's best known song, Werewolves of London, are quickly silenced by his impressive delivery as though he were a seasoned singer with the experience of the legends who also perform on the album--Don Henley, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
But the real definition of absolute excellence lies in Warren Zevon's performance of the final song on his last album, The Wind. Play it repeatedly; the tears you will feel on your face are sure to be warm ones.
Listen to a sample at Amazon.com and view the lyrics at LyricsCafe.
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Bucket Brigade - Michael Penn [Album: MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident), Sony Music, 2000]
Michael Penn is one of the many phenomenal artists who should be exalted but remains overlooked by many. He deserves to be mentioned without someone tagging on that he is the brother of actors Sean and Christopher Penn and the husband of singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, as I have just done. A fabulous singer/songwriter, producer and arranger himself, he often shares his wife's fondness for bleak outlooks and has, at some live shows, described optimism as the pretty side of denial.
The waltzy, piano-driven closing song of MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident) is certainly no Walking on Sunshine, but Bucket Brigade's criticism is not introspective; Penn is lashing out with poetic subtlety at another man. Indeed, he has introduced the melancholy ballad in concert as being 'about an a**hole.' I promise it is not merely that description that leads me to have difficulty shaking thoughts of Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky affair out of my head whenever I hear this splendidly sombre song.
I cannot justify any accusation of Penn writing about Clinton and Lewinsky; it is simply a matter of my brain fixing unwittingly on that scandal whenever I hear the song. Still, the album was released in 2000, about a year after the affair came to light, and some of the words describe a situation that seems so fitting. Penn sings of putting on a show for everyone in the know and setting a fire to destroy evidence--naturally, in the figurative sense--sacrificing a lover in the process: 'That you'd set it and left / Just to cover the theft / That would topple an empire / But you wanted the world / And it was only the heart... / Only the heart of a girl.' Whilst I suppose you could interpret the lines 'And for the riff and the raff, / He's gonna mimeograph / A statement he's preparing / That he wanted the world / And it was only a heart / Only the heart of a girl' as simply the man's version of why his relationship ended, it is also so easy to think again of the world of politics and spin doctors.
In any case, it is clear that the song is about a relationship in flames, where clearly the woman had more to lose and little choice in the matter. The people surrounding the disaster who must pick up the pieces can extinguish the fire by forming a bucket brigade, where people pass buckets of water down a line when no hose is available to reach the flames, 'Either that or / Start to blow 'til we / Run out of breath.' Fittingly, the song pauses after that line, signifying the exhausted extinction of breath.
Bucket Brigade is a Beatlesque concoction typical of Penn, delving into the dazzling darkness of John Lennon whilst applying the bright pop sensibilities of Paul McCartney. The song is probably about a friend and not about a politician at all, despite my undesired Clinton fixation here. In any case, I admire how Penn seems to take the woman's side by despairing of the man's actions rather than blindly siding with his own gender. Boo Hewerdine takes a similar stance, but more passionately, in his own near perfect song A Slow Divorce from his debut album Ignorance.
Penn's prodigious achievement includes using the banjo successfully in a contemporary song, a rarity in my biased view; the instrument blends subtly and exquisitely with the other subdued instruments, principally piano and accordion, with drums only making an appearance during the climactic refrain.
If Bucket Brigade's brilliance does not knock you flat immediately, stick with it. You will soon be drawn to its spellbinding flames.
Listen to a sample at MP3.com or MSN Entertainment (you'll need Radio Plus for the latter) and view the lyrics at sing365.com.
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I Will Be There - Paul Brady [Album: Spirits Colliding (Mercury Records, 1995/1999) and alternate version: The Paul Brady Songbook (Universal, 2003)]
It seems that the best songwriters all produce at least one song promising comforting, undying friendship in a crisis. Carole King had You've Got a Friend, Paul Simon had Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Paul Brady has I Will Be There. The song, co-written with John O'Kane, has much the same sort of lyrics: 'When times are hard and friends are few / And you need someone to help you through / Just call my name / And I'll come running to your side', but the power comes in the delivery. Paul Brady is a powerhouse of a performer who is recognised as such by the numerous performers who have covered his songs, such as Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Tina Turner, Lucy Kaplansky, Trisha Yearwood, David Crosby and Santana, as well as by his native Eire. The rest of the world would benefit enormously from that enlightenment. When his husky, bleating croon tells you not to be afraid because he will be there when you are lost in the night with nowhere to turn, you suddenly feel enveloped in a calm, consolatory safety even if you hadn't noticed any edge of stress and fear in your life before. The song is one of those heart-melting love songs that works equally well as strengthening declaration of a true bond of friendship.
I Will Be There tiptoes in with acoustic understatement that lulls you into its compassionate arms before stronger percussion and harmonica join layers of Paul's compelling vocals to build around you an unassailable shelter that protects you from any possible threats in the world. His dogmatic declarations as your bodyguard ring out over smooth, soothing vocals that fill the room to banish any devilish threats with their joyful confidence.
The original version on 1995's Spirits Colliding, a fantastic album containing collaborations with Mark Nevin, John Prine, Bela Fleck, and the Corrs before they became annoying, which was re-mastered in 1999, is my favourite Paul Brady song despite intense competition, yet it was bafflingly omitted from the 'best of' collection, Nobody Knows. However, Paul did release a new version of the song as a duet with Irish legend Mary Black for his The Paul Brady Songbook project for RTE television in Ireland, which was thankfully released on CD in 2003. Mary Black had, in fact, covered the song, with Paul guesting on vocals, on her Shine album in 1997. The duet is still warm and impressive, but nothing beats the tenderness of the original gorgeous version that is pure Paul with all his extraordinary talents.
Although this website is a safe testament to my verbosity, words seem weak when trying to describe the emotions this song inspires or its fundamental grandeur. I can only say that you must go out and buy it; your life is empty without it, though you might not realise it yet. You'll see what I mean.
Listen to a sample of the version with Mary Black at Amazon.co.uk or to hear the first few notes of the original song (ie not remotely the best bit) of the original visit Paul's great site. You can at least view the lyrics there.
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Whatever It Takes.... - Sinéad Lohan (Album: No Mermaid [Label: Grapevine], 1998)
Whatever It Takes.... was the uplifting single from Irish singer-songwriter Sinead Lohan's spectacular second album, No Mermaid, which was her debut album in the United States, where she earned a sizeable following. The album was recorded during a sultry summer in New Orleans, which understandably brought a certain ambiance to the record, but there is no mistaking that the accent so prevalent on the songs is from Cork. In her late 20s at the time and sporting long dreadlocks, Lohan would claim that lyrics meant little to her and that people read things into them that weren't there. Perhaps then there is little point in evaluating the fun and inventive lyrics of the upbeat, fully-charged pop of this melodious, earthy track. If she is to be believe, her accidental eloquence is simply a matter of twisting rhythmic words into the beat. She has said, 'I just have an ear for musical words. I write rhythms and melodies first and then put lyrics on top of them. The words sort of suggest themselves over the melodies.' If she really does apply lyrics with such little care for the stories behind the words, it is proof of her strength as a natural poet. In fact, there is something of Shakespeare's sense of imagery in many of her songs.
The busy, multi-layeredorchestration of Whatever It Takes.... lassoes any listener and ties him with her heartstrings from the first few beats. The supposedly carelessly constructed words claim to be confronting demons and certainly exude a happy confidence full of defiant challenge that is somehow combined with a bit of indifference or relaxed acceptance. The latter sentiment is evident with the opening, 'Whatever it takes you to believe it, that's all right with me' and the suggestion in the next verse that, 'You can take it easy / 'cause I've a mind to / Put your parachute on slow.' Hinting at a light spirituality, Lohan's husky voice sings, 'You will find me down by the river getting high on my mortality.'
The delightfully boppy track nods toward early work by 10,000 Maniacs with a slight feel of Portishead on speed, or a vastly more exciting Jewel or a gutsier Sinead O'Connor, but still retains a unique hypnotic sound. Visionary producer Malcolm Burn, a collaborator of Daniel Lanois with whom he worked on albums by Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson and moved on to work with Iggy Pop, Midnight Oil and Patti Smith, excels in accentuating emphatic moods, which are not lost in this folky meander into electronica amongst the many soothing ballads on the album that give Lohan's alto the chance to croon.
Lohan's fans include label-mate legend Joan Baez, who has recorded two of Lohan's songs; Juliet Turner; Madonna, who tried to sign Lohan to her Maverick label; and Sarah McLachlan, who invited her on stage during the Lilith Fair tour. She has toured with Baez, Black, Paul Brady and Blue Nile--some of the best B's in the world. Jointly managed by powerhouses Pat Egan and Mark Spector, who between them have managed Eric Clapton, Elton John and Joan Baez, Lohan sadly has been silent for several years now, presumably looking after her young children. With luck, she is busy writing in her spare time and will deliver a dream album in the near future.
Listen to an extract on Sinead's website, where you can also watch the video for that track. Alternatively, listen to a clip at Auralgasms or, at worst, a brief snippet at Amazon.com .
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Alive - Colin Vearncombe (Album: abbeyroadlive, 2000)
The telling title of this album hints that it features live, acoustic tracks recorded at the famous Abbey Road studio by Colin Vearncombe, probably best known for his hit as Black in 1987 (and again in 1994 when it featured in a Cadbury's television advertisement), the ironic Wonderful Life ('no need to run and hide, it's a wonderful, wonderful life').
Anyone who remembers thatsmooth song and its plunging vocals will know that Vearncombe has one of the most stunning, godlike voices on the planet. Dreamily deep and moving, clear and virtually perfect, his voice is complimented on this stunning song by the gorgeous harmonies of 'ladyblack', also known as Mrs Colin Vearncombe. Swedish Camilla Griehsel, formerly the lead singer of Scandinavian pop group One 2 Many, is now a respected opera singer, but she has not forgotten how to apply subtlety to her equally intoxicating voice when harmonising with her husband.
Their collaboration on what would be the ultimate love song in any case underscores its powerful devotion. Together they sing, 'I am never more alive than when I am lying in your arms again,' lyrics that in other hands might sound like a soppy B-movie soundtrack duet featuring Jennifer Warnes. However, the Vearncombes are amazing artists who effortlessly convey emotions you may never have believed you were capable of feeling.
When Colin's croon leans toward growling almost with anger about the fickle souls who really do not know true love, which they share, singing 'Some people act like love was just a kind of guessing game / So when they want you, what the hell are they responding to?', he escapes sounding righteous and superior because his theories are clearlyso genuinely felt.
These two verses and a bridge over nothing but an acoustic guitar never sound sparse because of the incredible warmth of the fantastic singers whose voices blend as beautifully as their lives are intertwined. The song could have been ruined by a producer who wanted to add swirling strings to swell the song into soppiness, but fortunately producer Mike Hedges (U2, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Travis, Texas, Manic Street Preachers and The Cure) is clearly a man who knows what he, and the performer, is doing and appreciates the concept.
The fact that such a gentle song, which begins 'Listen to the silence growing louder', can knock the listener senseless is part of its intrigue. It is truly stunning and should not be missed; give it a listen. Better yet, give it to a loved one. But only if he or she is your true love.
Listen to an extract on Colin's website, where you can also order the album.
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Don't Be Crushed - Hawksley Workman (Album: For Him and the Girls, 2000)
Although he has recently released another fine album, Don't Be Crushed remains my favourite song by the eccentric and imaginative Canadian singer/songwriter/tap dancer Hawksley Workman.
One of his more approachable lovelorn ballads, this song is no more comprehensible lyrically than any of his works of wonder. The song ventures from the lower registers to soaring heights, with more gliding than anguished screeching on this one, and he works his voice through its tender quilting like the Workman's tool it is. Sounding more like Tom Waits with smoother tonsils or early David Bowie, Tim Buckley or Billy McKenzie of the Associates on this track than some of the other performers he can resemble--he even has moments of being comparable to Neil Diamond--his aching voice easily conveys the touching emotions the tune seems to demand.
The song sounds superficially as though it is about the heartbreak of seeing off his true love, either ending things or heading for a long-distance romance, but I don't always feel completely sold on that interpretation. Each time I hear it, I change my mind about it, and I can only hope that lines such as, 'My baby she’s inside me now / I made her a place to settle down / It’s close to my heart / She likes the sound' is more about holding one's loved one in one's heart and mind than vengeful cannibalism, although it has occurred to me that he could be singing a song from a woman's point of view. Still, I think it's just the oddball antics of the delightfully rich imagination of Workman, for whom nothing is too literal. After all, this man published a book of letters to his imaginary underwater muse lover, and that's not something that you come across every day.
In the end, I think I do accept that the song is simply about a man whose love must leave the city, not because the couple are having problems, but because she can't take city life, and they're both, well, crushed. 'This city will always bug you baby / I know for me it does the same / It’s pretty I suppose from inside a plane / That’s heading for another place' rather makes the point that New York is not entirely glamorous in everyone's view. He tries to sooth them both by gently crooning Workman-style, 'But don’t act broken / Even when you’re broken. / Its just one of those things' which is, I suppose, the more creative approach to 'put on a happy face.'
Technically--and I admit that's not my forté--it sounds, when the full band joins in after the deceptively gentle first verse of just vocals and piano, as though no one cared that all the dials were plunging into the red areas so no one reduced the volume in order to avoid any distortion of sound. Still, it's only momentary and almost suits the song.
So whilst I cannot evaluate this tune to death and perhaps shouldn't even bother to try, it is still one that stirs my heart when I hear it, and I recommend that you let it do the same to you, since, despite putting me in mind of a Canadian Jack Lukeman, Workman is unique.
Listen to a full sample at Maple Music.
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Johnny Appleseed- Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros (Album: Global A Go-Go, 2001)
Twenty-five years after the Clash burst onto the punk scene, many of Joe Strummer's contemporaries are now much rounder around the middle, much shinier on the head, and much more mellow in their music. Strummer, on the other hand, was a fighter up to his greatly premature death. He never lost his social conscience and was still spelling out the need to change the world in his magnificent music; it's just that fewer people were listening. I suppose we are all busy with our jobs and, in some cases, with our kids, and have grown away from much of the rebellious music of our formative years. Strummer deserves your attention again.
Johnny Appleseed, the first song off his second album with the Mescaleros, bears the spirit of the Clash. Joe lulls you into a sense of tranquillity with a soft introduction of a gentle rhythm draped around an almost inaudible guitar, before bashing you over the head with his criticism of global capitalism in his own beautifully simple poetic way. An elegant example is the lines, 'Lord, there goes a Buick '49 / Black sheep of the angels riding, riding down the line....That soul is hard to find'. (The petrol-guzzling Buick '49 can be seen as the epitome of wasteful ostentation and extravagance, a two-ton boat with an overabundance of chrome and several parts added simply to make it resemble a World War II fighter plane; it became latterly quite popular after featuring in the film Rain Man). He spells out reminders of what should be obvious ('If you're after getting the honey, then you don't go killing all the bees.') and bitterly spits out examples of the reality of the world's intolerant treatment of the social heroes ('Lord, there goes Martin Luther King. Notice how the door closes when the chimes of freedom ring?')
Like most of the marvellous album, the song has a multicultural feel to it, with African guitars featuring amongst the pack of them playing, as well as flutes and a Bodhrán. The full band get credit for writing the song, and many of them are busy shouting out backing vocals to polish off the urgent message of the song.
This fusion of tuneful melody, first-class head-shaking danceability, wonderful world music and a useful modern message is a masterstroke. Strummer never sold out and he can at least have died proud.
Listen to a sample at Amazon.com.
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I'm a Bogman - Luka Bloom (Album: Between the Mountain & the Moon, 2001)
This is one of the few songs I can play a trillion times and still find myself stopping whatever I'm doing at the time to focus on adoring its every note, a tinge of excitement creeping down my spine every time. The song itself is enticing, but the bleating Spanish trumpets over the incredible multi-drum beat and handclap rhythm make it absolutely irresistible. Luka's almost scatting vocal rhythm--or perhaps Irish lilting--between verses never misses a beat, and the verses paint such an evocative portrait of that part of Ireland and the life of its people, I just want to climb into it to join them in the amazing experience. Apart from being the epitome of perfection on its own, the song is crying out to be the opening soundtrack to some fantastic imagery of the wetlands in Ireland in a marvellous art house film that revels in the location....I am tempted to go write a screenplay myself à la Affleck/Damon and pour my life savings into getting the film produced solely to ensure that the imagery pushed into my head by this fantastic track is shared by millions more around the world.
The song is even a marvellous workout track, and I never say things like that as I'm a ten-toed sloth. If fitness tapes contained tracks like these, which have a perfect beat for exercising as well as dancing and just swaying in awe, I would be at the aerobics class daily.
Truly no other song could give a better feel for what still lies in the soul of a man, his fond pride for his origins. It's truly fitting that Luka's brother Christy Moore has joined him in the performance of this song at the odd concert and on the B-side of the single release. Perhaps this is what that hopeless J-Lo aspired to with Jenny on the Block.... Luka's wonderfully quick delivery of the description of the heather and the moss in the 'precious wetlands' makes me want to go explore the area rather than hitting the tourist trail of Dublin. He turns the song from an expression of love for the area to a warm depiction of enjoying its hidden delights ('So many people look at the bog/As a place that just lies dead/Nothing to do for the body/Nothing to give to the head....') with one's loved one---certainly not by bedding down in the bog, nothing so dirty in either way. He speaks warmly of having a cup of 'tea by the turf fire/Your arm around your heart's desire/The two of you looking out at the midland night/At the shooting stars and the satellites.' Even without these endless examples of true perfection in the music, lyrics, engineering and production, the song would be endearing enough for its mention of kids and dogs mucking in together no matter what the weather. You must experience this song; the song is an unforgettable experience, yet the joy of music, like the taste of chocolate, is that you continue to delve into a favourite track repeatedly rather than rely upon its fine memory.
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Curragh of Kildare - Brian Kennedy featuring Adrian Dunbar (Album: On Song, 2003)
Saintly-voiced Belfast boy Brian Kennedy had already begun to record some of his favourite Irish love songs when BBC Northern Ireland asked him to present a six-part series about Irish traditional songs. He was joined by an amazing cast of extraordinary talents, and this marvellous, poppy upbeat arrangement of the traditional song (later adapted by Robert Burns as Winter It Is Passed, and recorded in that form by Eddi Reader on her recent tribute album to the Scottish poet) presents perhaps the most surprising guest: actor Adrian Dunbar. Dunbar, from Enniskillen, has always been a huge fan of traditional Irish music, and anyone who remembers his striking performance in the delightful film Hear My Song, which he co-wrote, based around the Irish tenor and tax exile Josef Locke, may recall that Dunbar sang in that film, including a jaunty original number performed with his friend, the then unknown James Nesbitt.
The sheer fun of this song grabbed me immediately, but it grew on me more and more, to the point where I could barely release the repeat button on my minidisc player and spent many entire train journeys to and from work hearing nothing but the bright, foot-tapping reworking of this track.
Dunbar's persistently exquisite deep harmonies are perfect with Kennedy's soaring sensational voice, and the actor's solo verse is an added thrill. Hearing his amazing voice constantly swirling in my head re-awakened my love for his acting skills, which unfortunately caused me to shell out for quite a few DVDs (though Hear My Song regrettably has yet to be released in that format). I found that I was, scarily, even drawn to him when he portrayed Richard III's keen henchman James Tyrell in Sir Ian McKellan's impressive adaptation of Shakespeare's play set in fascist 1930s. Turning me into a Tyrell groupie--such is the power of Dunbar's voice, particularly when blended with Brian Kennedy's well-established vocal magnificence. The live song has an endearing moment near the end when Dunbar starts to sing a different word than Kennedy, suddenly stops himself after half an utterance, and then picks up with barely a stumble.
Something about the reference to the glad little hearts of the small birds singing in the trees and the blessed little hearts of the joyful linnet and bee is irresistible, and the contrast to that of the narrator's heart, 'ah, but mine can known no rest / Since my true love is far away from me.' Here again is a bit of cynicism for my soul: 'All you who are in love....I pity all the pain that you endure / For experience lets me know That your hearts are full of woe, a woe that no mortal can cure'.
The Curragh (pronounced ker'-ah) is a vast plain that played a significant part in Kildare's history as a military training ground that can be traced back to ancient times, used by the Normans for military gatherings and, much later, the British army for training for the Boer War and World War I. The Curragh is now the home of Irish racing, where the Irish derby is held each June.
I could understand traditionalists scoffing at this new, buoyant version of a song they are used to hearing in a slow, wailing voice, but only a fool could deny the amazing qualities of these performances, with the traditional fiddle and box freely entwined with modern drums, electric guitar and electric bass, and the contrast between the grievous lyrics and upbeat music. And surely only a dead man could fail to want to jump up and dance to it.
Listen to Brian perform it live on BBC Cornwall (David White show) (not a patch on the recorded version with Adrian Dunbar, but still lovely).
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The Birds Are Leaving - Boo Hewerdine (Album: Thanksgiving, 1999)
This emotional and exquisite track opens the beautiful Thanksgiving album, a brave move since the listener would surely think nothing could get better than this song and have difficulties abandoning it for the next track. The album, fortunately, is so strong that that is not a real concern. However, the song is surely the most delicately gorgeous, painfully sad you will come across in a lifetime.
Boo's tender tune is a winner as a composition on its own, a truly desirable connection of heavenly notes that, in his typical fashion, are so uncomplicated that it is a wonder no one put them together this way previously, but clearly no one else had the talent and the delicate touch to do so. On top of the tune's basic beauty, he has added faultless, soothing piano, surrounded by swirling strings, underscored by a mournful cello and gentle stand-up bass.
If that weren't enough to draw you into the song's heart, Boo's voice on this track in particular provides just the fragile fragrance of pain and beauty that the heartbreaking lyrics inspire. The sadness is not in a usual story about one lover leaving another, not in the traditional sense anyway--more the unbearably painful sense of having the partner still by your side yet deeply unhappy. The struggle that the couple are facing is down to--and perhaps you should not read this if you dislike 'spoilers', as the subject is not immediately evident--the heartbreak of childlessness, and the crushing pain that one of them feels when he starts to question the worth of the relationship in his partner's eyes if she defines it only in terms of their success in producing a child, which evades them. 'Tell me that a lover's touch is more than nature passing genes Or what am I to believe?'
The moving subject is conveyed cleverly in Boo's usual style of impeccable poetry depicted in apparent simplicity. The first lines of the last verse of the song, sung with such brittle pain in his voice, are the true pinnacle: 'Heaven knows why you're not happy and heaven knows why I can't make you.'
Whether you enjoy delving into the soul of a song or prefer to approach it at face value, you will love this one on either level.
Listen to a sample at Amazon.com.
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Secret Heart - Ron Sexsmith (Album: Ron Sexsmith, 1995)
For those fortunate enough to catch on to Ron Sexsmith's brilliance at the beginning of his recording career, this would have been the first song they came across when playing his debut album. What a just introduction; the song is marvellous, melancholic yet hopeful, with Ron's delicate, wavering vocals supporting the song with a sensitivity few others could manage with such genuine feeling. In other words, it is typical Ron Sexsmith. Rather than singing of his own experience of heartbreak and struggles, he tends to act as advisor to others in those situations, serving hope and comfort when they are most needed.
In this case, although he could be speaking to himself, he is egging someone on to take the giant leap to confessing his feelings of love for someone. The song is delightful, catchy and gentle without being over-sentimental and sleepily slow. Its sound, with its delicate percussion and featured xylophone (yes, xylophone, or perhaps Mitchell Froom playing keyboards that sound exactly like a xylophone) is immediately appealing. Add to that Ron's amazing, achingly sensitive delivery of the wonderfully constructed lyrics and a subject that most of us have, at some time in our lives, related to--perhaps it will take you back to the school dance when you're kicking yourself for not having the courage to go ask that person who you've followed around the corridors like an undercover agent to dance--and you have a perfect little song. If only you had had Ron to reassure you when this applied to your life, whilst making you face up to the reality of your situation, with 'This very secret you're trying to conceal / Is the very same one you're dying to reveal. / Go tell her how you feel.' Your life might have been quite different....
So get this song and see what courage it gives you now, or at least enjoy how Ron so aptly manages to puncture our souls and dig at our hidden feelings and secret memories, exposing the areas we have left raw and simply covered over quickly with a scar. 'Secret heart, come out and share it; / This loneliness, few can bear it. / Could it have something to do with/Admitting that you just can't go through it Alone?' He knows; you can't hide your fear here.
But Ron picks past your scabs not as a sadist but as someone who knows you need some guidance to reach a more comfortable place, and he will hold your hand as he takes you through the somehow inevitably enjoyable experience in the light, three-minute creatively candid concoction that is Secret Heart. There, I've let you in on my secret. Get this song.
Listen to a sample at Amazon.com.
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I Just Go - Boz Scaggs (Album: Dig, 2001)
Despite having not just one but two electric guitar solos, which are normally an instant turn-off for me, this song won me over immediately and still makes me breathless when I hear it. Boz Scaggs' uniquely sentimental voice conveys the tragic loneliness of someone desperately sorry for the pain he instilled when acting naturally, wandering off without being able to conform to the usual social standards and neglecting to explain himself. The singer's mournful tones tell how it never occurred to him that his behaviour would upset anyone, certainly not the person he cares for so deeply. The pain, regret and possible fear over a delicate situation push through the lyrics of the song that are accentuated by Scaggs' bellowing blues guitar laid out over the dark bass and the comforting rhythm of the hand percussion throughout the sad song of a struggling drifter.
The depiction of his immense affection for the person he has accidentally abandoned and let down is clear: 'I need you to know / How I long to do all you want me to / I'd go anywhere at all, anytime you call, to comfort you.'
However, despite this tender love, he is driven by another force leading to this terrible conflict. 'And I take every word of your advice / I'd make any kind of sacrifice to let you know / But there's this other voice calling me sometimes / Sometimes I just go.'
Although I fully understand his dilemma and relate better to loners than gregarious folk, I frankly would kill someone who did this to me, but fortunately just hearing about it in such a heartfelt and fantastic package is nothing but nirvana. He sings 'sorry' with such conviction and 'please' with such pain, even I would have to forgive him upon hearing this emotional explanation, particularly as I play it endlessly. You should hear it, too.
Listen to a sample at Amazon.com.
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Hymn to Grace - Roddy Frame (The North Star, Independiente, 1998)
The fantastic finale on Roddy Frame's first solo album after shedding the Aztec Camera guise, Hymn to Grace is the ultimate love song, the personification of intense, heavenly beauty. Matched with heartbreakingly perfect lyrics, Frame's amazingly skilled acoustic guitar, which begins with a Spanish influence and expands somehow to resemble an entire orchestra, blended with his deep, full and astonishingly fine vocals, ensures the song is made to melt hearts.
One can picture the tune being borne out of powerful, soul-destroying love for his partner, when in fact Frame bashed the song out in unbelievably benign and disengaged circumstances. Never mind, that merely serves to establish Frame as a performer whose art has reached the pinnacle of perfection.
Like Gustave Flaubert, Flame has only allowed le mot juste to take part in his skilfully crafted depiction of paradisal affection. Whilst I usually cite a particularly notable lyric on this site as a sample ('It's a hymn to the grace that's found a place in you.') ('With the lightness of a feather, it's the web that ties together what is true') ('Do the angels pre-arrange an eye for what is rare?'), I can barely refrain from printing the entire song here, full as it is of rushed, ravishing near-heroic couplets.
Frankly, my one-dimensional words could not possibly do this astoundingly masterful tune justice. Get your hands on a copy it and play it endlessly. Surely no one can ever tire of its awesome genius; it moves me with every listen.
Listen to a 1998 live version at the fantastic Roddy-filled Killermontstreet.com.
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Stuff and Nonsense - Split Enz (Album: Frenzy, 1979)
One of my top two favourite songs ever, this ballad is the ultimate pessimist's anthem but displays devotion of a sort. As a teenager, I dreamt of having it played at my wedding as it was so perfectly beautiful, but I suppose my groom, whomever he was to be, would have taken exception to the (gorgeous) chorus of 'And you know that I love you here and now, not forever. I can give you the present, I don't know 'bout the future, that's all stuff and nonsense.' Still, it was realistic!
Despite the chorus and the general fear of commitment ('I dilly dally down to duo'), the lyrics are generally quite romantic and caring. 'But I got no secrets that I babble in my sleep/I won't make promises to you that I can't keep' and 'I once lived for the future, every day was one day closer/Greener on the other side, this I believed before I met you.' The singer celebrates love whilst keeping his feet on the ground: everything is fabulous now, but who can say whether that will last. Keyboard magician Eddie Rayner's stunning, pounding piano leads you through the celestial song that bursts into gripping, epic music near the end, which features the aching, multi-octave spanning vocals of the magnificent Tim Finn, now unfairly probably better known as Neil's older brother, but then Neil (already a member of Split Enz at this time) lived in Tim's shadow for many years, so perhaps that's fair.
This lovely uncomplicated track appeared on Split Enz's Australian Frenzy album shortly before their new wave breakthrough with the delightful True Colours album, and A&M remixed the album for the US and re-released it in 1981 with the addition of another of Tim's breathtaking ballads, Semi-Detached. On the original, as I recall--sadly my vinyl collection lives in a different country from me at the moment--Stuff and Nonsense was prefaced with a brief spoken tribute by Tim to the All Blacks, which actually began my support, as an impressionable youth, for that team and my uncommitted love (how appropriate) of rugby union. Fortunately, the All Blacks are easy to support; Tim did not steer me towards losers. Nor would I steer you in the wrong direction; this song will always be a winner worth playing again and again.
Alternative versions are available, and although my heart won't let go of the original, the digitally re-mastered version with added subtle strings and magnificently delicate acoustic guitar on the Spellbound double-album (1997 Mushroom compilation) is truly superlative and is surely the fond treatment it deserves. The 1996 Enz So album on Epic/Sony contains an intriguing version with lead vocals by Neil Finn over the gentle pluckings and lovely forthright brass of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with a vocal contribution by the New Zealand National Youth Choir, but I enjoy it simply as an alternative novelty, since Neil's vocals, whilst always welcome, are strained and not a patch on Tim's, and the symphonic treatment verges on sickly overkill. A recent live version is thankfully available on Neil Finn's 2001 live album 7 Worlds Collide, but despite a promising introduction by Tim Finn who provides the piano accompaniment, the lead vocals are provided by Eddie Vedder. Whilst the Pearl Jammer carries off the song admirably, with lovely backing vocals provided by Tim on the chorus, it is Tim's song and requires his superhuman voice to convey its special qualities.
In order to be truly rewarded, I suggest tracking down a copy of Frenzy or--for 39 other reasons as well--the Spellbound compilation, as there is nothing like the original, other than the fine re-mastered original!
Copyright © 2003 by TC. All rights reserved.
This page was last updated 12 May 2014
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since 26 March 2005