Today is International Women’s Day. Here are some albums you should check out by people who are not dudes.
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Miss America (1988)
Sister to actress Catherine O’Hara (she of SCTV and Home Alone fame), once called a “national treasure” by Michael Stipe, and a regular fixture on Canadian “best cult artists” lists, Mary Margaret O’Hara has only made one authorized full-length album. Her age and date of birth are a mystery.
Most people have never heard of her. Most people are missing out.
An art student in the 1970s, she was signed to Virgin Records on the strength of some demo recordings made in the early 80s. XTC’s Andy Partridge got the call to produce her first album. Depending on who you talk to, he either left or was fired after one day.
Mary went on to produce the album herself, only to have the record label hold it back for four years when they decided what she was doing wasn’t commercial enough. In an interview on CBC Radio One’s q a few years ago, she said she was told by someone at Virgin, “Captain Beefheart is weird, but he’s good. You are weird and insane, and you are the worst thing we’ve ever heard.”
Virgin signed her with the promise of total artistic freedom. After hearing the results, they decided they weren’t interested in what she had to say as an artist. They offered to bring in someone else to write an album for her. They would arrange and record the music. She would only have to swing by the studio to lay down her vocal parts.
How do you even respond to that if you’re the artist?
Mary stuck to her guns and stuck with her own material. But she paid for it.
The songs were mixed with guitarist Michael Brook, some of them years after they were recorded, four of them vetoed by Virgin for being “too weird”, and what was left of the album was finally released as Miss America in 1988 to critical acclaim. In short order, the musicians who abused her and rebelled against her unorthodox methods during the recording sessions started thanking her for what she taught them.
There’s a story that she was slated to perform on Saturday Night Live to promote the album, until one of the producers noticed her arrhythmic dancing when she was rehearsing and cancelled her appearance. Their explanation: handicapped people in the audience might be offended.
Joe Cocker’s spastic arm movements were okay, though.
At least some work was done on a second album. But Mary used her cash advance to pay the band for their work on the first one, felt strange about Virgin suddenly treating her like she had some value to them, and the album was left unfinished. Virgin threatened to sue her.
She released a four-song Christmas EP in 1991 and waited for her contract to run out. She never signed another one.
In the years since, she’s been active as an actress in independent films, a guest on the albums of others, and an occasional contributor to tribute albums for the likes of Kurt Weill and Vic Chesnutt.
2001’s Apartment Hunting soundtrack functions as an unofficial sequel to Miss America. In keeping with the theme of nothing quite going according to plan, it was released without her permission. As far as I can tell, she agreed to act in the film and provide the soundtrack, but not for it to be sold. Still, it’s an essential piece of the M2OH puzzle, as is the song “Dark Dear Heart” on Puerto Angel, the debut album by The Henrys. It’s one of the most gorgeous songs you’ve never heard. She sang it at John Candy’s funeral. I don’t know how she got through it.
She continues to play occasional live shows in Toronto. They’re almost impossible to prepare for, because the dates are often announced at the last minute with little fanfare. That’s probably just the way she wants it. Making music was never about generating attention for her.
Mary hasn’t given many interviews over the years. In her 2009 appearance on q, she makes me think a little of Gena Rowlands’ indescribable performance in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, and this is how: some of the YouTube comments make it clear there are people who assume she’s a little crazy. Those people are idiots.
It’s not that she’s crazy. It’s that she has no filters. She’s honest, unedited, in the moment, and maybe still a little wounded by her experiences in the music industry, as anyone with a heart would be after going through what she has. Everything she wants to say comes out of her at once. Not in neat little soundbites.
In other words, she’s a human being, and when you talk to her, you’re getting all of her, in a way not many people dare to — or even know how to — present themselves. Because on some level, we’re all acting most of the time, hiding something, shoving entire parts of who we are somewhere they won’t make too much noise. She doesn’t do that. She doesn’t know how.
It pisses me off, the way she’s been treated. I bought Miss America when I was still a teenager, expecting and halfway hoping to hear near-unlistenable chaos. That’s what I was led to expect based on what I read about her.
Instead, I was bowled over by how beautiful it was. “To Cry About” and “Help Me Lift You Up” are as deep and unaffected as love songs can hope to get, the first of them written for a boyfriend who thought it was about him when it wasn’t. Then he died (an overdose or an accident, maybe), and it became about him without a word being rewritten. You can feel the truth of that change in the song without it ever being explained.
“Keeping You in Mind” sounds like some great jazz standard that could have been sung by Billie Holiday and was somehow lost for decades. “Year in Song” and “Not Be Alright” are mutant rock songs that sound like no rock music anyone else has ever made. She uses her voice as an instrument, testing it, refracting it, making it bend and growl and short-circuit at will, and each time she opens her mouth she seems to be rethinking what words mean to her, which ones she wants to use, how to use them.
You can point to just about any singer and find someone they sound like on some superficial level, or someone they were influenced by. No one sounds anything like Mary Margaret O’Hara. She invented her own musical and vocal language.
What really baked my brain was learning someone from the record label told her the album’s closing track, “You Will Be Loved Again”, was so horrible it made them sick. I’ll never understand that. What made them want to puke is one of the most spellbinding pieces of music I’ve heard in my life, just Mary’s voice and an upright bass. It’s so pure and beautifully broken and somehow hopeful, it makes me feel like weeping every time I hear it.
The Cowboy Junkies cover version doesn’t come close. It’s not even on the same planet.
Even if she never records or releases another proper album, there’s more fire and beauty and invention on Miss America alone than most people manage in a lifetime of making records.
This song plays over the closing credits to Bruce Spangler’s hard-hitting-but-little-seen film Protection.
Just Another Diamond Day (1970)
A collection of music out of time, written while travelling to Scotland’s Inner Hebrides via horse-drawn wagon. It sold next to nothing. Discouraged, Vashti gave up music to farm and raise her children. Over time her album became a sought-after cult classic and a strong influence on the “New Weird America”/freak folk movement of the 1990s and 2000s. When she re-emerged more than thirty years later to release her second album, neither her voice nor her songs had aged a day.
The Marble Index (1969)
Nico has always fascinated me. She seemed to take a perverse sort of joy in destroying her own physical beauty and living the most depraved existence she could carve out for herself. And she made some pretty unique music along the way.
Chelsea Girl is the most popular album she made outside of the Velvet Underground. You can put it on in the background when guests are over. It’s pretty and inoffensive.
It’s nice music. But it didn’t begin to reflect who Nico was or who she wanted to be as an artist, and the flowery arrangements added by a producer with his own vision didn’t sit well with her. “The first time I heard the album,” she would later admit, “I cried, and it was all because of the flute.”
The music she made after that is a lot more complex and interesting, and not for dinner parties, unless you have some very strange and interesting friends. The three albums recorded with John Cale as producer/arranger as the 1960s became the 1970s are some sort of pitch black neo-classical European art-folk brilliance that still sounds like nothing else.
Encouraged by Leonard Cohen to write her own songs, Nico bought a portable, hand-operated Indian harmonium, taught herself to play it, and found a way to turn the weakness of English not being her mother tongue into an asset. It was as if approaching it from a slight remove opened the language up to her in ways inaccessible to most native English speakers. Even when she made something like “rock” music with a full band in the 1980s, it was strange and edgy, and a lot of artists who were part of the gothic rock movement claimed her as an influence.
This has always been one of my favourite Nico songs from my favourite Nico album, a three-way dance for voice, harmonium, and viola. The instruments drift in and out of tune with each other, the lyrics read like poetry on the page, and the song sounds centuries old, and brand new.
New York Tendaberry (1969)
Like Harry Nilsson, Laura didn’t get the respect she deserved in her lifetime. And like Harry, her songs were bigger hits in the hands of other artists than they were in her own. Too idiosyncratic to become a household name, she blazed her own creative trail, tossing elements of jazz, blues, gospel, Brill-Building style New York pop, show tunes, and soul into a blender, and spitting it all out as something her own.
In some of her songs I hear traces of Tori Amos and Kate Bush. Then I remember neither one of them existed as commercial artists when Laura was doing this.
New York Tendaberry has to be her masterpiece. A loose love letter to her native city, and in many ways her most personal and adventurous work, the album was recorded over a year-long series of intense evening sessions. Laura made the trip to the recording studio most nights by horse-drawn carriage through Central Park.
“Laura was very theatrical,” producer/engineer Roy Halee said in a 2002 interview to coincide with the album’s reissue. “She would come to the studio dressed for the evening in a beautiful gown. and each night, she would have dinner brought in, and we would sit next to the console, eating by candlelight.”
The songs follow their own internal logic. There aren’t many typical verse/chorus/verse structures. Everything is built around Laura’s piano and voice, with Halee and arranger Jimmie Haskell creating arrangements based on her instructions. She couldn’t read or write music notation, so Laura communicated what she wanted in terms of colours.
“She would say, ‘Here I would like some light blue, then go more pink over here,'” Haskell said. “I interpreted light blue as middle-to-high instruments, playing softly. Pink would be those instruments playing louder. If she went up to white, it was the loudest, brassiest sound I could think of.”
Laura often spoke of the album being her “heart and soul”. When it was delivered to Columbia Records in the fall of 1969, friends sent her cards congratulating her as if she’d given birth to a child.
This particular song goes on the list of things that never fail to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The way she howls “my man” at the very end, holding the last note with such force her voice breaks…”intensity” isn’t a strong enough word. And listen to the way the strings come in like a little explosion of sound in one of many semi-bridge sections when she’s singing, “Never gonna make a move and make her.” That’s some great colour.
First Aid Kit
The Lion’s Roar (2012)
I am not a fan of modern mainstream country music. At all. I don’t think you can even call much of it country music anymore. It’s just a different permutation of pop music, with pedal steel guitar (a beautiful sound that deserves better) and a different set of narrow production touches.
These two women, though…Christ Jesus. If this is what modern alt-country (or whatever it wants to be called) can be, sign me the hell up.
First Aid Kit is, at root, Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg. They write their own songs, play their own instruments, and were twenty-one and nineteen years old when this album was released.
Some people were born to sing together. John Lennon and Paul McCartney come to mind. Don and Phil Everly. Ira and Charlie Loudermilk. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
I think these two go on that list. The scary thing is, their best songs are probably still ahead of them.
I have my great friend Lucas (also known as The Amazing Flying Raspberry) to thank for introducing me to this Swedish songstress over a decade ago.
The best point of entry into Stina’s world is probably the album that comes before this one, And She Closed Her Eyes. That’s the first I heard of her, and it’s a gorgeous record. But this is the one that hooked me for good. It’s strange, dark, and deep as a well. On some songs she sounds a little like Rickie Lee Jones in hell, the childlike quality of her voice adding an extra dimension to some disquieting material. I love that it’s her making all or most of that noise on electric guitar herself (the album credits are a little confusing and confused, depending on where you read them).
One to play on dismal, rainy days, maybe. Not that it’s raining here today.
Rickie Lee Jones
Speaking of Rickie Lee, if you only ever own one of her albums, make it this one. It’s one of the only things I’ve heard that deserves comparison with Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry, in the way the songs are all built around Rickie’s voice and piano, and how the arrangements and dynamics shift on a dime from one song to the next. It’s also very much Rickie’s own thing, and something of a breakup album, recorded following the dissolution of her relationship with Tom Waits. If you like Pirates, pick up Girl at Her Volcano and Flying Cowboys. And if you like all of that stuff as much as I do, well…marry me?
Two Ton Boa
Two Ton Boa EP (2000)
Two Ton Boa is bassist/multi-instrumentalist Sherry Fraser’s baby. She writes and sings the songs, built around a twin electric bass assault (there’s very little guitar to be heard in her music), and arranges all the parts for the other musicians to play note for note. What you’re hearing on record is almost a direct line to the sounds she hears in her head.
Her music is dark as all hell. There isn’t much humour or light to be found in it. When you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, it can hit just the right spot. When you’re not, it can be a little overwhelming. I don’t think it would work well as background music.
Maybe the best way to describe it is to take what Sherry herself said about the internet, and apply it to her work instead: it’s “beautiful in an ugly way, and huge but dangerous.”
She has a touch of the theatrical about her, both in the way she uses her voice and in the melodies she writes, which are at once gothic and carnivalesque. For someone with a voice capable of such range and beauty, she isn’t afraid to make it sound ugly or menacing when a song calls for it. She doesn’t consider herself a gloomy person, but in an interview to coincide with the release of her 2006 album Parasiticide she explained the music has given her a place for darker thoughts and feelings to go, calling it a “survival tactic”.
I prefer her first EP to the full-length album. The production isn’t quite as rich, but it feels like there’s twice as much going on in half the space. And then there are her lyrics, which could come off as melodrama in someone else’s hands, but the intensity of her delivery gives them some serious weight:
“My will is broken and my tongue has lost her feet.”
“She’s got an avalanche packed in a snowball.”
“Who could tell? You can’t smell poison in a perfumed well.”
“Your gold-digging bird will stoop to swallow more worms than you, as her priceless hole spits out the last of you.”
The Dirt of Luck (1995)
Mary Timony’s made a lot of good music, but I don’t think she’s ever found a better outlet than Helium for her husky, vibrato-less voice and her distinctive, jagged way of playing electric guitar. I used to listen to this stuff a lot back when i went out drinking. One friday night at The Loop I somehow convinced one of the DJs (Rob — a great guy, sadly no longer with us) to play “Medusa” off of this album. That was fun.
Some fans prefer the glossier, more layered sound of Magic City. Me, I’m kind of partial to the Pirate Prude EP and The Dirt of Luck, where Mary’s guitar-playing takes center stage. It makes for a good soundtrack to a train ride, too.
The Noise Made by People (2000)
There’s a definite feeling of kinship with Stereolab in the music of Broadcast, but Trish Keenan’s singing bends it into something unique. There’s an innocence and a purity to her voice that projects a strange power, never more so than when it’s cutting through claustrophobic and dissonant soundscapes. I don’t think she once came anywhere near screaming or shouting in any of the songs she recorded. She didn’t need to.
She passed away in 2011 after contracting the H1N1 flu while on tour. That shit still hurts.
I’ve always thought there was an eerie beauty to this song. If you’re into this sort of thing, the albums The Noise Made by People and Haha Sound come highly recommended, along with the compilations Work and Non Work and The Future Crayon, both of which collect non-album tracks from EPs and singles — many of them the equal of anything on the full-length studio albums.
The Walking (1988)
Jane Siberry has made some of the most wonderfully idiosyncratic music you’ll ever find in the pop/rock section of a record store.
“I started out in music,” she once said, “but switched to sciences when I realized how much more interesting it was to study than music. I would leave the classes ecstatic about tiny things.”
I think that quote goes some way toward explaining what’s so unique about her songs. She stopped studying music in university in favour of microbiology. Then she found herself pulled back in the direction of music. But that interest in “tiny things” remained, and the songs she went on to write concerned themselves with the smallest things — which are often really the biggest things in disguise.
The golden period of Siberry for me is the four-album stretch from 1988 to 1995, in which she moved from long, unclassifiable, cinematic songs delivered from multiple points of view (The Walking), to something crawling toward country-influenced soft-rock, more accessible in sound but no less individual in approach (Bound by the Beauty), to the dreamy soundscapes, dance-influenced rhythms, and more spiritual and erotic themes of When I Was a Boy, to another complete stylistic curve ball with Maria, most of which was recorded live and unplugged in the studio with a jazz quintet.
The Walking has become a real favourite over the years. Almost every song on this album is like a little movie. There’s one called “Lena Is a White Table”. It’s about a table. Named Lena. It’s brilliant. “Well, maybe she should go to school,” goes the chorus. “No, no…she’s a table.” The production is very much of its time, but the songs are so unusual, they twist those ’80s touches right out of shape until you don’t even notice they’re there.
In his book Fear of Music, Gary Mullholland describes Erykah Badu’s debut album as “[the] missing link between ’70s street funk, basement jazz, bohemian hip-hop, and the blues reinventions of Portishead”. Without being able to quantify it in those terms, I always felt she was one of the more interesting voices and personalities to come out of the neo-soul movement of the ’90s. Still do. Unlike so many people making music now, she takes her time with a song. It’s a wonderful thing.
My introduction to her was the music video for “Tyrone”. Back in the day, MuchMoreMusic used to play some interesting videos in the wee hours. You never knew what you might see when the rest of the world was asleep. Sometimes it was Roxy Music. Sometimes Tom Waits. One late night in 1998, it was Lady Badu, very pregnant, looking like a goddess in her elegant dress and tignon, destroying a freeloading boyfriend on top of a great jazzy groove.
She had me at, “I’m gettin’ tired of your shit”.
Back in my weekend drinking days, I would have a drink or three at Milk every friday night before heading to The Loop for the rest of the night.
For the longest time I tried to get a show at Milk. Back then, no one in Windsor knew or cared who I was as a musical entity. I was told the guy who ran the place was the “music coordinator” and the person to talk to about getting a show.
The thing is, he didn’t seem to exist. To this day, I’ve never once spoken to him or seen him in the flesh. I know he’s real. He has a Facebook page. But it’s difficult not to think of him as a sort of ghost.
He tried to add me as a Facebook friend once. I ignored the request, because fuck him. He couldn’t be bothered to give me the time of day when all I wanted was to network, connect with people, and get my music heard. I don’t want to be his fake internet friend now that I’m cool enough to acknowledge.
I don’t know how many CDs I went through back then, giving them to whoever was working behind the bar at any given time and asking them to pass the music on to him. But it was a lot. No matter how many times I followed up, I never got an answer from anyone. And the turnover rate in that place was so ridiculous, someone I gave an album to one Friday might not be there the next Friday, and then they might never be seen again.
After a while I gave up on getting a gig. I started giving music to whoever was behind the bar and saying, “Please don’t bother passing this on to your fabled music coordinator. This is for you. Give it a listen if you like. Let me know what you think.”
I just wanted to share music with people, whether I knew them or not. I figured there were worse ways to go about it. It wasn’t like anyone would give me a gig anywhere.
That didn’t work out so well either. But I did get one person to listen to a CD. She had short dark hair and thick black-rim glasses. Her name might have been Nancy. I’m not sure. She was pretty, and friendly, and we struck up a nice little Friday night rapport. I gave her the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP. She listened to it, and she told me she liked it. My heart did a little celebratory dance.
And then I never saw her again. Another one out the revolving door.
One thing I enjoyed about spending time at Milk was never knowing what I might hear. Whoever was working there would throw whatever they were listening to at the time on the sound system. On any given Friday I might hear Al Green, or Blonde Redhead, or Simon & Garfunkel, or Interpol, or scratchy old blues recordings from the 1930s, or The Band.
I heard pieces of one specific album bubble up from the ether two or three times. Some kind of ethnic music with a powerful female voice. I had no idea who or what it was, or what the woman was singing about, but I loved it. I could feel it in my bones.
The blonde-haired girl who played this music lasted longer than most bartenders seemed to. So I had that going for me. One night I heard that familiar-and-unfamiliar music again. I walked up to the bar and asked her what it was. She told me it was this. I wrote down the name of the album and ordered it the next day.
I now know Oumou was born in Mali, West Africa. As a child she sang to help her mother feed the family after being abandoned by her father. Many of her songs feature pointed social criticism, a lot of it to do with the treatment of women in African society. She owns and helped build a hotel in Bamako that doubles as her performing space and a refuge for musicians.
She can also sing like nobody’s business.
Avalanche to Wandering Bear (2008)
Valery gore kind of makes me think of what might have happened if Feist decided to make the piano her main instrument instead of guitar and let her mind drift to some darker places. There’s a somewhat similar tonal thing going on with their voices, though not to the point that you’d confuse one for the other. They both make music that is tangentially “pop” in nature but tends to slip into more interesting and esoteric crevices when your back is turned. And hey, they’re both Canadian.
I like Feist. But I’d take Valery to have my back in an ice cream bar fight.
Valery describes her music as “jazz- and classically-influenced piano pop”. I think that does a decent enough job of encapsulating her sound, at least in a superficial way. But she sneaks some pretty dark and interesting lyrics in-between the pretty melodies. And every once in a while there’s a song like this that doesn’t sound like any kind of piano pop at all.
Here there’s no piano, her voice supported only by a horn arrangement. The lyrics seem to be a description of a somewhat abstract, unsettling dream. There’s something disconcerting about the image of the dream’s main character “[folding] like a dress”, and the way that phrase serves as the hook/chorus. It’s good stuff.
Queen of the Country Blues (1929 – 1937)
A multiple-disc collection of some of the best blues music you’ll ever hear, at the best possible sound quality, for a price so low it’s a little ridiculous. You should buy it.
Moon Pix (1998)
The last few Cat Power albums haven’t really connected with me on any deep emotional level. The last one that really gut-punched me was You Are Free, and the last one I loved all the way through after I warmed up to it was The Greatest. But Chan Marshall has one of those voices I could listen to all day, even if the songs she’s singing don’t feel like they’re up to snuff. I’d listen to her sing junk mail.
Her earlier work occupies a special place for me. There’s a rawness that feels like it’s missing from her more “mature” songs. There’s also a sense of heaviness.
Everything seems more urgent when you’re young and angry and you feel attacked from all angles. Not so much when you’re a little older and calmer.
This was the first Cat Power album I bought. I heard it at a friend’s house one night fourteen years ago. It didn’t do much for me as background music, but something in that voice made me want to dig deeper. When I sat down and gave the album my undivided attention, it mutated into something different, and I could hear how great it was.
The Greatest works well as background music. Something like Moon Pix doesn’t. You need to give yourself to it, and then it gives itself back to you.
Half the album’s songs were written in a single night, in the aftermath of a vivid hallucinatory nightmare Chan had while staying in her then-boyfriend’s farmhouse in South Carolina by herself. Maybe it makes sense that I’ve reached for it some nights when I haven’t been able to sleep. It’s not music to listen to when you want to cheer yourself up, but every once in a while it’s just right.
The way Chan sings, “Hope all is well with you / I wish the best for you / When no one is around, love will always love you,” in this song cuts like a very deep thing.
Kidnapped by Neptune (2005)
Emma Louise Niblett took her stage name from the protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. She has an unusual way of playing guitar, incorporating a lot of open fifths where most musicians would play major or minor chords. She speaks in a British accent and sings with a scratchy Southern lilt. She’s either an American pretending to be British, or a Brit whose accent ceases to exist when she sings, or else she’s neither, pretending to be both.
It doesn’t really matter what the deal is there. She makes cool music, and Steve Albini records it in his usual upfront, dynamic way. Emma has a deep interest in astrology, which she relies on to determine when and where she should record new music. Sometimes — like at the end of this song — she taps into a grungy energy that makes me think of Kurt Cobain just a little bit.
I’m still kicking myself for missing her when she played a show right here in Windsor eight or nine years ago.
Bent by Elephants
BBE EP (2009)
I got this EP when it was first released, in what looked like homemade packaging, from Bent by Elephants guitarist Luke Fowlie. I sent him some of my music and a handwritten letter along with payment for the EP. He wrote me a letter back. I fainted. Then I came to and listened to the CD.
There’s a different version of this song (and EP highlight) on the 2010 full-length This Is Water. The production there is a little “better”, but I prefer the rougher magic of this earlier version. That floating little bridge section before everything explodes is so much more effective here, with those violin harmonics and the drums dropping out for a bit.
Wye Oak are a duo from Baltimore, Maryland. Jenn Wasner sings and plays guitar. Andy Stack plays drums and keyboard at the same time — a cool thing to see live — and if you happen to email him and you’re not a big potato, you’ll be waiting until you die to get response.
I played a show on the same bill as Jenn and Andy once. This was back in 2008, before they became “popular” and before I heard a lick of their music. I left before their set got started. I had sleep issues to deal with, and I was just window dressing at that show anyway, backing someone else up, not playing any of my own stuff. Now I kind of wish I stuck around, sleep be damned.
I like bands that feature women ripping it up on guitar, and Jenn creates guitarscapes with the best of them. She’s also capable of writing lyrics that stop you dead in your tracks. Like so: “I wanted to give you everything, but I still stand in awe of superficial things.” There’s a shoegazey energy to the music, but strip it down and most of the songs are folk tunes at heart. That’s a neat thing. I like how the melodies never get lost no matter how noisy things get.
I still think this is the best Wye Oak album.
Little Girl Blue, aka Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club (1958)
Nina Simone was a singer, songwriter, arranger, civil rights activist, and one hell of a piano player. This last bit seems to get lost in the shuffle too often. There might not be any better place to hear just how good she was than on the very first album she ever made, recorded live off the floor in the studio, with no overdubs and no fussy arrangements. Just a woman, her piano, her voice, the fire in her belly, and a rhythm section keeping her company.
Linda Perhacs has only released one album. But it’s quite the album. Think folk-period Joni Mitchell if Joni dropped acid before heading into the studio. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really sound dated at all, fitting right in with the psych-folk music it predated by decades.
At the time of its release the album sold very little. A poor-sounding vinyl pressing and the record label’s lack of interest in promoting the music didn’t help. Linda put music aside and worked as a dental technician. It took a long time for people to catch up with what she was doing. Shades of Vashti Bunyan there.
This song features someone playing “amplified shower hose”. And if that isn’t one of the best album credits of all time…
Voice of the Xtabay (1950)
Yma Sumac was either an Incan Princess descended from the last Incan emperor, or a Brooklyn housewife named Amy Camus who was living a double (and backwards) life. All I know is, I’ve never heard anything else like her voice. Her vocal range was astonishing, moving from low rumbling tones to theremin-like warbles.
Some people call this stuff “lounge music”. If that’s what it is, it must be the weirdest, most otherworldly lounge music anyone has ever made.
Some albums are worth buying just for one track. Here’s one.
It’s a pop song that’s just a little off-kilter, with its over-saturated sledgehammer beat, Annie’s odd pronunciation of the word “drumming” (she sings it “drooming” and comes down hard on the d), and an unshakable feeling of melancholy for a song that is, on the surface, about inhibitions sloughing off on the dance floor and a good memory being made.
Annie’s voice has been described as “thin” and reminiscent of Kylie Minogue. While she might not be capable of vocal pyrotechnics, she knows what she’s doing with what she’s got, and I don’t think she’s ever done it any better than right here.
Over the Sun (2004)
You want a new guitar hero? You got one. Shannon Wright is intense.
This is another Steve Albini recording, and a two-woman show, with Christina Files seated behind the drums and Shannon doing everything else. There’s no bass. That’s Shannon holding down the low end with her thumb on the guitar. Lots of unique borderline rock songs here, and then a song like “Avalanche” comes along and takes your breath away.
I’m convinced Björk is made of magic. She does this thing sometimes where she sings like she’s trying to wrap her arms around something much larger and slipperier than she is. It makes me want to hug her. She does that here.
Vespertine is another great, great album. But Homogenic has “Jóga”, so it wins by a hair.
The Dreaming (1982)
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say without Kate Bush there would probably be no Tori Amos, no Bat for Lashes, no Annie Lennox, no Björk, no PJ Harvey, and no (dogs help us) Lady Gaga. There can’t be too many female artists in the slippery world of “popular music” who’ve wielded the kind of influence and commanded the kind of respect she has while creating art that’s justified every bit of the acclaim she’s received.
Kate was writing songs from the perspectives of an Irish mother mourning a son lost to war, the widow of Harry Houdini, a possessed house, an unborn child experiencing a nuclear holocaust from inside her mother’s womb, and penning an entire song cycle that took place within the mind of a drowning woman, all at the same age our current pop stars are churning out drivel with the emotional and intellectual complexity of a toddler’s runny morning shit.
I first read about Kate when I was fourteen years old. I found her fascinating in theory but had no idea where to dive into her discography. The Dreaming, her first self-produced album, was described as her most difficult, polarizing work. I decided to start there. It’s still probably my favourite album of hers, though most days it’s difficult to break the three-way tie it holds with Never for Ever and Hounds of Love.
In a 1985 interview for French magazine Guitare & Claviers, Kate had this to say about the album:
“If a single theme linked The Dreaming, which is quite varied, it would be human relationships and emotional problems. Every being responds principally to emotions. Some people are very cool, but they are silenced by their emotions, whatever they might be.
To write a song, it’s necessary that I be completely steeped in my environment, in my subject. Sometimes the original idea is maintained, but as it takes form, it possesses me. One of the best examples would be this song that I wrote on Houdini; I knew every one of the things that I wanted to say, and it was necessary that I find new ways that would allow me to say them. The hardest thing is when you have so many things to fit into so short a space of time. You have to be concise, and at the same time not remain vague, or obscure.
The Dreaming was a decisive album for me. I hadn’t recorded in a very long time until I undertook it, and that was the first time that I’d had such liberty. It was intoxicating and frightening at the same time. I could fail at everything and ruin my career [in] one fell swoop. All this energy, my frustrations, my fears, my wish to succeed — all that went into the record.
That’s the principle of music: to liberate all the tensions that exist inside you. I tried to give free rein to all my fantasies. Although all of the songs do not talk about me, they represent all the facets of my personality, [and] all my different attitudes in relation to the world. In growing older, I see more and more clearly that I am crippled in facing the things that really count, and that I can do nothing about it, just as most people can do nothing. Making an album is insignificant in comparison with that, but it’s my only defence.”
“Suspended in Gaffa” was the moment I knew I was all-in. I think it was Kate shrieking, “NOT UNTIL I’M READY FOR YOU-HOO-HOO!” that sealed the deal.
I’ve loved her ever since.
Marie Queenie Lyons
Soul Fever (1970)
Marie Queenie Lyons is a mystery. She was born in Louisiana, raised in Ohio, worked with King Curtis, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown, recorded a few singles and an album, and then she vanished. No one seems to know what happened to her.
One sure thing: she could sing the roof off of a soul song.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Joni had a remarkable run of albums in the 1970s. This one feels like it gets overlooked. It’s a shame, because it may be the most effective distillation of her jazzier sensibilities, outside of Hejira (which has the peerless bass-playing of Jaco Pastorius to recommend it, among other things). The album was kind of savaged in Rolling Stone magazine at the time of its release, only to be recognized in later years as one of Joni’s greatest artistic achievements.
Take that, Rolling Stone. You’re 80% advertisements now anyway. Does anyone even read you anymore?
Roses in the Snow (1980)
You probably know how I feel about Emmylou already. But bluegrass doesn’t get better than this.
Colour Green (recorded 1970-1973; released 2006)
In the early 1970s, Sibylle Baier acted in a Wim Wenders film and recorded some songs she wrote at home, on her own, with just her voice and guitar for accompaniment. Then she abandoned any aspirations of a career in music or film and devoted her life to raising a family.
Her son Robby writes in the liner notes to this album of her music released more than thirty years after it was recorded:
In a particularly dark and moody period of Sibylle’s young life, her friend Claudine dragged her out from under the bed and took her on a road trip to Strasbourg, ending up across the alps in Genoa.
Upon the return from this trip Sibylle felt her spirits renewed and she set out to write the song ‘Remember the Day’, grateful for being alive. It was the first song she ever wrote. My mother’s music is simply amazing in its intimacy and closeness. Recorded in the early ’70s in her home on a reel to reel recording device, the songs on ‘Colour Green’ are intimate portraits of life’s sad and fragile beauty.
Though she never thought to share her songs with anyone outside of friends and family, and their eventual commercial release was almost an accident, I think this puts a lot of current alt-folk/singer-songwriter stuff to shame. It doesn’t sound affected in any way. Sibylle sounds a little like a darker Vashti Bunyan, but different. She’s herself.
This is music as an extension of the artist, with no commercial considerations at all. It’s really pretty, too.
Bachelor No. 2 [or, The Last Remains of the Dodo] (2000)
Who writes catchy songs with big brains? Aimee Mann does! Try to find someone else who’s written a song with the word “caveats” in it. There can’t be too many.
On a random note, I’ve always really liked Aimee’s vibrato. Now there’s a different idea for a pickup line. “Hey, singer — I love your vibrato. Wanna sing a duet?”
I bought this album a few months after it came out, my faculties and sex drive dulled by wisdom teeth removal drugs. The guy behind the HMV counter expressed his approval, back when the people who worked at the HMV in this city knew a thing or two about music outside of top forty radio and weren’t just nice-looking robots.
“Have you heard any of it yet?” he asked me, noticing the CD I had in my hand.
“No. I just read about it and thought it sounded interesting.”
“You’ll like it. It’s really good. A lot darker than her earlier stuff.”
He was right. I liked the whole thing. But her spooky cover of “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and the self-penned “Deep Red Bells” have always been twin highlights for me. “Deep Red Bells” in particular has a certain beautiful haunting something about it — even more so now, after I’ve learned it was written for the victims of the Green River Killer in an effort to give them back some of the humanity and dignity that was stripped from them in death.
Neko sings to one of the women:
Where does this mean world cast its cold eye?
Who’s left to suffer long about you?
Does your soul cast about
like an old paper bag,
past empty lots and early graves?
Those like you who lost their way,
murdered on the interstate
while the red bells rang like thunder.
Deep red bells —
Deep as I’ve been done.
Wedding Day EP (2007)
Marla Hansen has played viola, occasional violin, and/or provided backup vocals for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Kanye West, Duncan Sheik, My Brightest Diamond, Jens Lekman, The New Pornographers, The National, and others. But the best thing she’s been involved in may be her own music.
It’s a crime she’s only released one six-song EP. I keep holding out hope there will be a full-length album someday, or at least another EP. One of my favourite things about her songs is the way she tends to pluck the viola instead of bowing it, almost treating it like a guitar. Something comforting lives inside that sound.
This song is too beautiful for words.
Dark Dark Dark
Who Needs Who (2012)
Dark Dark Dark are a Minneapolis band whose songs blur the lines between folk, jazz, blues, and indie-pop. This one is made up of just three chords. Sometimes three is the perfect number. Nona Marie Invie has some kind of magic voice, bending upward like something grown out of the earth and craning its neck to see the sun.
You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry (1963)
Lois Wilkinson and Andrea Simpson were co-workers and friends in London, England. They were encouraged by others around the office who heard them sing to pursue a musical career as a duo. They chose to call themselves the Caravelles after the French jet powered airliner. They almost topped the charts with their first single, “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” (discovered as the flip-side of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s immortal “Sixteen Tons” single), but were hard-pressed to follow up that success.
A few attempts at changing their sound to appeal to a different demographic met with middling results. After a while Lois took off for a solo career. Andrea continued as the Caravelles with various replacement singers. Though she never had another hit, she still plays the occasional live gig.
I first heard this album’s title track on the Wolfman Jack Show, via satellite radio. There’s something a little eerie about it. Maybe it’s those breathy, perfect vocal harmonies, the way they’re bathed in reverb, and the way the happy-sounding music is set against lyrics that are all about heartbreak. It sounds to me like something that belongs in a David Lynch film.
Come on, Dave! Make it happen!
Live at Blues Alley (1996)
I first heard about Eva Cassidy not long after she passed away. I would have been about fourteen at the time. I read a review of a posthumous album. As soon as I found out she just sang cover songs, I lost any interest I might have had in checking her out. At the time, the concept of a song interpreter was lost on me. If someone didn’t write their own material, I couldn’t fathom what artistic merit there might be in what they were doing.
Holy shit was I wrong. When I heard Eva sing for the first time more than ten years later, I almost fell over. She may not have been a songwriter, but she had that rare ability to take any song and make it sound like it belonged to her. Her range was incredible. And that range was what kept her from getting signed to a recording contract.
Rejecting an artist because they refuse to flatten out the diversity of their talent is pretty pathetic if you ask me. But there’s the music industry for you.
Eva self-released Live at Blues Alley in 1996. She almost didn’t put the album out at all. She had a cold when the songs were recorded and wasn’t happy with the way her voice sounded. Friends had to talk her into letting it see the light of day. It was the only album she would release under her own name in her lifetime. She died later that year of melanoma, a virtual unknown outside of her hometown. The fame came later, as is the case all too often when talented people die far too young.
Listen to this woman with a cold singing a Buffy Sainte-Marie song, and tell me if it isn’t one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever heard.
Whore Luck (2007)
To my ears, Picastro frontwoman Liz Hysen has always sounded something like a sad, beautiful ghost. With time her haunting only grows more resonant. She also has a way of writing brutally honest (or brutally honest-seeming) lyrics. The opening lines here are:
I’m left because i’m never leaving,
and I don’t want the things I have.
Choosing a favourite Picastro album is difficult. But I enjoy the way Whore Luck feels like it’s split into two distinct halves, starting out in pretty-but-dark territory and then making a sharp turn into some sort of corrosive, delicious sonic and emotional hell.
The Be Good Tanyas
I first heard Blue Train at MILK, in its entirety, on one of those long-ago Friday nights. I was convinced it was a Rusty Halos album for a while, because they did “Rain and Snow” live on the regular and Erin Gignac sounded an awful lot like Frazey Ford. Then Chinatown played all the way through as a second course, and I said, “This is The Be Good Tanyas. I need to buy this stuff. God, this is good.”
Is it ever.
Uh Huh Her (2004)
This isn’t my favourite PJ Harvey album. I’m not sure what is. Rid of Me, maybe. But I like that Polly Jean produced this one herself and made every sound on her own, drums aside. There’s a gritty, lo-fi quality to the music that appeals to me as well.
In an interview with Tracks magazine, she explained: “I was looking for distressed, debased sounds. So all of the guitars are either tuned so low that it’s hard to detect what notes they’re playing, or they’re baritone guitars, or they’re played through the shittiest amps I could find.”
There’s no guitar at all in “The Slow Drug”. There’s just a synthesized loop whirring in the background, the cheesiest, least realistic pizzicato string sound on any keyboard ever made playing a few simple chords, and her voice. There’s no chorus or “hook”. The chords don’t change. The vocals sound like they were recorded in a nicer-than-usual shoe box, bathed in a thin blanket of hiss. It’s the definition of a “deep album cut”, sitting around the halfway point of the record, easy to overlook, there until it isn’t there anymore and the next song comes in to take its place.
It’s my favourite PJ Harvey song of all time. So there you go.
Heaven or Las Vegas (1990)
I once read a review of a Cocteau Twins album that said something to the effect of, “If you don’t hear music like this on your way to heaven, you’re headed for the wrong place.” I think that’s about right. I always thought Elizabeth Fraser sounded a bit like Kate Bush as an angel, singing beautiful gibberish.
Liz’s lyrics in most of the Cocteau’s songs are either made up of neologisms and old Scots vocabulary, or English that’s so well-disguised by her diction it might as well be a foreign language. I have no idea what she’s saying 90% of the time, and when the odd recognizable phrase pops out (in this song I can make out “everything else” and what sounds like “good news”), it’s a little startling.
It doesn’t matter. You can still feel what she’s singing, even if it’s impossible to sing along.
Soviet Kitsch (2004)
I think this is the best Regina Spektor album by some distance, because it sounds the most like her, and it’s full of songs like this one that are beautiful and beautifully quirky.
I remember reading a Pitchfork review of Soviet Kitsch. I think it was the same day Antics, the second Interpol album, was reviewed. Antics was praised for being a near-facsimile of Turn on the Bright Lights, demonstrating no palpable creative forward movement short of a somewhat different sheen to the production. Regina was denigrated for having a personality and indulging her more whimsical impulses.
That criticism made me want to hear the music, so I went out and bought the album. While I did (and still do) like Turn on the Bright Lights, Antics — aside from a few good songs — has always been kind of boring to me. I haven’t been moved to pull it out for a listen in years.
Not so with Soviet Kitsch. It appealed to me, and it continues to appeal to me, for the same reasons that Pitchfork writer didn’t care for it.
Different strokes for different cowpokes, I guess.
Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts
Cowboy Bebop soundtrack (1998)
There are a lot of CDs that make up all the music Yoko Kanno wrote for this brilliant anime series. They’re all worth hunting down. This little piece of music right here is just Yoko on piano and one of her fellow Seatbelts playing tenor sax, and if you’ve seen the show and you want to stir up some of the feelings it gave you but don’t feel up to making a proper visit, I don’t think you could do much better.
Those shots of Faye Valentine sitting at the bar and smoking, looking lost, while Gren makes his saxophone weep — that’s one of the most evocative bar scenes I’ve ever seen. And it’s from what some people would call a “cartoon”.
Bat for Lashes
Fur and Gold (2006)
Bat for Lashes is the stage name of English singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Natasha Khan. I’m a fan of everything she’s done so far, and couldn’t really pick a favourite song or album. Depends on the day and mood, I s’pose. But if you only ever grab one, this is the one it should be. “Tahiti”, “Sad Eyes”, “Bat’s Mouth” — these are songs with a beautiful darkness to them. They weave a spell.
Liz Harris makes some sort of strange and beautiful ambient/drone/noise/lo-fi music that’s difficult to describe. She’s stripped away the effects and layers a little at a time, and on her most recent album it’s just her voice and a piano for the most part. This is stuff that will kick you in the heart and leave a welt there that takes a while to fade. You’re either into it or you’re not. But if you are, it hits a spot not a lot of music can get to.
Liz grew up in a commune in northern California known as “The Group”. “The kids called each other and the parents ‘groupers’,” she said in an interview, “sort of as a defiance. It was us making our own identities inside a pretty controlled environment, and sort of lashing back maybe. When I had to think of a name, I felt annoyed at nothing sounding right. I wanted something that referenced me without referencing ‘me’. I felt like the music was at its barest just a grouping of sounds, and I was just the grouper.”
Baby It’s You (1962)
Always end with a classic girl group.
There’s not much to say about this one. The title track is a classic. As many times as it’s been covered over the years, I’ve yet to hear a version as good as the original. It was used to bizarre-but-powerful effect in Jane Campion’s 1999 film Holy Smoke — you know, that other movie where Harvey Keitel gets naked and weeps.