Month: November 2020

Weekly New Wonders Playlist # 43 !

When you visit a branch of the Public Library in NYC, there’s a security guard that checks your bag as you leave to make sure nothing’s been stolen. During a visit last year I opened my bag… & inadvertently exposed my soul. I hate listening to music on my phone because of some neurotic issues I have regarding “control” & “privacy” ( you’re not the boss of me man). And so I also carry around a fully loaded, overly-curated ipod. Upon seeing the ipod in my bag the guard smiled & laughed, “oh, old school !”. It was then some involuntarily defense mechanism kicked in & I found myself explaining to him why I had it. But truth is, I totally love that little machine to it’s antiquated, President Obama era core ( note: I mean my current one as a few ipods passed away over the years) & as long as I’m roaming the planet & can find replacements as each blessed machine “expires”, I’m gonna keep using these tiny, beautiful metallic nerd stereos & will continue to bow in reverence to their obsolete & old school hearts.

And so just wanted to honor my longstanding musical partner who tirelessly assists me in compiling the WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST each week, the latest edition of which you can hear below ! It features the finest, most life-affirming, heart-squeezing & foxiest songs we’ve heard over the past week & I hope it brings you light tonight.

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Not Guilty : 7 WTF Songs That Give Me Life

I hate the term “guilty pleasure”. While I can sort of appreciate it’s assistance as a vague genre that corrals songs generally regarded as being “uncool” or “cheesy” together, thereby making them easier to find, I hate it’s connotation of shame. I outright detest the judgement inherent it it. I damn straight resent the smugness and hubris required to listen to a song ironically. When a song is branded or categorized as a “guilty pleasure”, you are in essence being told how to listen to and feel about it. Being reminded that no matter how much you enjoy it, the song in question is inherently silly and/or stupid and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. That it is, by definition, unworthy of your devotion. I know you love him girl, but you can do better...

“Guilty Pleasure” is basically the junior high bully of musical genres.

Of course, we don’t get to decide what we like. The fact remains, we humans are just helpless dustballs at the mercy of our internal wiring. What we like is just plain beyond our control.

And what’s the point of fighting your involuntary attraction to that perceived to be cheeseball song anyway? What do you gain by denying your love ? At the end of the day, nothing. Which is to say you shouldn’t waste your valuable time fighting it. It’s better to just give in. It requires no effort and you will be rewarded with pleasure. That overly earnest, ridiculously overwrought, superficially sentimental junk hunk of pop music candy you’ve always been embarrassed to admit that you like ? Go on and own it girl. Ignore the haters and erase the guilt. Celebrate your pre-ordained musical DNA, turn it up and wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. Stop prefacing discussions of the song with an “I know this is lame but…” because if you love it, then technically it’s not really lame. You can’t help what you like. Who gives a rats ass what anyone else thinks? You do you, you magnificently tasteless dustball, always, always.

Sheena welcomes you the guilt-free zone…

When I was record store employee back in the day, I found myself on the receiving end of many “guilty pleasure” themed confessions, people asking for things that they were clearly embarrassed about then attributing their choice to “I have to get this for my sister/ father/ partner”. Unsurprisingly Moms and Dads were the ones most frequently thrown under the bus. Many people would pretend they didn’t know a songs exact title and/or deliberately mispronounce an artist’s name as a way of further disassociating themselves in an a attempt to avoid judgement. I was super-empath, praying mantis sensitive enough to be hip to this game and would sometimes pretend to like a particular song just to help them feel more at ease…to tell the truth, I was always oddly touched by their embarrassment and awkward diversionary tactics. See I understood. I’d felt guilty once too.

There were certain things it took me years to admit I loved out loud to another human. While I was primarily obsessed with “cool stuff” when I was a teen like XTC, The Jam and The Police, I also absolutely loved Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut album which was home to both “Sailing” and the godforsaken “Ride Like The Wind”. I adored it to its flamingo sleeve’d, windswept core and played it nearly every damn day.

It was the existential tag team of futility and time that ultimately freed me from the musical shame cellar. Basically I enjoyed so much musical cheese that keeping up the facade of coolness required far more effort than I could ever consciously devote to it. And handily, as I got older, I started to care less what other people thought, simple as that.

The canvas can do miracles…

What I’m trying to say is that there is nothing wrong with you. Love is love and the purpose of this demented diatribe is to encourage you to embrace your ingrained musical tastes and forever abandon the signifying label known as “guilty pleasure”. And so in the spirit of full disclosure I’m going to share with you 7 songs I love that by the established standards could be considered “guilty pleasures”. Since I feel no guilt or shame about my love for them, I usually just call them My WTF Songs™. Which is to say they are a bemused question I ask myself out loud as they play and I feel both incredulity and delight about the fact that I love them as much as I do. They are not cool in the traditional, logical, acceptable or obvious sense. A few are eye-rollingly over the top and some are scarred with truly cringeworthy lyrical content. They won’t make any All-Time Best anything lists. And I genuinely, unabashedly, unashamedly love them.

I hope the sloppy love letters to these misfit songs that follow encourage you to share and embrace your own musical baggage. In fact, if you feel inspired, please feel free to share your WTF songs in the comments. I would genuinely love to hear about ’em and promise I will still think you’re cool no matter what they are.

Bobbi Martin “For The Love of Him” (1970)

Bobbi Martin’s 1970 Top 20 pop hit “For The Love Of Him” is one of the most disturbingly regressive pop songs sung by a woman in chart history. Behold it’s epic and sinister message ….

When he opens the door says “I’m home”
Be aware of the look in his eyes
They tell you the mood he’s in 
What kind of day it’s been
For the love of him
Make him your reason for living
Give all the love you can give him
All the love you can

I’ve seen the lyrics written out on various sites where they claim the second line of the chorus is “Make IT your reason for living”…but make no mistake, what Bobbi actually sings is make HIM your reason, which is very troubling indeed. And as she co-wrote the song, no one was putting words in her mouth. I have tried to give Bobbi the benefit of the doubt and attempted to reinterpret this as a love song to Jesus to see if it fit but no, “For The Love Of Him” can only ever be the anguished hymn of a truly desperate and scared housewife.

This thing was on the radio constantly when I was little and had no power or ability to change the station in Mom’s car. As a result of this forced exposure at a time when my mind was a malleable piece of clay, “For The Love Of Him” has been lodged in my brain like some beautiful, ridiculous, politically incorrect barnacle for roughly a trillion years. Hey Bobbi, let’s hear that second verse :

There’ll be times when he won’t say a word
And you wonder if it’s something you said
A gentle touch of your hand
Tells him you understand

Okay, there’s a couple of additional verses after this but you don’t need to see them to get the gist of the songs message which is You are here to make him happy girl, that is your sole purpose in life, so just watch yourself. Yet I can’t dismiss “For The Love Of Him”, for despite it’s evil, insidious directive, the tune itself is Burt Bacharach level sublime. And Bobbi’s stunning, impassioned vocal so perfectly captures the lyrical pathos that I’m literally scared for her. And that chorus. “For The Love Of Him” is a genuinely menacing little cheeseball…and I love it.

Ashford & Simpson “Til We Get It Right” (1989)

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote some of the greatest and most beloved R & B songs of all-time. Songs that are the very definition of evergreen including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Every Woman”. And they too enjoyed a lengthy recording career, regularly landing in the R & B charts and enjoying a massive pop hit with “Solid” in 1984 ( “the thrill is still hothothothothothothot”). But while Nick Ashford was a masterful songwriter, he was not the greatest singer. This was regularly accentuated by the fact that Valerie was a very good singer and could wail, throw down, and act as a human steamroller whenever the situation required it. Calling out the disparity in their respective vocal skills is not a controversial opinion or a hot take. It’s never been a secret. Yet I’ve always kind of loved Nick’s “limited” voice. The way he would passionately reach for distant notes and not always get there. His audible effort. The endless keening and eternal breathiness. All of these qualities are on full display within “Til We Get It Right”, a deep cut off the duo’s 1989 album Love or Physical. It’s a painfully earnest shoulder shaking anthem about fixing the world before it’s too late, that grows in size with each passing verse. It’s dramatic and infectious and features a particularly big and sexy synth in the bridge which I have been crushing on hard since the day I first heard this song. “Til We Get It Right” is a beautifully earnest completely wonderful cheeseball of hope.

Nick Ashford passed away in 2011 and much as I love “Til We Get It Right”, I have a special memory of him that I value almost as much as that criminally fabulous song.

Okay, so I went to see Michael McDonald play at tiny Joe’s Pub in NYC back in the 2010’s when he was kicking out all those Motown cover albums. Fittingly, as they had written so many Motown classics, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson turned up as surprise guests late in the show. Cool right ? Anyway, as they made their way to the stage, they had to head down the staircase my friends & I were leaning on. It was kind of dark & one of my friends had a shaved head. As 6’2″ Nick was coming down the stairs, his eyes solely fixed on his destination, the stage, he placed his hand on our friends bald head to brace himself as he descended the staircase. He literally mistook his head for a bannister. It was then our friend then uttered one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard;

“Nick Ashford thought I was the railing “.

You may think our friend was humiliated, but honestly, to this day, I think he was blessed.

The Deuce Project “Stone Cold” (2003)

I first heard The Deuce Project’s “Stone Cold” when I was working at corporate mega music store conglomerate Virgin in NYC. I was instantly overcome by its handsome anthemic shuffle and over-confident vocal which is to say, I f-ing loved it. My infatuation ran so deep that I made a point of telling our Warner Brothers sales rep, the guy whose job it was to sell us new releases that I thought it would be a massive hit and maybe even land in the Billboard Top 10. He reacted with a chuckle and then served me up some hard truth, namely a big fat “no it won’t”. He was, of course, correct. Also there’s a (strong) chance he knew more about the Warner Brothers marketing budget than I did. My blind optimism never stood a chance.

Yet in the bizarro alternate musical universe that existed solely within the confines of my mind, “Stone Cold” was huge. It was number one on that chart for f-ing weeks. The Deuce Project made a total of 1 album and as of this writing do not have a Wikipedia page…but they don’t need one. The video of “Stone Cold” which you can watch above, will tell you more than the written word ever could. But as a public service, I’m going to fill in the blanks to enhance your viewing experience. The Deuce Project were a duo consisting of 2 childhood friends, and were actually signed to Madonna’s vanity label Maverick. Lead singer Josh McMillan described their music as “homegrown acoustic rock on Ecstasy.” Guitarist Noah Pearce added “What we do is cool jams on the guitar with Josh’s voice. We wanted a kind of Britpop feel.” Right, so in a nutshell “Stone Cold” is Josh and Noah, all beanies, floppy hair, hoodies, converse and chokers, emitting an almost comically obvious slacker, skater kid vibe singing what is essentially a Britpop song that sounds like the type of thing that would be playing during a party scene on the O.C. As homegrown cool jams on Ecstasy go, it don’t get much better than this…

Sheena Easton “You Could Have Been With Me” (1981)

If you are a incurable music nerd there’s a good chance you’ve pondered the eternal fantasy band question, which is as follows:

With no boundaries of time or place, what would your “dream band” sound like and who would be in it?

I’ve spent a disgraceful amount of time thinking about this and can confirm my mythical dream band would be ’70s era Chaka Khan or Gladys Knight fronting the Beach Boys circa 1966-1973 ( the epic-symphonic-psychedelic years). I’m pretty sure that’s what it will sound like in heaven if by chance I end up there someday. All of which explains why I have forever adored “You Could Have Been With Me”, the title track off Sheena Easton’s second album. While it wasn’t a platinum selling behemoth, it was an actual hit, getting as high as # 15 in the U.S. pop chart. It is an absurdly dramatic, lyrically eccentric Beach Boy flavored AOR power ballad that I guess could be described as “Surf’s Up” meets Andrew Lloyd Webber. In addition, it’s opening lines might possibly resemble the plot of a tacky romance novel :

You’re the seventh son of the seventh son
Maybe that’s why you’re such a strange and special one

While Sheena can sang and unleashes a fine assortment of big notes along the way, the most captivating element of this thing is its shimmering, widescreen piano line. It sounds like it came straight off of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s seminal 1977 lost soul of an album Pacific Ocean Blue and is the sonic equivalent of walking straight into the ocean and never looking back. Wait. Hmmm, yeah, I’m suddenly realizing that might be a bit too dark and ominous an emotion to be inspired by a Sheena Easton song…let’s just say it’s melodically persuasive and I’d follow where it leads regardless of the danger. While “You Could Have Been With Me” doesn’t necessarily sound like what Chaka and Gladys getting all spaced out with Brian Wilson and the Boys presumably would have, it does offer a wonderfully weird European approximation of it and holy shit, I’ll take it.

ZZ Top “Rough Boy” (1985)

There are ZZ Top traditionalists who regard “Rough Boy” as something of a betrayal. They think it’s too “wussy” or “girly”. I vividly remember a male co-worker of mine characterizing it as ” the worst ZZ Top song ever”. I once read a posted comment from another guy that said “This always struck me as a gay song. It’s the only ZZ Top song I absolutely do not like”. “Rough Boy” is not a punchy, synthesized rattlesnake rock song of the sort that made ZZ Top famous and beloved. It is a languorous ballad sung by a lushly bearded boy ( Billy Gibbons) who is begging a girl to him a chance even though he ain’t much to look at and don’t have no canned speeches to persuade her with. Billy’s guitar serves as his wingman, extravagantly pleading on his behalf when he’s not singing, in an exceptionally seductive and swoon-worthy fashion.

See, what those aforementioned hater guys fail to accept and understand is that “Rough Boy” is a song constructed primarily for the enjoyment of girls. It was never intended for them and therefore their opinions about it are irrelevant. ZZ Top weren’t stupid, they knew what they were doing. “Rough Boy” was a deliberate attempt to send all the boys to the restroom at their shows en masse so they could hit on their girlfriends by serenading them with “Rough Boy”. And it worked. I should add I personally love the idea of it being a gay song, sung by one cowboy or leather daddy to another. I also like the idea of a girl singing it to another girl. In fact I want all musicians to cover “Rough Boy”. Women and Men. Metal bands and solo acoustic troubadours. Shoegazers and Dreampoppers. Country twangers and gospel choirs. And on and on forever and ever amen.

P.S. I think “Rough Boy” is the best ZZ Top song ever.

Montgomery Gentry “Twenty Years Ago” (2006)

It would be way too easy to fill this list with painfully literal country songs from the ’90s and ’00s that I have no connection with from a life experience position but just plain love. Montgomery Gentry’s “Twenty Years Ago” has taken up permanent residence in the beat down motel on the outskirts of my mind and even after 15 years, appears to have no intention of leaving. It wanders the hall in its bathrobe, beer in hand, offering its homespun insight at random, unpredictable times namely remindin’ me to not let pride git in tha way a what matters. It’s a straightforward tale about how a straight-laced, crewcut sporting, Vietnam Vet Dad and his rebellious son can’t see eye to eye. They fuss ‘n fight over many idealogical issues from hair length, to choice of friends to the dreaded “future plans”. Things inevitably reach a boiling point and get physical and our rebel son splits only to be called back years later when Dad is on his deathbed. And yes, there is a spoken word section where our hero has an epiphany in case you were wonderin’. It’s a perfectly predictable piece of genius, all impassioned vocalizing, bitchin’ chorus belting and infectious melody making and as long as the earth is spinnin’ I’m happy to have it’s corny ass livin’ rent-free in my head ‘n heart.

Rick Springfield “Souls”” (1983)

I’ve written about Mr.Rick before and consider him to be a criminally underrated genius. But I digress. Anyway, when I worked at the infamous One Hour Photo Lab as a young one (my first job), there was a guy there named Tom whom I became briefly infatuated with because he bore a slight resemblance to Steve Clark from Def Leppard whom I believed to be “hot”. And desperate AOR power pop animal with a killer hook “Souls” was the song I would play on my Walkman™ to soundtrack all my Tom-themed daydreams. In my mind, it was “our” song. Here is a lyrical sample for your enjoyment:

He held her tighter and tighter
As he danced inside her
She knew from the moment that she let him in
They’d been two souls searching for each other

Ah yes, true love. And if that weren’t enough, just like the word “moot” making it’s famously incongruous appearance in “Jessie’s Girl”, Rick cleverly incorporated another vintage SAT word into one of the verses of “Souls” to remind us that he is well read and not the dumb rock star one might assume.

Too many nights on the ledge
He acquired a knife edge
Still the city didn’t acquiesce to his demands

Acquiesce y’all. Inevitably, that Tom kid faded from my mind as almost as quickly as he’d appeared but the experience left a “Souls” shaped scar that has yet to heal. P.S. the video is f-ing nuts. It features a sugar mama art patron, a Keytar, singing statues and the passing of cryptic love notes on champagne trays. But the best parts feature Rick pouting with immense frustration and desire while involuntarily clenching and/or pumping his fists…both gestures dovetailing very neatly into the the song’s aforementioned lyrical sentiments; he’s clearly feeling it with a capital F.

A Final Note : There is a “Guilty Pleasures” themed playlist on Spotify with over 2 million followers. Among the songs included are The B-52’s “Rock Lobster”, Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To U”. Abba’s “Dancing Queen” is in there, as well as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”. I personally have never considered these songs to be “guilty pleasures”. They aren’t inherently embarrassing or uncool, maybe silly and fun in a couple of cases but there’s no reason to be sheepish and ashamed about admitting you like them. No, what they are is older, the product of a different century. The aforementioned playlist is less a collection of “guilty pleasures” than it is a documentation of once contemporary trends that now sound “funny” in 2020. And so the water has gotten kind of muddy in terms how some folks define what a “guilty pleasure” is these days. All I know is I love my WTF songs and I want you to love yours without fear of judgement. And next time you gather them in a playlist don’t title it “Guilty Pleasures”, tell the truth…call it My Fucking Favorite Songs 😉

Weekly New Wonders Playlist # 42 of 2020 !

Between 1963 and 1966 Andy Warhol filmed hundreds of what he called “Screen Tests” starring the coterie of muses, acquaintances & hangers-on that were part of his artistic universe. About 10 years ago, 13 of the tests were compiled into a short film called “13 Most Beautiful…” with musical accompaniment provided by Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips ( formerly of Luna). The screen test above is from 1965 & features Paul America doing nothing but chewing a piece of gum whilst oozing ridiculous amounts of charisma. It’s stupidly hypnotic & dumbly beautiful & is here for the sole purpose of providing some glamorously dirty distraction from all the mayhem (for at least a few minutes).

Welcome to the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest new songs we’ve heard over recent days. They too are hypnotically beautiful & all are #1 in our heart. You can listen to ’em below on Soundcloud or Spotify.

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Weekly New Wonders Playlist # 41 !

Gonna get pretentious for a second. In 1958, the famed abstract painter Mark Rothko gave an address at Pratt Institute where he outlined “the recipe of a work of art, it’s ingredients, how to make it, the formula”. He then laid out the ingredients:   

1.There must be a clear preoccupation with death, intimations of mortality. Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death.

2.Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.

3.Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.

4.Irony. This is a modern ingredient; the self-effacement & examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.

5.Wit and play … for the human element..

6.The ephemeral & chance … for the human element.

7.Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.

“I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.”

I had no awareness of this quote until about 10 years ago, even though I went to freakin’ art school. And to be frank, I’m not a Rothko fan… but once these old words landed in my head, they never left & I occasionally find myself applying them to movies, books & songs. They aren’t a catch all for every work of art & yeah, you can cherry-pick their sentiments like you do when you read a horoscope. And they can sound calculated, contradictory & blind to the involuntary impulses inherent in creation…but there is some absolute, beautiful truth in there. 

And hey, it’s time for the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the finest songs that crossed our path this week. All are full of chance, sensuality, mortality, tension, wit & hope & they are all unspeakably wonderful. 

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Listen on Soundcloud

Listen on Spotify

Weekly New Wonders Playlist # 40 !

Man, what a week. But somehow we made it through. Time to freakin’ start the healing. YES YES YES. And using that song by those guys up there to help soundtrack the celebratory fireworks tonight ? Add a YES for that too 🙂 Here’s the latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the best new music we’ve heard over this tumultuous week. Please dig these brilliant pop songs, may they infiltrate your heart & ignite some true love. Rock on for real…

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That’s Their Pet Sounds : Annie Lennox “Bare” (2003)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds, our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*”That’s Their Pet Sounds”is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

Time to undress your soul….

Annie Lennox’s Best Album: Bare (2003)

Background: Diva. The title of the first Annie Lennox solo album post Eurythmics, in 1992, served as both a knowing wink and a declaration. It was an earnest, over the top, icy pop opera in an enormous red feathered headdress…and the sound of a door being kicked open hard. Diva’s dramatic tear inducing balladry and forthright, face-slapping funkiness, introduced the world to a bigger and bolder sounding Annie Lennox than had ever been heard before. The album was straight up piece of pop theater, running the gamut from heart-wrenching hymns (“Why”, “Cold”) to chilly beat-ed groovers (“Precious”,“Money Can’t Buy It”) to glossy pop anthems (“Walking On Broken Glass”,“Little Bird”). Diva was (and remains) an undeniably glamorous piece of ’90s pop art. It also kicked ass in a conventional business sense, spawning a handful of hits (all with lustrous video accompaniment), achieving multi-platinum sales and ultimately earning itself a couple of prestigious industry awards ( including the 1993 Brit Award for Album of the Year), as well as a veritable avalanche of critical acclaim in the press…all of which is a roundabout way of saying that after Diva ( and Eurythmics) the only direction to go was down.

R-5385361-1392078533-7874.jpeg

This album is very, very good…

Annie Lennox’s next solo album, 1995’s Medusa was an immaculately sung, cleverly chosen collection of covers, pristinely produced by Stephen Lipson who had also been at the helm for Diva. On paper, the thought of Annie taking on beauteous tracks by The Blue Nile, Al Green and Neil Young sounded positively edible. The reality turned out be, well, not so much. And to be clear, when it was first announced, I literally could not wait to hear it. I was a total fan and wanted nothing more than to have my mind blown by it’s interpretive genius, for it to be 4 star magnificent.

While the album’s first single “No More I Love You’s” was a brilliant pop song by any standard, there was something oddly cold and clinical about the general execution of everything else. Beyond the aforementioned “No More…”, there were a couple of standouts ( Blue Nile’s “Downtown Lights” and Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” are both pretty winning) but in light of what had come before, Medusa was straight up disappointing. Unsurprisingly, reviews of the album ranged from lukewarm to outright savage, from one calling it “microwaved” to another describing its contents as “wan, deracinated renditions of rock, soul and singer/songwriter classics”. When a ridiculously arcane word like “deracinated” is being thrown around in a pop review, you know you’re in trouble.

“The lover speaks about the monsters…”

In retrospect, Medusa is okay, it’s just not great. And despite the astronomical success it ultimately enjoyed, selling 6 million copies and landing at #1 in the UK album charts, in terms of unadulterated goodness, it wouldn’t even rank in the top 3 of Annie Lennox albums. The fact is,”No More…” aside, Annie’s finest cover work didn’t happen within the walls of Medusa at all but rather came in the form of one-offs that were either part of live performances or contributions to compilations. Her smokin’ live cover of The Detroit Emeralds 1971 R & B classic “Feel The Need in Me” and magnificently sensuous take on The Sugarcubes insane deep cut “Mama“, for example, both crush the majority of Medusa into microscopic dust.

I mean just, damn…

The next Annie Lennox solo album, Bare, didn’t arrive until 2003, 8 full years after it’s predecessor. To use Joni Mitchell albums as a gage, let’s just say that while Diva is the Court and Spark style, full blown “this is who I am now, deal with it ” pop adventure, Bare is all kinds of Blue. It featured 11 songs of what can only be described as “joyful despair” and, as Annie’s marriage of 12 years ended shortly before it’s release, is frequently characterized as The Official Annie Lennox Divorce Album ™. While that event certainly colored it’s lyrical content that description is pretty reductive. The songs on Bare are so broad and big picture that unless you knew about the divorce before you heard it you wouldn’t necessarily make that specific association upon listening to it. Annie weighed in on this perception in a 2007 interview with The Denver Post, regarding the songs:

They’re from my perspective. But they’re not specific about any individual. They’re always rather generic. I start off with one line and piece the whole thing together. People say, ‘Bare is your divorce album.’ There’s no question, obviously, unfortunately, of the background of my personal life. It comes from that place of tremendous difficulty. But I wouldn’t title it my divorce album specifically.

She expounded further to Associated Press that same year:

My songs are really about human condition, a feeling of polarity, confusion, beauty, sadness, despair, love, unrequited love.These (are) historical human issues that people have been writing about … to come to terms with their own inner landscape.

While Bare landed in the Top 5 of both the U.K. and U.S. charts, it wasn’t home to any actual pop chart mega-hits. Or rather it was and it wasn’t. 2 of it’s tracks ( “A Thousand Beautiful Things” and “Pavement Cracks”) were subsequently remixed, injected with extra BPM’s and sent on their way to the top of the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart ( yes, that’s it’s real freakin’ name). But to be clear, while they are fun distractions they aren’t really relevant to discussions of the actual album; they are, for all intents and purposes, outliers and don’t appear on the album proper. Okay, time to get real Bare

Bare bear, hell yehr…

Why it’s her Pet Sounds: Bare is not a party album. It’s a lush, synthetic, soulful 48 minute pop music mind reading session that while home to a lot of sadness ( even the uptempo tracks) also has a genuine thread of hopeful wonder running through it. It eloquently expresses the stuff you haven’t been able to organize into coherent sentences while reassuringly confessing it’s just as fucked up and confused as you are.

There was a message featured on the sleeve of Bare, explaining why Annie chose the image she did for the album cover. Here’s an excerpt:

This album contains songs that are deeply personal and emotional. In a sense I have “exposed” myself through the work to reveal aspects of an inner world which are fragile. Broken through experience, but not entirely smashed. I am not a young artist in their early twenties. I am a mature woman facing up to the failed expectations of life and facing up to “core” issues. I don’t want to represent myself visually in some kind of clinched, airbrushed, saccharine kind of way. I want to reveal myself as I am. For me, this is a powerful and courageous statement. I have never been known to “toe the safety line”. In terms of how I represent myself as an artist, I need to be authentic…To take risks…To break the mould when necessary. The image is timeless, genderfree, and racially ambiguous.

Okay, I know that all sounds painfully serious but to be clear, while Bare is a genuinely heartfelt piece of art, it is also a freakin’ pop record. And it’s heart-squeezing, soul-flaying messages are presented in the shiniest paper imaginable. Nearly every song is equipped with an enormously sticky hook and chorus no matter if it’s a mournful ballad or a big fat groove. It is full of ostentatious bridges that are literally songs unto themselves and virtuosic ad-libbing in nearly every coda ( both longtime Lennox trademarks and never showcased more impressively than on Bare). The album travels at a pretty consistent speed limit with fewer of the jagged, whiplash inducing style and tempo changes common on Diva ( bless it’s runny mascara). It’s an emotional pinball machine, with sad lyrics attached to brazenly optimistic melodies, an 11 round boxing match between the notion that life is both a treasure and that it sometimes totally sucks, with both emotions often on display within the same damn song. And oh yeah, the vocal performances are stunning.

In a 2011 interview with High Profiles, Annie elaborated on Bare’s sound and inspiration:

“It’s very stripped and very raw. There’s no extraneous artifice – it’s the opposite of Diva. I mean, the thing is that life is full of polarities and contradictions. You know, we just want it to be all good, or all fabulous, or all this or – and it’s as if we are afraid of the fact that we are full of contradictions all the time. We don’t want to be – we want to be solid and it all to be kind of explicable, and the fact is that it’s not. That’s human nature.”

The Songs: The opening track on Bare ” A Thousand Beautiful Things” acts as something of a mission statement for the rest of the album, perfectly expressing that aforementioned emotional polarity Annie was talking about . With it’s supremely delicate orchestral backing shimmering and glistening from every angle, it’s a world weary, big picture exhortation to fly the plane a little higher, to appreciate and absorb beauty in whatever form it takes ( even the act of breathing itself)…or to at least know it’s there when your are feeling like trash. It’s a hymn, it’s a salve and it’s one of the greatest songs in the entire Annie Lennox canon…and it makes for a pretty powerful and prescient listen these days. Bare initially came with a bonus disc that included an interview and a couple of live acoustic performances of it’s tracks including “A Thousand Beautiful Things”. Take a look and listen below. It is ridiculously good.

…also, rock star.

“Pavement Cracks” is a plush, bouncing “Little Bird” style groove about feeling utterly lost, that offers no resolution…but it’s tempered by one of those classic, insanely euphoric Lennox bridges which despite the fact that it’s closing line is “Give me the strength to live “, sounds threatening, like she’s pushing the great spirit up against a wall and giving it an ultimatum…which is pretty f-ing cool.

The video for “Pavement Cracks” features Annie walking the lonely, overcast city, acting out the songs solitary sadness, looking like the world’s coolest hit-woman to which I say, life goals.

“Don’t give me no more of that hurtin’ stuff, haven’t I already paid enough?” Okay, let’s talk about “The Hurting Time”. It is the longest song on Bare, running nearly 8 minutes. It’s got an incredibly ostentatious keyboard running through it that resembles both a melodica and a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo and really, really wants you to pay attention to it. And while it features the most languorous of melodies, the pain escalates with every passing verse. The conventionally structured part of the song ends after about 5 minutes and the rest of space is filled with transcendent vocal ad-libbing (and Annie slow dancing/making peace with the bossy keyboard). The song closes with an echoing refrain; “tellitlikeitis, tellitlikeitis, tellitlikeitis”. It is holy f*ck good and the sleeper classic of Bare.

What is the deal with these bridges ? I wish every bridge on Bare was an actual song and not just the eye of a hurricane, jeezus. With it’s honeyed, yearning melody “Honestly” sounds like a Eurythmics outtake circa 1989’s We Too Are One and frankly would have made for a pretty sweet single. From its subject matter (unrequited love, which is the garlic that makes pop songs taste good) to its cleverly compelling vocal arrangement, it has Top 10 hit written all over it.

While its easy to be deceived by its languid melody, and joyfully raucous bridge, “Wonderful”, with its tale of pain and rapture living as roommates is a total heartbreaker. Also, the vocal performance is transcendently good…to take it a step further, please check out this live take of the song from 2003…

“Does it feel cold baby, does it feel hot?”…definitely hot.

Ready for some f*ck you songs ? Yeah you are. Bare is home to not 1, but 2 but straight up f-you songs. The culprits, “Bitter Pill” and “Erased” are both angry insistent little grooves, nasty pop barnacles where Annie isn’t having it anymore. As such both feature appropriately assertive vocals and declarations of separation that are not remotely coy or wistful:

I’m gonna put it all behind me
Like nothing ever happened between us
Nothing ever took place between you and me…
Nothin’ ever happened
And if you see me walkin’ down the street
I won’t even recognize you
I’ll just erase you from my memory
Put it all behind me
Because you are erased
All erased…

Got that ? Erased.

While “Twisted” comes from the same sonic homestead as both “Bitter Pill” and “Erased” with the tune itself resembling a less sinister, more uplifting version of Depeche Mode’s “Walking In My Shoes”, the song is more reflective in its sentiments, acknowledging the bad behavior on both sides… but still forthright as hell. The brief bridge has a bit of a Cocteau Twins flavor and the coda is just all kinds of groovy with 4 different Annie’s doing their own wondrous, independent things.

“Loneliness” might be the most polarizing track on Bare due it’s unmistakable stadium anthem flavor, all big guitars, drum risers and late ’80s style epic-ness. That said, it doesn’t upset the flow of Bare and it’s busting open the balcony windows feel provides a rousing, noisy slap in the face and not unwelcome opportunity for (polite) fist pumping.

Yes, “The Saddest Song I’ve Got” and “Oh God (Prayer)” are genuinely sad. With its lean, memorable melody “Saddest” is the marginally more “cheerful” of the 2 tracks. Featuring a regal and straightforward vocal with no showy runs or ornate ad-libs, “Saddest…” is an ethereal, no frills ballad on the stasis of heartbreak and heartache. And so yes, very sad…but despite it’s title, not the saddest. That honor belongs to Bare’s closing track “Oh God (Prayer)”. The combination of the cracking, quavery vocal on the track and the vulnerability of its words make for a jarring listen. Yet hearing the behemoth Lennox voice and faith in such a fragile state is actually the most logical and perfect way to close things out on Bare. After an album’s worth of such ballsy, assertive and virtuosic power wailing and intensive soul baring what could even be left in the tank? Nothing. It’s all out there. Bare has raged with everything it has at the mirror and other people, now it’s the time to take it up with the spirit. It’s why “Oh God” could only be the last song.

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“That is everything I have to say…”

In Conclusion: Bare is eloquent and noble sadness mixed with sugar. It’s tear-inducing but oddly reassuring and comforting. A showcase of sloppy emotion and existential bewilderment. It’s a bit of a slow burn. It might even take a few listens before it fully infiltrates your heart as a singular entity. It uses 2 of it’s absolute sweetest pieces of candy to get you in the door (“A Thousand Beautiful Things” and “Pavement Cracks”) then kind of sneakily chips away at your heart as it unfolds. It’s as empathetic and honest as a pop record can possibly be. It’s broken and endlessly beautiful.

In a 2005 interview with The Guardian Annie Lennox said:

“There are certain things that have happened in my life that have been difficult. But am I tragic? I don’t think I am. I think I’m quite noble actually. I think I’m a warrior, to be frank. I get up in the morning and face the day, whatever it takes…I would hope I’ve been a bit of an elegant survivor.”

And so, to all you elegant survivors, this one’s for you.

Listen to Bare here:

Or here !

Weekly New Wonders Playlist #39 !

And so this is the last playlist before you know what. Not gonna offer anything because you know what the deal is. I voted early in NYC & was blown away by the energy level & eagerness of everyone at the polling venue. Outside I got handed a free sandwich the size of a fireplace log of “the best Jamaican barbecue ever” ( I don’t eat meat so I shared it). I was wearing my NY Mets face mask & was greeted/acknowledged by other fans on both the outside & inside of the polling place. The guy outside was wearing a Mets cap but also felt the need to open his jacket to show me his Mets jersey. Then right after I voted as I was walking out, another fan/acolyte appeared in a Mets cap & shouted “Let’s Go Mets” at me. And yeah, all that makes me feel real love for my home state & city & favorite “ghost town”. Here’s to new beginnings & better days y’all.

The latest WEEKLY NEW WONDERS PLAYLIST featuring the best new songs we’ve heard over recent days is here. They are all plush & absolutely gorgeous & #1 in our heart. You can check them all out below.

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