Fate was smiling on me last year when Swiss Toni reached into the Shuffleathon hat and drew out my name as the recipient of a CD from Mandy of I Have Ordinary Addictions. I already owned and loved two of the featured songs, and was delighted to be finally introduced to the likes of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Stars and Rilo Kiley, as well as unfamiliar songs by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Death Cab For Cutie and REM, amongst others. The only stumbling block was a Belle & Sebastian track, but that was easily overlooked. (Review here.)
I hope Spinsterwitch can forgive me if I confess that this time around the experience was rather different.
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‘Grey Girl’ – Rebecca Riots
Californian folkies Rebecca Riots take their name from a popular uprising which took place in the nineteenth century in Wales during which the poor stuck it to the Man by destroying toll-gates. Wonder what they’d have made of the £5.10 charge to get over the Severn into Wales on the M4? Oh...
As that choice of moniker might suggest, the trio are a political band keen to use music as a tool for spreading the message – the message being (according to their website) everything from "Palestinian rights" and "police accountability" to "building with straw bale". Now THERE’s a much-overlooked subject to sing about.
The good news, though, is that ‘Grey Girl’ isn’t overbearingly preachy but instead gently lilting and nicely understated. I can imagine Low’s Mimi Parker doing this a lot of justice.
‘Silent All These Years’ – Tori Amos
I can’t honestly recall ever having heard this before – quite an achievement, as it was apparently a big hit from the 1992 album Little Earthquakes.
It begins with tinkling, twinkling piano, at once childish and profoundly unsettling, and Amos’s voice, vulnerable – until the music swells and suddenly it’s strong and yearning as though grasping for something just out of reach.
I’ve really grown to like ‘Silent All These Years’, though as a male listener, it’s hard not to hear lines like "Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon / How's that thought for ya?" without wincing...
‘Iowa (Traveling III)’ – Dar Williams
It’s back to the folk, folks, and back to that inexhaustible crib sheet Wikipedia for a bit of background information. Dar Williams – Dorothy Snowden Williams to her mom and pop – has been championed by Joan Baez, who has actually paid her the tribute of covering some of her songs. ‘Iowa’ was widely understood as a not-particularly-oblique song about lesbian desire – the opening two lines, for instance, are "I’ve never had a way with women / But the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could" – until she hopped off the fence and publicly outed herself as heterosexual, leaving Morrissey perched behind.
Sadly, I’ve listened to this repeatedly – about six times tonight alone – and I’m afraid I’m still to find anything interesting to say about it. To me, it’s mind-bendingly bland in a way only American mainstream music can be, shrink-wrapped in a sickly-sweet sheen of “feeling” yet lacking any heart or life or soul or any of the things that makes music worth bothering about.
‘Keeper Of The Flame’ – Nina Simone
Now this is more like it. ‘Keeper Of The Flame’ comes on like a lost Bond theme tune, the opulent sweeping swish of orchestration parting like a pair of heavy velvet theatre curtains to frame Ms Simone’s unique voice centre stage, singing about a love which smoulders as much as the song itself.
Sultry, rich, luxuriant, wistful – and with an extraordinary vocal breakdown about 2:20 in. They certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they?
‘Touch Me Fall’ – The Indigo Girls
The Indigo Girls – aka Amy Ray and Emily Saliers – are one of those acts who are practically household names in the States but who’ve barely even caused a ripple across this side of the pond. I can’t say I’m disappointed – or surprised.
One minute we’ve got mid-paced bore-rock with a touch of folk, then we’ve got clomping great stadium rock drums (think Matt Sorum in ‘November Rain’), then a full-blown string interlude, and then a breathless, rattling finish. Apparent directionlessness doesn’t necessarily bother me – I’ve been unable to stop playing ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’, the particularly schizophrenic first track on the latest album by career ADHD sufferers The Fiery Furnaces, for crying out loud – but this just doesn’t work for me.
‘Power Of The Harden-Bratt’ – Ulali
This I HAD to research.
It says here that Ulali (meaning “song bird”) are "the first Native American women's a cappella group to create their own sound from strong traditional roots and personal contemporary styles".
Which is all well and good, but I’ve found ‘Power Of The Harden-Bratt’ to be one of the most unlistenable and intensely irritating things to have ever assailed my ears. I may know different now, but the first time I heard it, it put me in mind of a bunch of tone-deaf middle-managers bullied into communing with their earth mother on a spiritual retreat.
That’s it – call me narrow-minded, but Spinsterwitch has brought this skinny white guitar-loving boy a very long way from home and he’s decided he really doesn’t like it.
Skip, skip, skippity-skip…
‘Everyday Boy’ – Joan Armatrading
I’ve searched and searched online and still can’t find when ‘Everyday Boy’ was released, but I’m guessing from the synthesised chimes that form the song’s backbone that it was some time in the 1980s. The fact that the subject is a friend of Armatrading’s who’d contracted AIDS also dates it to that particular period – a period when there was a climate of fear, when the disease was misunderstood or seen as the “gay plague” or (as in this song) "God’s revenge", and when it was potentially controversial to claim that an AIDS sufferer could be "Just an everyday boy / Doing everyday things".
So, another track I don’t much enjoy, weighed down by its own hamfisted worthiness and very much of its time – but at least it served a definite purpose...
‘I See God In You’ – India Arie
... which is more than can be said for this slice of slow, “soulful” R&B that’s a complete waste of what is patently a pretty damn good (if here underexercised) pair of lungs.
Arie managed the bizarrely impressive feat of garnering no fewer than seven Grammy nominations in 2002 and still coming away from the awards ceremony empty-handed. Quite why she lets out a self-satisfied chuckle at the end of the song is beyond me.
‘Gave Me Love’ – Catie Curtis
More aural wallpaper, and not stylish wallpaper either (despite the initially promising loping Beck-like beats) – more like anaglypta, lumpy and plain, waiting for a splash of colour – so it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn she’s supported Dar Williams, amongst many others.
The twist in the tale? Instead of a clichéd chord change at the end, the chorus becomes "I give you love" – the love's reciprocated, and in the present tense too. Aww. As thank you songs go, ‘Gave Me Love’ is certainly no ‘Thank You Jack White (For The Fiber-Optic Jesus You Gave Me)’.
‘Love Is All Around’ – Joan Jett
Where did THIS come from?!! Suddenly some life! But then you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone labelled "the original Riot Grrrl".
"Who can turn the world on with a smile?" You! "Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?" It’s you, Joan! We’ve got something in common, you and I – I believe we’re both ardent fans of rock ‘n’ roll. And when rock ‘n’ roll sounds this good – a short, sharp, Ramones-influenced shock (rather than what the song title threatened, a drippy Wet Wet Wet-style Troggs cover) – there’s nothing better.
I can’t help thinking, though, that had Mr and Mrs Jett (well, OK, Mr and Mrs Larkin) known their daughter was going to go into the music business and become a fempunk pioneer, they wouldn’t have saddled her with the name Joan. Though I suppose it didn't seem to do you or Joan Armatrading any harm.
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So in conclusion, I persevered, I really did, but without much joy. Sometimes you just have to face up to the fact that if you bang your head against some brick walls for long enough you don’t break through to the other side, you just end up with a bloodied forehead and a killer headache.
I don’t want to go drawing clumsy inferences and conclusions about the person behind the compilation, and I’m also loath to criticise Spinsterwitch’s selection as being too homogenous because no doubt to many ears mine would be too. The most important thing is that I was exposed to a whole host of songs I’d never heard before, songs shared with me by someone who’s passionate about them – and that’s ultimately what the Shuffleathon is all about. After all, as a result of this I'll be seeking out more Nina Simone and Joan Jett, even if I did turn out to be, on the whole, an ungrateful sod.
Thanks to Spinsterwitch for taking the time and trouble to make and send me the CD, and to ST for arranging the whole shebang.