Archive for March 2010
Last night we saw the new Noah Baumbach movie Greenberg, and there’s a scene where the young actress Greta Gerwig sings a very tentative version of Judee Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road.” I first heard about Judee Sill some six or seven years ago when Rhino Records released her two studio albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973), as part of their pricier, limited-edition “Handmade” series. A friend of mine burned copies for me of copies that a friend had burned for him, and I thought they were pretty great. There were times when Judee’s songwriting got lost in mysticism—she was a follower of Rosicrucianism—and then I got lost too. But great nonetheless. “The Kiss,” the song she performs in this clip from The Old Grey Whistle Test, is the fifth most played song on my iPod. I’ve played it 28 times, though not, apparently, since 11:20 on the evening of July 7th, 2007.
Reading accounts of Judee Sill’s life is heartbreaking. Music and addiction were tied together from the very beginning. She was the daughter of a herpetologist-slash-barkeep, and alcoholism was a family problem. She began playing the piano at age three. All the while that she was studying music and writing songs she was falling in with a rough crowd. She learned the ukelele, held up some liquor stores, went to reform school, got out, learned the bass, won a songwriting contest at college, became a heroin addict, kept writing music, nearly died of an overdose, went to jail, kicked the habit. A friend hired her to write material for other bands, and her song “Lady-O” was recorded by the Hollies, which led to her meeting David Geffen. Her debut album was the first release on his Asylum Records.
Judee’s voice is homey—she has a casual, unforced delivery that prefigures the artless style of indie rock singers of the past twenty years. (Liz Phair is a fan, and the two even look a little alike.) Her music is country-folkish, but there are classical and gospel music influences as well. “The Donor,” her masterpiece, breaks into a medieval round and a chant of “Kyrie Eleison.” She told NME that her influences were “Bach, Pythagoras, and Ray Charles.” She was profiled in Rolling Stone and photographed by Annie Liebowitz, but her two albums didn’t do well, and once Geffen dropped her she vanished from the music world. From there she spiraled downward. Two car accidents left her in chronic pain. She became addicted to painkillers and died of a cocaine overdose in 1979, possibly a suicide. It’s an unbelievably tragic biography—and yet the music is calm, assured, and hopeful.
Other musicians came to know her records and covered her songs, including Shawn Colvin and Jane Siberry. In interviews, Andy Partridge cited her as a major influence on his band XTC. (He rightly compared her voice to Karen Carpenter’s.) After the Rhino reissues it seemed as if a lot of forgotten female singer-songwriters from the 1960s and ’70s were being rediscovered. Karen Dalton, Sybille Baier, Kath Bloom, all came out of Judee Sill’s overcoat. In the movie last night, Greta sings the Judee Sill song on the stage of a neighborhood bar, and then Ben Stiller’s character makes her a mix of other music that she might like, including Karen Dalton. In an earlier scene in Greta’s car, Ben pulls some CDs out of the glove compartment: John Mayer, Sarah McLaughlin. (She admits that they’re “cheesy.”) So if Greta already knows about Judee Sill, that should bode well for the singer’s reputation, right?
Caleb has a mix on 8tracks too, much more rambunctious than either of mine, and it includes this deliriously great song.
Caleb just introduced me to a site called 8tracks, where I can post a mix of songs and you can stream it, and vice versa. It’s very easy to use—the trick is that you can’t see what song is coming next until you get there, or you hit the fast-forward button. My first mix is an extension of last week’s Earworms tribute to the year 1991, with 13 songs that were recorded or released that year, some of which I heard then, some of which I discovered later, but all of which I still listen to with great pleasure. There’ll be more 8tracks mixes from me soon, I promise. They won’t all have songs from 1991 in them, I promise that too.
Update: I just made a second mix of cover songs.
I was a skeptical young fellow. Here’s me in 1978, 10 years old, spotting a poster for This Year’s Model in the record and tape department of our local Two Guys department store: “That guy is trying to become famous by using the same name as Elvis Presley!” A couple years later, seeing a display advertising Zenyattà Mondatta in the showcase window at the entrance to Korvette’s: “These guys, naming their band after an occupation, are ripping off the Village People!” No one was going to pull the wool over this disco kid’s eyes.
Alex Chilton, rest in peace.
This is a video, possibly the only one, by the early ’80s band of Tracey Thorn, who not long after went on to form Everything But the Girl. Tracey started the Marine Girls when she was 15, and after she went to college the group played live shows whenever she had a holiday. She sang about half of the songs; the other half, including this one, were sung by Alice Fox, whose sister Jane played bass. In this clip, filmed at Brighton Pier, Tracey is the one with the pouffiest hair. Lazy Ways, the album this song comes from, was produced by Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants. I’ve been listening to Tracey Thorn songs a lot lately, and you should expect to see more of them here in the weeks ahead: she has a new solo album coming out in May.
One of the things that’s so rewarding about being a Kristin Hersh fan is that she makes loyal listeners feel like royalty. She’s a prolific songwriter, to say the least. She started making music in the early 1980s, when she was in her teens. She’s released, as of this writing, eight albums with her seminal band Throwing Muses and seven as a solo artist, and also four EPs with her more thrashy band, 50 Foot Wave. New recordings by all three are in the works.
Such a profusion of music would be enough to keep me happy. But Kristin was one of the first musicians to begin thinking about how to reinvent the relationship between artist and listener. She was one of the founders of a remarkable nonprofit organization called CASH Music, which allows musicians to distribute their work directly over the Internet in creative ways, with no middleman.
For the past few years, Kristin’s been posting one demo a month on her CASH site. You can download them here and here—they were gathered in two series, one called Speedbath and one called Bliss—and she drew from these rough drafts for her forthcoming studio album, Crooked. The entire recorded output of 50 Foot Wave, including their amazing half-hour-long song suite Power + Light, can be downloaded here (where it says “download everything”). Demos for a new Throwing Music album are now being posted here. If you download this music and enjoy it, it would be very nice if you left a donation, but it’s not obligatory. What’s important, I think, is that the music finds its way to people who will enjoy it.
Kristin’s also a terrifically gifted prose writer. She blogs and twitters—her tweets feature a lot of very funny dialogue overheard in New Orleans, where she lives—and she also posts a picture a day on her website. Her memoir of her early days with Throwing Muses is being published by Penguin in the US next year as Rat Girl and by Atlantic in the UK as Paradoxical Undressing.
Crooked is coming out in June; the first song on the album is “Mississippi Kite,” above. Kristin recently announced on her website that in the UK, rather than release “another dead, plastic CD”—and when I read those words, I knew just what she meant—Crooked will be packaged with a nifty 60-page book, a collaboration with HarperCollins, filled with photos, lyrics, and essays, as well as special codes that you can type into your computer, which will then explode with more cool stuff, including an excerpt from her book. You can read all about it here. There’s a charming interview where she talks about her new songs here.