Saturday, August 15, 2020


Is there a more chilling song in the the already well-refrigerated canon of Richard Thompson? No stranger to a bleak lyric, this song, from his acclaimed 1974 duet debut, alongside his then wife, Linda, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, says more in the stark description and build up than any delineation or hint of what might come next. Because it doesn't need to. Linda's icy narrative tells exactly where it is going, where Valerio is going. And with him, any dreams for a brighter future. I guess it's an allegory for the futility of love, which is as daunting a phrase to write as to consider, our hearts and souls all praying for the opposite. The album is not short on other such cheerful ditties either, End of the Rainbow being a blunt warning against any hope for anything at all.

Richard & Linda

But I have always wondered whether there ever was a Valerio and it seems there was. In 1863 it was reported that a 'dreadful accident' had taken place as 25 year old Carlo Valerio performed his high wire act at Cremorne Gardens. Here is an excellent blog article that describes it all. Thompson's skill is to weave the tale into a wider perspective, deploying the style of an ancient broad sheet ballad, the traditional folk idiom being full of songs about disasters and death, yet cataloguing a far more universal prophecy.

I have always loved the darker aspects of Richard Thompson's writing. Whilst he always comes across as less pessimistic in real life, engaging a dry wit, heavy with a shy self-deprecation, his songs lightening up (a little) over the years, it is these early shards of nihilism I enjoy(!?) the most. Not for nothing were a couple of early cassette compilations called Doom and Gloom From the Tomb, Volumes 1 and 2. Often asked why his material has such depressing content, here is as good a recent interview, with some possible explanation, as any.

Richard solo

I am an avid seeker of cover versions. So, are there any great Great Valerio's out there? Maybe a reggae version, or thrash metal? Well, if there are, I can't find 'em, most fitting into a similar niche of austerity, artists also with a trad.arr. streak embedded in their marrow. So June Tabor, Maggie Holland, even Barb Jungr; no surprises there. But Cathal Coughlan's maverick Fatima Mansions? The angry and cathartic irish rockers might seemingly have little in common with the chamber chill of this song. But you'd be wrong. OK, it seems a fairly straight facsimile, but Coughlan's voice is way more yearning than the reportage of the original. It works. Similar, yet poles apart.

Fatima Mansions

There's this and this, but you might consider this.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Great: Great Nations of Europe

purchase [ Newman's Bad Love album]

When I was a kid, my folks picked up a couple of Tom Lehrer albums for family entertainment. Being distant/removed from mainstream US life, we listened to our limited collectıon of LPs to the point that we had the full album memorized.  Lehrer's music was pithy and dealt with social and political issues of his day (says wikipedia about him). He played the piano to accompany his satire of current affairs, performing songs like Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and Who's Next (to get the A-bomb).

I suppose not everyone cares for the wry humor that is Randy Newman's trademark. For me, his songs give pause, a chance to stop and think about what his lyrics convey, and more often than not they tease people/animals who consider themselves "great". He's got no respect for the ones at the top.  We're talking <great>, right? There's nothing   that says great is "good" or great is "bad", as in great big mistake.

I wouldn't credit Newman with a great voice - or great piano chops. That's not his style. It's lyrics that matters. They bite, cut and hurt, but make you stop and think about what's right and what is wrong.
How prescient is Newman's Great Nations of Europe, released back in 1999. And while it may be named "...Europe", dont think for a minute that the actual target is that local. As I said, it's aimed at you and me. At the end of the story, it's a bug from out of Africa, not the China virus that's going to come for us all, just like the Conquistadors carried their bugs West in the 16th century. But for now, everyone is as happy as can be.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Great: The Great

[stream on Hulu

I watch a lot of TV in general, but the end of almost all outside the home entertainment and, until recently, televised sports, has meant that I have watched even more. One of my favorite shows from the last few months was The Great, on Hulu, which describes itself as “a satirical, comedic drama - based on the occasional historical fact - about the rise of Catherine the Great from outsider to the longest reigning female ruler in Russia's history.” It is completely over the top, barely historically accurate, bawdy, violent, silly, and exciting. Basically, it was a lot of fun, with some great performances (and some of the most amusing color blind casting that I’ve seen). And yes, they address the whole “sex with a horse” thing. (“Fake news,” apparently.) It has been nominated only for best directing and best writing in a comedy series Emmys, which is not nearly enough. 

There are ten episodes in the series, and at the end of each episode, the credits roll over a modern song, and the choices by music supervisor, Maggie Phillips, who had a similar role with The Handmaid’s Tale, are generally inspired. Warning, spoilers follow

Episode one, where we first learn of Catherine’s goal to wrest control of the country from her feckless husband, ended with Patti Smith’s strangely faithful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” In episode 2, she begins to gather allies, and the credits play over Primal Scream’s “Movin’ On Up.” Cat Power, who titled an album The Greatest, contributed “Free,” for episode 3, although that song is from a different album. In episode 4, Catherine and her officially appointed lover enjoy each other’s’ company, so what better song could play during the credits than Buzzcocks’ great pop/punk song “Orgasm Addict?” And in episode 5, Czar Peter has been poisoned, but Catherine realizes that she’s not ready to take over, so Courtney Barnett’s rocking "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party,” with the lyric "you say you'll sleep when you're dead, I'm scared I'll die in my sleep" highlights Catherine’s ambivalence. 

The second half of the season begins with episode 6, where Catherine attempts to interest Peter in science, to less than positive results. Under the credits, we hear Thomas Dolby’s signature song, “She Blinded Me With Science.” As Catherine seems defeated in episode 7, Phillips chose Sharon van Etten’s lugubrious cover of “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding,” featuring Josh Homme (and if you want more, and I think better, covers, check out this post). But as the treasonous planning picks up in episode 8, the credits play over female hard rock pioneer Suzi Quatro’s “The Wild One.” And as Catherine’s plot seems likely to succeed, the credit music is Cass Elliot’s appropriately hopeful “New World Coming.” 

The final episode ends with a cliffhanger, after a pregnant Catherine sacrifices her lover to save her coup. But is he dead, and does she succeed? (We do know the real answer to the second question.) And in a twist, the season ends with a haunting new cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” by Simone Istwa. It is the only one of the credit songs that appears on the show’s soundtrack album, which otherwise features selections of the show’s original music composed by Nathan Barr. Including a song called “Tainting the Borscht.” 

I could have linked to the videos of all of the songs, but instead, just go here, and you can read more about the music, and play all of the songs. And you can look forward to season 2.