Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Winter Months: January in the Halifax Airport Lounge

Bruce Cockburn: January in the Halifax Airport Lounge


We Americans have always been slow to discover Canadian artists, if we do at all. Bruce Cockburn was already almost ten years into his career when we finally noticed. By that time, Cockburn had gone through a spiritual crisis, and gone from being a man with no noticeable faith to becoming a devout, although nonsectarian, Christian. January in the Halifax Airport Lounge dates from the beginning of that process, and it possibly offers some hints as to what sparked it. Here, Cockburn seems to face the prospect of being separated from his loved one, apparently to fight a war in Cyprus. (Does anyone know why “ Some Winnipeg boys are Cyprus-bound” in 1975? If so, please respond in the comments.) Then again, could Cockburn’s narrator be feeling not the sorrow of human parting, but the fear of having been forsaken by God? It may be a stretch, but it would be bourn out by the direction Cockburn’s songs soon took.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Winter Months: The Children of Winter Edition

Mark Olson and the Creekdippers: December's Child


Michelle Lewis: January's Child


Eric Parkin: February's Child


The winter months are the cruelest, both physically and mentally. It may be the season in which I listen to the most music. Instead of spending my spare time outdoors, I hunker down inside and soothe my S.A.D. with a hard drive's worth of mp3s.

So here are three songs to get you and me through the winter months: The first, some Southern folk-rock from Mark Olson's post-Jayhawks aggregation, the second, a slice of social commentary from the none-too-prolific singer-songwriter Michelle Lewis, and the third a reading of a John Ireland piece by pianist Eric Parkin. See you in March!

The Winter Months: 12gatsu no Love Song (December Love Song)

Discussion ensues over who is prettiest – Leehom (left) or Gackt (right)

Gackt & Leehom Wang: 12gatsu no Love Song (December Love Song)


This song is available in no fewer than 9 versions, my music-lovin' peeps, and okay, yeah, I've got 'em all. The first version was released in Japanese, and subsequent years found it sung in, respectively, English, Mandarin, and Korean. I'm letting you experience the Mandarin version because it's another one of those delicious male-male duets that I adore. Like the last one I introduced you to, this song features the Japanese pop star Gackt, this time paired with the other musical co-star of that weird vampire movie, Moon Child, Leehom Wang.

Leehom Wang was born in New York and attended Boston's Berklee School of Music, just like the lead singer of Collective Soul (my last post). He was visiting his grandparents in Taiwan when he came to the attention of the music industry there, and it was a slow and steady climb to fame in the Chinese music scene, where he's a big star now. He was also featured in Ang Lee's film Lust, Caution.

I'd share the English version of this tune, but Gackt's English is right up there with my Japanese (in other words, phonetic), and it makes for distracted listening to what is truly a beautiful song. The lyrics describe a man who's longing for a former lover and wondering if the reminiscence is mutual. And there are jingle bells, so there's that. Happy December!

The Winter Months: December


Collective Soul: December


Okay, let's get this out of the way: This song is not about oral sex.

Collective Soul songs have a background allusion of Christianity to them---the lead singer, Ed Roland, and his band-mate brother were PKs (preacher's kids). They don't consider themselves a Christian band, but they're definitely classier than that simple (wrong) reading of the lyrics. The song uses December as an image of coldness, distance, and rejection to describe a relationship gone sour. "Turn your head…and spit me out…" is an oblique Biblical reference to a personal rejection.

Collective Soul was big in the 90s (and still together), which means I didn't discover them until the 00s. My 90s ended up focused on Raffi and Disney, and I missed a lot of the post-grunge bands until much later. I made up for my tardiness, though, with increased enthusiasm.

The Winter Months: February

Dar Williams: February


When a singer-songwriter describes one of her songs as a favourite you know you’re on to a good thing. So it is with “February” from Dar Williams’ 1996 Mortal City album, possibly her best (if one disregards her contribution to the solitary and wonderful album by Cry Cry Cry).

February’s sadness — the song is about a relationship going cold and dead — is underscored by Erik Friedlander’s unobtrusive cello. What great lyrics: “First we forgot where we’d planted those bulbs last year; then we forgot that wed planted at all; then we forgot what plants are altogether; and I blamed you for my freezing and forgetting and the nights were long and cold and scary. Can we live through February?”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Winter Months: The January Man

Bert Jansch: The January Man


A great deal of amazing music has been allowed to go out of print, and become difficult to find. Bert Jansch, formerly of Pentangle, released this version of The January Man on his 1973 album Moonshine. The album was reissued in 2001 on CD, but that too has gone out of print. Moonshine is a fine example of what Jansch brought to the group Pentangle.

The January Man sounds like a traditional English song, but it is actually the work of Dave Goulder. He creates a character, in just a few short lines, for each month of the year. It’s great piece of economical songwriting, and one of the few New Years songs I know of. Goulder recorded the song on his first album, performing the song a capella. Goulder is a fine songwriter that far too few people know about, and this album, sadly, is also out of print, and even harder to get than the Jansch.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Winter Months: June In January

Dean Martin: June In January (live)


Dino’s on-stage shtick was well-known: cigarette in one hand, glass of Scotch in another, slurring half-remembered lyrics... Well, the smoke was real. The brown liquid was in fact ginger ale, the slurring was an act, and some of the lyrics were fudged on purpose to mask those he did forget. The model professional was at his best appearing blithely unprofessional.

This rendition of “June In January” – which appears on the Rat Pack Live at the Sands album, recorded in September 1963 – shows Martin at his mock-inebriated best, riffing with Antonio Morelli's orchestra (“you sure everybody was playing?”), cracking jokes at Sinatra, ad libbing (“give me a tshord”) and making funny voices before finishing the song off in proper crooner fashion. He’d then stagger off the stage sober and hit the bottle post-gig.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Winter Months: December African Rain

Juluka: December African Rain


The well-known meteorologist Bob Geldof once noted, with uncanny prescience and unflinching confidence, that there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time. Or, indeed, any Christmas time. Unless you look for it on top of the Kilimanjaro. There will, however, be rain in some parts of Africa this Christmas time. It is not unheard of that there is some drizzle in Cape Town on Christmas Eve.

Rain is, of course, mostly welcome in Africa for agricultural reasons. And in the often unbearably humid KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, it can bring relief from the climate’s discomforts. And that region is home to our featured band, Juluka, who in their 1984 song bid the precipitations of summer farewell — though the rain here serves as a metaphor.

The song is in fact a goodbye letter. Since it appears on Juluka’s 1984 Stand Your Ground (Greatest Hits) album — the band’s final release before it briefly regrouped in the 1990s — it probably is Johnny Clegg’s wistful send-off for his friend and Juluka co-founder Sipho Mchunu.

Like many Juluka songs, December African Rain formed part of the live repertoire of Clegg’s follow-up band, Savuka, and as such has become a minor South African classic. Both incarnations were outstanding live acts.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Winter Months: A Long December

Counting Crows: A Long December


The calendar turns to December, and you suddenly realize that the year is almost over. New Years is coming, and with it, a chance for a fresh start. But first, you have all of December to think about what you would wish you had done differently. And December is one of the ones with thirty-one days, so there’s that much more time before you can start again. That is what A Long December expresses so perfectly. There is regret, but also far off hope.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Leftovers (Songwriting) -> The Winter Months: Air Of December

Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians: Air of December


A fluid, dreamy also-ran from Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, Air of December doesn't just provide an unusually mellow kick-off to a week of songs whose titles mention December, January, or February. It also speaks to the apocryphal origin story of the band, which involves Edie wandering up onto a bar stage to join the local folk-rock band New Bohemians on a whim, floating improvisational lyrics over their long instrumentals and proving herself worthy of frontwoman status as they moved forward into what would become, sadly, a pretty typical 80's career: a 2x platinum debut supported by a single mega-hit, followed by a slow drift into classic alt-rock obscurity.

I mean, just listen to it. The lyrics serve the tune, I suppose - one of the things I most admire about the early work which sprung from this unusual process - but all the same, the song sounds like it was an instrumental first, and one that evolved organically at that. And we can infer what we need to from the label, which lists all five of the band members as authors. My guess is, this one came out of a bunch of well-trained musicians' improvisational jam session, after which someone wrote down the best parts for sequence and structural purposes, Edie layered one of her infamous dreamscapes over it, and voila.