Category Archives: MAGNET FEEDBACK

MAGNET Feedback With Matthew Sweet

I am woeful at anything even approaching rock journalism. In the dark on most records, I guess I have enough tormenting music in my head that I mostly prefer silence when I’m not working. And here I find myself faced with providing commentary for a host of artists that deserve to be analyzed by someone much more informed than I. This is making me really nervous for some reason. I’m gonna try my best to say something about 10 songs suggested by MAGNET, who kindly tried to gauge what kinds of things I might be familiar with. They did a pretty good job, actually! But still nervous. Melody is so much easier than words … —Matthew Sweet

The Bangles, “A Hazy Shade Of Winter”
The Bangles are one of the great girl groups, and this is a badass cover. I think Rick Rubin might’ve produced this for a soundtrack if I remember correctly. Sometimes people mistake the Bangles for a Susanna Hoffs vehicle, and I love Susie, but they truly are a group of people whose musical chemistry and voices combine to make real magic. I was a fan from the very beginning. Bangles drummer Debbi Peterson recently made the trek and played some great drums on my new album, Tomorrow Forever, out here in Omaha at Black Squirrel Submarine.

The Beach Boys, “Sail On, Sailor”
According to Beach Boys lore, “Sail On, Sailor” was the song Brian Wilson always was playing at parties, and apparently there were many different people who had shared the piano bench in a festive moment and so thought they wrote the song with him. I sang this song with (Hootie & The Blowfish’s) Darius Rucker, a lovely guy, for a Brian Wilson tribute at Radio City Music Hall. I flew on an airplane for the first time in eight years to do the song on Letterman and then sing on “Good Vibrations” with Brian. Brian’s daughters were so sweet to me. They knew I had a serious fear of flying!

The Beatles, “She Said She Said”
I just love this song and recording. Trippy and melodic in an irresistible way. Revolver was the first Beatles album I really got into. Before it, I only knew the soundtrack album from Help! (which was, of course, also great). “She Said” was a big part of Revolver to me, really my favorite song on the album. As a teen, I would often listen to one side of a vinyl album on headphones as I was falling asleep. The night John Lennon was shot, it was the side of Revolver that ended with “She Said She Said.” I had just fallen asleep to it when my dad came in my room to tell me come see the news. I really do see it as an easy coincidence now, but at the time it felt downright spooky.

Bee Gees, “Massachusetts”
It’s fun to imagine I was four years old and this was a number-one radio hit. I don’t remember the song that well, but it’s amazing to think of these Australian brothers tapping into the hippie lore of San Francisco 1968 and scoring a massive hit. There’s something quaint about its plaintive vibe. The album itself, Horizontal, is pretty interesting overall but predates some of my favorite stuff yet to come. “World,” the song that opens the album, is pretty compelling and quite inventive.

Big Star, “September Gurls”
What can I say that hasn’t been said about the incredible Big Star? It’s wonderful how everybody seems to know how great they were at this point. I got to sing “Big Black Car” at a New York City performance of Big Star’s Third. But “September Gurls” (I love the spelling; so Alex) really shows them at their best. I was first given a cassette tape with both #1 Record and Radio City on it when I was in high school. I really liked the dB’s and a friend said I’d better check out Big Star. I was completely taken with the music. Guitar jangle like I’d never heard before, the loopy drum fills, inventive melodies, beautiful singing, with moods from witty to so earnest. It really kind of blew my mind. Such a classic track. And they were American! To top off the experience, I ordered the 45 of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos,” which was pure magic.

The Byrds, “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”
When we were making my album Girlfriend, I was pretty focused on Revolver as some kind of working sonic guideline. But it was the late, great Robert Quine who made sure I realized how awesome the Byrds were, playing stuff of theirs and making me tapes throughout recording. Again, here is a group that was a sum of its incredible parts; so many talented guys were involved over multiple lineups. This song always picks me up with its transcendent effect of ultra jangle. Just love it. The Byrds are, deservedly, one of the great “B” groups we think of today. Beatles, Beach Boys and Byrds.

Tom Petty, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
I had Damn The Torpedoes as a teenager and always looked up to Petty as a super-cool dude. He played 12-string electric guitar, which only helped elevate him in my innocent eyes. Wildflowers was a great record for him. I remember hearing “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on the radio while I was out doing promo somewhere in Texas, and I totally dug it. This record sounds amazing, and this is where I first heard Jim Scott’s name, who I was lucky enough to work with later on. I love the sentiment, spelled out in the title, that idea of trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think of Paul Westerberg’s song “I’ll Be You” as well as my own “We’re The Same” as attempting a similar switch of perspective.

The Pretenders, “Brass In Pocket”
This was such a great, great album. My older brother played it for me for the first time, and it was wholly unique. The band was killer, and Chrissie Hynde was an instant classic with her snot-nosed sass mixed with gentle sincerity. “Brass In Pocket” was the radio hit as I remember it, and though it didn’t exactly represent the full rock potential of the band, it still could barely contain Hynde’s punk attitude and sly sexuality. The song is the ultimate come-on. I particularly love hearing album track “Lovers Of Today” these days; it’s so haunting and deep. As a teen, I traveled with some friends to see the Pretenders live in Kansas City when the second album had just come out. James Honeyman-Scott was a true guitar god. I got all their autographs on the first album cover by handing it to Chrissie through their town-car window as they were leaving the venue through a back alley. Years later, when I was on tour with the Golden Palominos, I hung out for a few hours with Syd Straw and Chrissie in her hotel room in Toronto. I can’t remember who partook, but I’m pretty sure I smoked a ton of pot while listening to those girls converse for what seemed like hours. I was maybe 20 or 21 years old and in awe of both of them.

R.E.M, “Perfect Circle”
It is impossible to overstate how important R.E.M. were to the entire realm of ’80s indie rock that was about to become the bona fide genre of alternative rock. R.E.M. were an inspiration to myself and so many other budding songwriters. Here was a band that was American, had their own sound and did things their own way. For indie-pop nerds like me, just the fact that they were produced by the legendary Mitch Easter was of note. Seeing it was produced by Easter, I ordered from an ad in New York Rocker the first R.E.M. single on Hibtone Records, “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still.” “Sitting Still” really caught my ear. I was able to see R.E.M. live at a local club in Lincoln, Neb., get my 45 signed and ask about Easter, who I later corresponded with and eventually met. They loved that I knew who Mitch was. By the time R.E.M. came to play the Drumstick (chicken restaurant by day, rock club by night) again, Murmur was coming out, and Let’s Active was opening up for them, soon to release their own debut on IRS Records, where R.E.M. were by then signed. “Perfect Circle” is such a beautiful song, and its gently cascading chorus takes me right back to a time when the world seemed new and R.E.M. were leading the way to a melodic and mysterious future where a wide range of styles would combine to transcend the college charts and land in the mainstream. A special song from a very special band.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run”
I like Springsteen, even though I’ve never really followed him closely or known most of his records particularly well. But over the years, whenever I’ve heard “Born To Run,” it has a big impact on me. This is a record packed with so much energy, so much wrenching passion it should be a goal for all of us to try to match in our own music. It’s like a Phil Spector opus, it’s like a teenage symphony but wholly creates its own world, where young lovers rage against life. When he cries, “It’s a suicide pact,” the effect is transcendent in the best of ways. A truly great song, a truly great recording and a truly great artist in his prime combine to reach the zenith of rock crescendo and release. My friends know I’ve never been too big on saxophone, but here even it gets a pass!

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MAGNET Feedback With Joseph Arthur

Ever since Peter Gabriel beckoned him to New York City, singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur has been compulsively creative. This year marks the 15th anniversary of Redemption’s Son, the Akron, Ohio, native’s third album of heavy melodies and mood-enhancing arrangements. It represents a point in Arthur’s career when he was a little too prolific; aside from the 16-track album, material from the sessions spilled out onto four subsequent EPs, and this year’s reissue of Redemption’s Son (Real World) adds nine bonus tracks. MAGNET is not the least bit surprised that Arthur took this month’s Feedback in his own direction.

My manager said, “Hey, I need that piece for MAGNET by Monday.”

“Oh, cool,” I replied. “I’ll knock it out. As long as I don’t have to write a Shakespearean play, I can’t imagine having a problem with whatever it is.” We were loose. It was Friday.

On Monday morning, I realized the guilt, shame and remorse for knowing I had boldly said yes to a lengthy writing assignment sight unseen and it was due today. The voices flooded in: “Why did you say yes?” The toxic shame, like an expert archer, took aim at the center of my skull as I opened the emailed assignment: MAGNET would like you to write about 10 or 15 of these tracks:

The Afghan Whigs, “Gentlemen”
The Band, “The Weight”
The Black Keys, “Tighten Up”
Blondie, “Rapture”
Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”
Bob Dylan, “As Time Goes By”
Brian Eno, “Needles In The Camel’s Eye”
Genesis, “Back In N.Y.C.”
George Harrison, “Isn’t It A Pity”
Diana Krall, “Glad Rag Doll”
The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Liz Phair, “Never Said”
Lou Reed, “Romeo Had Juliette”
The Rolling Stones, “Rocks Off”
Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”

My palms got sweaty. My heart raced. A lifetime flashed before me. I got a case of the hiccups and peed my pants a little. I looked over the list. Oh, no! Please don’t say it’s one of these things where I gotta say how much I like this or that. I mean, I like “The Weight” as much as the next guy, but how am I gonna come up with a paragraph on it?

“I remember that time I sparked up a doobie, and it was a full moon, and it was our summer of love, and there were all these butterflies in the parking lot and we had just dropped acid, and it was coming on and we were out in your Corvette. You had the radio on, and the DJ on the classic-rock station we always listened to said, ‘And now this one is from Robbie Robertson and the Band.’ And then that song. That song that’s everybody’s favorite song at one point or another. Transcends race. Transcends time. A great song has a spirit in it. This one is so identifiable and profound that it almost feels wrong to speak on it. But it does make me want to take acid and drive around in a Corvette.”

Normally, I might call Greg Dulli in a time like this. He’s always got a good take on things, funny and dark, and then we just wind up talking about girls we are both in love with on Instagram. I remember the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen came out and I listened to it on my CD Walkman. There were beneficial limitations back then. You know how sometimes you lock a certain memory with a certain album? That album always reminds me of a flight I took and listened to it the whole trip. That was the good thing about not having endless options. It made you focus on one thing. I focused on Greg’s voice and lyrics. I was just starting to write songs at that point, so I listened with intention all the time. I was still forming my own musical identity. If I had to put my feelings about what Greg does in a quip designed for bathroom fodder, it would be this: He’s original. And he’s rock ’n’ roll. Plus, he’s from Ohio. Which I notice quite a few folks in this list are.

I texted my manager: “Hey, Keith, happy Monday. Gimme a shout on that MAGNET thing. It’s a real pain to write about songs. Can you imagine writing a paragraph about a Coldplay song? Or even about one you like?”

He didn’t and still hasn’t responded. Cheap joke on Coldplay. I don’t actually feel that way. Everyone knows Chris Martin can make melody his bitch in ways that are unique to him, and let’s face it: It’s endlessly appealing. Besides, no one’s ever gonna be cooler than the Replacements anyway, so who really cares? I guess the price of ubiquitous fame and fortune is that you become a punching bag for people in moments like these. I’d take that trade.

My manager never got back to me, so I decided to take a few bong hits and go skateboard. I ride my longboard along the Promenade in Brooklyn, overlooking the whole of Manhattan. From Red Hook to DUMBO and back again. For some reason, I had the Kiss song “Black Diamond” in my head. But not their own version—the version that’s on Let It Be by the Replacements. Neither of those bands were even on the list. I couldn’t just talk about any band I want all willy-nilly. There had to be some measure of control in this piece. I looked long and hard at myself when another Replacements song ran through my mind: “Unsatisfied.” But it’s not on the list, so why won’t this song leave me be?

“Look me in the eye and tell me that I’m satisfied/Are you satisfied.” Or however it goes. What’s with Minneapolis and the best songwriters in history? Dylan and Westerberg. Dylan’s on the list, but Westerberg’s not. Hmm. Pieces are adding up. Things people said. Fragments I had forgotten about. I started picking up things in the street and putting together a cap made out of tinfoil. But just then a song started blaring, as if the tinfoil hat had been a finely adjusted radio antenna picking up only one song, and it was screaming now as if it was coming from Manhattan itself. Like the buildings were all signing it to me all at once. And it was “Needles In The Camel’s Eye.”

I love weird rock songs by English geniuses. And this is one of the best. Why is the city singing this one? Eno’s on the list. I guess it triggered something. Now the Empire State Building is swaying back and forth to the beat. I’m frazzled at this point, like a fighter who’s beaten but just won’t stay down. I gotta get out of this. Need to write my manager and tell him I just can’t think of a creative way to write this piece.

“Tell them I said sorry, Keith.” Still waiting for a response.

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MAGNET Feedback With Robyn Hitchcock

Like a colander scooping up green peas, I intersect with many of these artists; some arrived before me, some arrived after. Some helped to shape me, others say I helped them to form. We’re all midwives to each other’s talent. Robyn Hitchcock

Fiona Apple “Every Single Night” from: The Idler Wheel…
The Medusa of psychodrama; several times I had the immense challenge of following her onstage at Cafe Largo on Jon Brion’s show. Her eyes, her hair, her voice and the spirit that fuels them make her the most intense performer I’ve seen, this side of vintage Captain Beefheart. When she sings “Cry Me A River,” you sweat one.

Syd Barrett “Terrapin” from: The Madcap Laughs
There’d be no me as a musical entity without Syd Barrett. His words, his tunes, his guitar playing are so pictorial I could almost eat them. So dark, so funny, so full of … him. This song is a relaxed meander around a sunlit fish tank, waving a fin at your passing loved one. It’s also not in the key that it’s in—one of the many magical facets of the man they call Syd who spent most of his life being Roger. He started and named Pink Floyd, then lived invisibly for 35 years in the back streets of Cambridge.

The Byrds “Eight Miles High” from: Fifth Dimension
Like much of the best music of 1966/7, this captures the acceleration of liftoff—on a jet plane, a culture or by any other means available. It’s a blissful amalgam of jazzy 12-string lead guitar, impressionistic lyrics about flying from L.A. to Swinging London and formal, choral harmonies. It took three people to write it, and this was their only creation.

The Decemberists “Down By The Water” from: The King Is Dead
Colin and the girl and boys generally manage to encompass the Stones, XTC, Morrissey and me without sounding like any of them. It takes a boy from Montana to be that British. They rock history like no one has since the Band, to my ears. This song leans to R.E.M. in the guitars, giving Colin the platform to declaim across the music like the Colonial-era soldier who must be his spirit guide. Where Britain lost America stand the Decemberists, just checking to see if it really happened.

Bob Dylan “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from: Bringing It All Back Home
Bob Dylan in his momentum years could cram a song with so many conflicting feelings and fly it straight into your heart. Here he stirs contempt, cruelty, regret, humor, sarcasm, sadness and his trademark resigned wisdom into an exhilarating four-minute farewell to…himself? Joan Baez? The human spirit? There are more flavors in this than in the mint vanilla cinnamon Oxford latte I’m cradling here in my local coffee groovarium.

Feist “1234” from: The Reminder
I was on a floating Russian hotel with Feist—and many other artists and scientists—off the coast of Greenland in 2008. We were taken there to witness the vast glaciers melting into the sea. They’re still melting today, faster than ever; according to current climate projections, all our coastal cities will be underwater in 150 years time, if no other catastrophe has demolished them. But back in the here and now, this is a very catchy song.

Katrina And The Waves “Walking On Sunshine” from: Walking On Sunshine
Kimberley Rew, who wrote this, was in the Soft Boys with me some years back. He was incubating this and other songs while the SBs played my material—the SBs being essentially my band. But “Walking On Sunshine” would never have been the monster hit it became with me singing it. Kim told me later that he wanted to take a slice of 1965 into the 1980s and, by Jove, he succeeded. A brilliantly simple idea, like a child’s drawing, that it took Kim to actually have.

Kinks “God’s Children” from: Percy
There’s an unusual connection here: Ray Davies wrote this for the soundtrack for the 1970 British movie Percy, which was based on a book written by my father, Raymond. The story concerns a young man who receives a penis transplant and tries to track down the donor. This takes him awhile, but it’s a fun saga in all its vintage Brit libido way. The song is one of the best of Davies’ “I’m a human, get me out of here” type from that era. That’ll be 12 guineas, Ray.

Alison Krauss And Gillian Welch “I’ll Fly Away” from: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A simple connection  here:  I’m  writing  this in an East Nashville coffee shop to which Gillian herself introduced me. I love to hear her sing with Dave Rawlings more than anybody, but she—like Dave—is a generous and frequent collaborator, and this performance with Allison Krauss is exquisite. Both singers avoid  over-emoting  and  let  the  feel  of a song come through un-fussed. I just love Gill; I  always have.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” from: Some Time In New York City
Not my fave John Lennon track, partly be- cause the n-word now grates coming from any white lips (no fault of John’s, but time draws new lines) and partly because of the sax, my un-favest rock instrument. However, Lennon remains my favorite rock singer, whether he’s singing soft or hard, and Yoko’s input is showing in his feminist tone here. The lyrics are spot on: “While putting her down we pretend that she’s above us.” Right on, brother.

Nick Lowe “Cruel To Be Kind” from: Labour Of Lust
I always wonder which bits Nick composed here and what was the input of Ian Gomm, his former bandmate in Brinsley Schwartz. It’s a catchy hit that Nick performs to this day. I saw the Brinsleys open for McCartney & Wings in 1973; five years later, Nick and I were both briefly on Radar Records, and 20 years after that I ran into him in a cheese shop in West London. He introduced me to my current label, Yep Roc, and we were neighbors for many years. These days I get mistaken for him as I pad around East Nashville: My hair and glasses echo his. So weaves the thread of time.

Neutral Milk Hotel “Two-Headed Boy” from: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
I’ve never met Jeff Mangum, but I think he and I probably have similar record collections. Legendary Athens, Ga., alumni find their own world in the woods and sing it.

Beth Orton “Stolen Car” from: Central Reservation
Beth Orton was the first musician I heard in the 1990s who made me feel the new-wave police had finally lost their grip on Britain. Great track, this one: I love the backwards-y guitars and the lyrics “Your fingers like fuses, your eyes were cinnamon.” She has a kind of downbeat cheeky rage that murmurs East Anglia, quite loudly.

R.E.M. “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” from: Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982–2011
This is a beautiful elegy from the  last days of their career. Rather touchingly, they seem to hang out together much more now they’re not tethered to each other professionally. This wistful Mike Mills tune reminds me of their Automatic For The People era. So many people measured out their lives in R.E.M., myself included, and I was grateful to be part of their extended family. Fare forward, travelers…

Sleater-Kinney And Fred Schneider “Angry Inch” from: Wig In A Box: Songs From & Inspired By Hedwig And The Angry Inch
Penises! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Whether viewed as part of a trans parable, a primal boy terror or a desire to know how it feels to be the Other, this is a surprisingly fun song for an ode to genital mutilation. Fred Schneider fits in well here, and the Sleater- Kinney dames play like demons.

Patti Smith Group “Pissing In A River” from: Radio Ethiopia
Patti Smith is another intense performer, though she stops short of psychosis. She’s always struck me more live than on record;    I can’t take my eyes off her onstage. Lenny Kaye is a great performer, too—still as magnetized by the music as he was when they started playing together in 1971. A few years ago, I was on a terrifying bus ride round a twisting Norwegian fjord a 1,000-foot sheer drop above the sea when my phone rang: It was Barre, Patti’s tour manager, asking if I’d like to join them onstage in Bergen for the encores. An hour later, we were belting out “Gloria” in a bright wooden hall. Terror and excitement hold hands so often.

The Smiths “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” from: The Queen Is Dead
Some people can generalize their pain, others merely bore you with it. Morrissey, like John Lennon, is one of the former. With a lot of help from Johnny Marr (his McCartney?), the agonies and bitchings of this shy, gay, erudite Manchester lad resonated with teenagers the world over, just as Dylan and Lennon’s once had. And this song, with its unpredictable chords and candid vocal, is so Manchester that you can practically feel the damp night air and see the bleak, menacing underpass. Also, perhaps, the double-decker bus that might drive into the motoring couple to end their pain. At a recent Marr gig, my Australian girlfriend was very moved by the sight of a roomful of gruff Englishmen leaping up and down as they sang along to this vision of a romantic death on a Northern back road.

TV On The Radio “Happy Idiot” from: Seeds
“I’m a happy idiot, to keep my mind off you.” This is a hymn to the beauty of dejection. Driving, uptempo and sad. The racing-car sounds are an echo of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver” for a more somber era. At least the future has happened—so far. I met TVOTR’s frontman Tunde Adebimpe on the set of Jonathan Demme’s indie hit Rachel Getting Married, in which Tunde sings a poignant a cappella version of “Unknown Legend” by Neil Young.

XTC “Senses Working Overtime” from: English Settlement
Knowing Andy Partridge a little bit as I do now—in a gradual English way—I’m inclined to take this literally. He’s a sensitive man who can get capsized by the intensity of his feelings; but he’s buoyant and strong—he floats back up the right way soon enough and continues to mine his creative seam. We’ve had some great sessions in his shed in Swindon, and hopefully one day we’ll actually finish something together. A pop maestro is Andy.

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MAGNET Feedback With David Bazan

I’ve spent most of my life consuming and making music, and yet I feel my musical understanding has only just begun to mature. I have a lot to look forward to. We all do. It was joyful and challenging to carefully listen to and write about these songs MAGNET curated for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Peace and love to us all. —David Bazan

Cat Power, “The Greatest” from: The Greatest
One fall night in 1998, after playing our first show ever in the Twin Cities with my band at the time, Pedro The Lion, we drove across the river to the 400 Bar in Minneapolis to catch Cat Power on her Moon Pix tour. Accompanied by a drummer and guitarist, her hair covering her face pretty much the whole set, Ms. Marshall captivated me (and everyone else in the room) with those great early tunes and her coy charm, but most of all with her unbelievable voice. Now, having been an active fan for 19 years, I sit and listen to 2006’s The Greatest, and I notice her voice is loaded with even more ache, more mournful knowing than before. I’ve heard this song many times but apparently without ever actually giving myself over to it the way one does listening in headphones, alone in one’s room, focused on nothing else but the river of sound and feeling. Turns out this river really breaks me up. I don’t literally understand what she’s singing about and, as usual, heavy thoughts flow through anyway. I hear a funeral march, I mourn the wasteful hubris of youth, I accept that lasting wisdom is hard because it flows from loss. “Secure the grounds for the later parade.”

Bob Dylan, “Saved” from: Saved
This song, whose lyrics imply the basic Christian doctrines of original sin and salvation through faith in Christ, really moves. Dylan is channeling some blessedly rowdy gospel music here, and holy mother, the rhythm section is on fire, pounding out their shifting accents with enough desperate conviction to make you almost believe him … almost. Look, I’m not saying I think old BD was insincere at the time; it’s just a natural pitfall of manically expressing that “just been born again” enthusiasm. Eventually, one has to come back down the mountain and live life, and something about real life makes it hard to take extra-fervent expressions like this seriously as much more than an artifact of a previous understanding. (Whoa, I really bring the baggage.) So, yeah, for me that’s the internal wrestling match I experience listening to “Saved.” Dylan is a transcendent performer and lyricist, this is a great song, and the rhythm section kicks so much ass. So I get to try to turn that other part of my brain off and just feel the righteous energy. And when I can’t do that, I don’t mind wrestling.

Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah” from: Various Positions
This is one of the great songs of all time. So good that there are two distinct versions of the song in circulation, the difference between them being only a change in the lyrics of the third and fourth verses. The lyrics in the “cover” version, first compiled and performed by John Cale (from extra verses sent to him by Cohen), though probably made popular to folks my age by Jeff Buckley, evoke in me the longing of a possibly doomed but deep romantic love to a degree nearly unrivaled in popular song. (“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”). By my calculation, this version is heard more often, in part because it’s the one performed by most who cover the song, and in that sense is the more popular of the two. But for me, the version found on the album Various Positions is the even rarer gem, the one that saves my life a little bit. It lays out the size and shape of a crisis of faith line by line, one disconnecting doubt at a time, in a way that might leave one in despair if not for the defiant implication that all reaching out is meaningful even if no one ends up being there to reciprocate.

Ben Gibbard & Aimee Mann, “Bigger Than Love” from: Former Lives
“Stranded in Asheville/Failing to fix a broken head/You’re in California/Doing the work of lesser men.” This song is so lonely. Male and female voices taking turns filling in the details of years of disconnection in their relationship, almost like long-distance couples therapy. Painful. The signature ache in Mann’s voice really adds depth to the melancholy. But the very catchy chorus, “It’s bigger than love/Brighter than all the stars combined/It’s dwarfing the sun/Burning within my heart and mind” supplies the listener with an unexplained source of light at regular intervals that alternates with the bad news in the verses: bittersweet but overall leaving me with a sense that this is a postmortem. But then the tail end of the bridge lifts and connects with the final chorus, and a modest gain is achieved: By the end of the song they’re singing together. I’m a sucker for love. It feels like a start to me.

Damien Jurado, “The Way You Look” from: I Break Chairs
This song brings back a flood of fond memories. Jurado and I started playing in a band together in 1991, both still in high school. After years of playing in the different forms of that band together, then solo and band projects apart, he asked me to produce the album that became I Break Chairs for him in 2002. “The Way You Look” is from that LP. This song (and album) represent a rowdy but sweet rock ’n’ roll side of Damien that he hasn’t often shown, which is more than OK because the musical vein he’s currently mining both with Richard Swift-produced LPs and live with a band or solo is special to me, too. It all is with Damien, so I’m glad we captured it a little. I’m a fan of the dude’s tunes. He consistently makes music that inspires me.

Radiohead, “Let Down” from: OK Computer
For some reason, I didn’t want to like OK Computer when it first came out. One day, within a month of its release, my roommate, sensing my resistance, recommended that I go up to his room and listen to “Exit Music (For A Film)” and “Let Down” one after the other, turned up loud, on his nice stereo amplifier and his Yamaha NS-10 speakers. I’d heard “Let Down” wafting around here and there and liked it, if a little reluctantly, but this would be the first focused listen all the way through. So I took his advice, and it stands as one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve ever had. I quickly fell in love with OK Computer. “Let Down” is still a top-five favorite song of all time for me.

The Long Winters, “Shapes” from: When I Pretend To Fall
I watched my friend and Long Winters songwriter/frontman John Roderick play this song solo electric one night in the summer of ’06 at an outdoor venue in an ancient town square in Zaragoza, Spain. I remember the hammer-on guitar playing vividly; so musical and inventive without being distracting. John’s warmth and wit come through so clearly here (as in all his work, really). There’s a playful, sparring almost-vulnerability in his lyrics and vocal delivery that never fails to pull me in. One of my favorite songwriters. Speaking of “pulling me in,” later that night I had the bizarre pleasure of being pulled behind a carful of my tour mates, hatchback open, me riding in Vic Chesnutt’s wheel chair, holding the back of the car Back To The Future style through the streets of Zaragoza, en route to the hotel.

Neutral Milk Hotel, “King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3” from: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Like with so many others of my favorite records, this one took a minute to sink in. “Jesus Christ, I love you” was hard for me to relate to initially for some reason. Maybe I couldn’t tell if he was mocking or sincere and couldn’t easily deal with the ambiguity. Still not totally sure. But at some point I found a way to open up to it all, regardless, and I’ve since had some pretty wonderful and heavy times listening to Aeroplane Over The Sea. There’s a sort of feral earnestness to all these songs, a desperate frankness that indicates just how enormous the stakes are. One of the heaviest records I can think of.

Joni Mitchell, “Blue” from: Blue
This is the first time I’ve listened to this song all the way through to my knowledge (now half a dozen times in the last couple days). There are many gaping holes in my musical education, and I’m realizing now that Joni Mitchell is a huge one. The first thing this song says to me is that anything is possible in folk songwriting, and that I’m uptight without even knowing it. The freedom and fluidity of the musical phrasing is stunning. I hear a formidable thinker and experiencer of the world communicating at peak level. I believe my Joni Mitchell immersion phase just began.

The Shins, “New Slang” from: Oh, Inverted World
Before she was in kindergarten, I took my daughter to see the Shins play at Showbox Market in Seattle. (She loved the song “New Slang” more than any other at the time and could often be heard chirping the falsetto vocal hook around the house.) Night of, we got bundled up, met a buddy for dinner before the show, had a little dessert, then finally found a spot near the back of the main floor to watch the band (kiddo up on my shoulders). They played “New Slang” within the first four songs, and she was ecstatic. She grabbed my chin with both hands and yanked my head up so that my eyes were looking straight up into hers: “They’re playing it!” Tears in her upside down eyes as she started singing along. Once the next song started, I felt a tap tap tap on the top of my head (our signal for when she was ready to go home). “I’m still hoping to hear ‘Caring Is Creepy,’” I pleaded. “OK,” she said, “Three more chances, then can we go?” I agreed to her very reasonable terms. “Caring Is Creepy” is the next song they played. She grabbed my chin again. Tears in my eyes this time.

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MAGNET Feedback With Wesley Stace

Promoting a record these days involves much filling up the internet and magazines with your own writing, unpaid. Sorry if that sounds cranky, but it’s true. It’s actually even worse when you’re a fiction writer—you write the novel, then you have to write it all down again in explanation for the internet and magazines. Even interviews nowadays often come in the form of an email Q&A, which you could just bash out, but you’re a writer, so you want it to make sense. And two hours later, you wish you’d just been on the phone for 20 minutes. Anyway, most of this extracurricular writing is a drag, but (as often, where MAGNET is involved) this one was fun. They gave me 20 song titles by 20 artists and asked me to write about 10 of them. It was a mix of people I’d worked with, people I’m friends with, people who’ve appeared on the Cabinet Of Wonders, people who I might be assumed to like and people whom I’ve written about enthusiastically elsewhere on the internet (perhaps even for MAGNET).  So I picked 10 or so. I tried not to write about people on whom I have given my enthusiastic opinion previously. I literally have no thoughts on Amy Winehouse (I don’t know her work!) and very few on Andrew Bird (he’s good!); whereas my thoughts on Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen are, for quite different reasons, perhaps not easily digestible into a few words. So I thank MAGNET for reminding me about these 10 or so songs, and I should think they’d make a pretty good playlist, to which I now supply sleeve notes. —Wesley Stace

Bob Dylan, “John Wesley Harding” from: John Wesley Harding
I know this is meant to be primarily about the song, but I remember first seeing this album not as a record or cassette or eight-track but as a songbook in B&T Keyboards in Hastings, where I bought my first guitar, a black EKO Ranger (which now belongs to a young friend who continues to play it; it retains the same Release Nelson Mandela and Help The Hospital Workers stickers from 1984). When I saw the songbook, I thought: Weird; my name; Bob Dylan; and something to do with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It turned out that the real-life version of the entirely fictional cowboy Dylan sings about was John Wesley Hardin, a brutal killer whose name never had the extra “g” Dylan provides. There are various theories as to why this is (among which that it was a typo), but my own is that Dylan had dropped so many “g’s” (Blowin’ and a-Changin’) that he thought he’d add one to even things out, and Hardin was the beneficiary. No one needs me to tell them about this song, but—despite being great—there’s a reason very few people have covered it. McKendree Spring did a version, and the Stones maybe did it once live: It’s a funny little song, as many of the songs on John Wesley Harding, with three foursquare verses not adding up to much except in the listener’s mind: very simple and no chorus, except it’s all a chorus, like “All Along The Watchtower,” which people cover all the time. My first album, It Happened One Night, has a picture of John Wesley Hardin on one side of the label and a picture of his killer, John Selman, Sr., on the other. The hole in the middle went right through Hardin’s head.

Bee Gees, “To Love Somebody” from: Bee Gees’ 1st
I love all Bee Gees, though this song might not even be in my top 20, perhaps because it’s so fantastic it’s transcended even being a Bee Gees song. But it’s not quite how I think of them. Barry Gibb has maybe the greatest catalog in popular music. (You should have seen the comments section in the Philadelphia Inquirer when I made that fairly uncontroversial suggestion in a review of Barry’s solo show.) That show by the way was amazing (and given that the next concert I saw in the same hall was Stevie Wonder doing Songs In The Key Of Life, it was a good year for shows). I remember a Bee Gees tribute in San Francisco a million years ago, and no one did anything after the first few albums, which were at that time the only Bee Gees one was possibly allowed to like, and hardly even that—all except Scott Miller (R.I.P.) who did something much later, maybe “Jive Talkin’,” and wore a shiny jacket to sing it. The thing with the Bee Gees is: Main Course is perfect; the bridge of “Nights On Broadway” is perfect; the groove on “Jive Talkin’” is perfect; “Edge Of The Universe” is perfect; “Fanny” is perfect. So however great all those other early records are, and however great all those amazing songs on Odessa and Idea are, you still have to deal with the fact that Main Course is perfect. I am such a sucker for it all—Trafalgar? Spirits Having Flown? Cucumber Castle? All so great. And finally maybe they’re now going to reissue them properly, not just the first few. (I hear Barry isn’t keen on outtakes. I really admire that. I was very excited to hear his recent solo album and … it’s OK!)

Kirsty MacColl, “Days” from: Kite
I have lovely memories of Kirsty. Somehow we were in each other’s orbit, and so we had her sing on more or less the very first band demos I ever did, with Tom Robinson at his studio in Hammersmith. And her voice is therefore dripping all over “Affairs Of The Heart,” which ended up on Here Comes The Groom, my first Sire album, which we didn’t record quite enough songs for and so I used some we’d recorded earlier (including “Bastard Son,” “Dark Dark Heart” and “Affairs Of The Heart).” (I also remember that an engineer at the recording session lost a whole slab of her vocals due to, and it’s possible I’m imagining this bit, being stoned. And so we just kept recording and she did them all again, but we didn’t tell her she wasn’t actually doubling, but replacing.) It wasn’t long after “Fairytale Of New York,” but she was already a legend for “They Don’t Know,” which remains one of the greatest ever songs, and “Chip Shop.” I remember going round to her house and she played me the recordings of vocals she’d just done in New York for David Byrne’s album Rei Momo, and I just felt unbelievably privileged and awestruck. And then she died so tragically. “They Don’t Know” is on my jukebox. And, of course, I didn’t even notice that the song I’m actually meant to be talking about here is a cover of “Days” by Sir Ray Davies. (He was always a Sir, wasn’t he? We didn’t really need it made official.)

Pete Seeger, “Little Boxes” from: Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits
Pete Seeger—whose music I very rarely listen to but which I genuinely love—is one of the greats of the 20th century, and it was thrilling that Bruce Springsteen threw some late glory and attention his way. At the induction of Woody Guthrie into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, we were upstairs, practicing, maybe rehearsing or even “jamming” with various Braggs and Robbinses and DiFrancos and all these people, and I played a little harmonica solo, sitting on an alcove by a window, on “Hobo’s Lullaby.” And later that night we were onstage at the gig playing the song. Seeger said, “Play a little harp for us, Wes,” which I’d had no idea about because I’d thought we were simply playing earlier rather than rehearsing, but somehow it had got in his head that I’d played the harmonica, and so he asked again on that big stage and luckily—and it was pure luck—I had the same harmonica in the same pocket and so I played a solo. And it was a very beautiful moment for me. I emceed one of his last ever appearances in NYC—the “Folk City” exhibition benefit at the New York Academy of Medicine—and I offered him a hand going up to the stairs to the stage (which I was on and which he was trying to get to), but he was so old, and so near death, that his entire concentration was on actually getting up the stairs to the stage. He didn’t even hear me or see me. It was pure determination. And he got to the stage, and we played “Goodnight, Irene.” I recently re-created, at a lower-school assembly at my kids’ school, some of the music from the March On Washington, when MLK told us about his dream—and so I played “We Shall Overcome” (which Joan Baez sang that day) and “If I Had A Hammer” (Peter, Paul & Mary sang that and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” while Dylan sang two new songs nobody really knew), etc. It’s almost impossible for me to sing these songs without tears, because of the young kids listening and the state the world is in, unimproved, as if nothing has been learned. And also because they’re such great songs. Even Trini Lopez singing “If I Had A Hammer” is too much if you really think about how that last verse comes together. “Little Boxes” is one of those songs, too.

Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache” from: Seven Year Ache
I adore this song, and I’m lucky to have sung it with Rosanne Cash a few times. I had a song called “Spaced Cowgirl” on my first U.S. album that was absolutely my attempt—wordy and botched but sincere—to write the same kind of thing. And I was once playing pool with a guy in a bar in Jersey, and he said, “That song of yours sounds kind of like it’s based on ‘Seven Year Ache,’” and I knew to fear that man very much because he was right and no one else had ever mentioned or thought of it. “Seven Year Ache” is such a clever lyric, and the melody is so seductive. And the combination of the synths (or whatever they are) and the more traditional country instruments, pedal steel and whatnot, is very happy. And it’s really a very wordy song, a cascade of them, but it never sounds wordy, which many of my songs do even if they’re basically instrumentals. Anyone who has read Rosanne’s memoir knows that the good writing doesn’t stop with lyrics: Her sentences are so clean.

GOAT, “I Sing In Silence” from: Requiem
GOAT might be my favorite contemporary band; certainly right up there. I liked the second album a bit less than the first one, purely because the production was less punchy, but the third album is terrific and a nice development, too: It’s a little more acoustic and vibey and Incredible String Band-y. They also put on an amazing show. This isn’t my favorite song on the new record by a long chalk, but the whole album runs so beautifully that you can’t really begrudge any particular song. Also, the colored vinyl is very nice.

The Mekons, “Ghosts Of American Astronauts” from: So Good It Hurts
I think maybe among the people I admire most in music are Jon Langford and Sally Timms (and their Mekons) and Scott McCaughey (and his Minus 5, etc.). It isn’t about the music so much, though of course it is about the music (you don’t continue to do it unless you write great songs like this one), but about the attitude to continuing to make the music: the ways of keeping everything fresh and approaching it from a new angle so it can keep working, and of inviting other people to be part of your thing, as you are then invited to become part of theirs. These people are both great hosts and great guests—you want to be around them—and it doesn’t matter to them which they are. They inspire people to do the same; they make people more generous with their time and energies. I write as one such person who has been inspired.

Graham Parker & The Rumour, “Watch The Moon Come Down” from: Stick To Me
GP is another I hugely admire—from having him on the Cabinet Of Wonders (“You Can’t Be Too Strong” is a strange song to duet, but we keep doing it, and another favorite is “Back In Time”) to seeing him play in San Francisco solo, or with the Rumour in Philly, or back in the day at the Town And Country Club in London. It’s the way he’s been able to remain focused for so long, just so constantly ready to keep being annoyed about things in his songs. It’s really admirable. I suppose it’s very foolish to diss a record company in a song, but he’s certainly the guy to do it. And I’ve had the pleasure to get to know him, and he’s exactly what you’d hope. I loved all the Rumour records; Live At Marble Arch is one of my favorite live albums; and then there was the brilliant Mona Lisa’s Sister, which was maybe a comeback, but every single one of those records—even the ones that kind of went by quite quickly—has some totally fantastic songs on it, with hooks and snarky lyrics. “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”; anger is an energy. And he’s got such a fantastic voice. This song’s from Stick To Me, which is a great album. Truth to tell, he’s my favorite of all the people of that age and British ilk. When I see him live, I always want to hear him do “I Want You Back”: It’s one of my favorite covers ever.

Parquet Courts, “Dust” from: Human Performance
Love all Parquet Courts. Brilliant lyrics. Hooky songs. Funny. The poster of the same chord over and over—the sheet music for “Sunbathing Animals” that came with the seven-inch single—is a beautiful thing. “Dust” may not be my most favorite PC song, but it’s really beautifully recorded, and it’s all about dust, so that’s interesting, and it does have a great hook. So who cares whether it’s the best one or not? I could listen to “Pretty Machines” from Content Nausea almost all day, particularly those fun horns. And “Master Of My Craft” from Light Up Gold. I haven’t seen them live yet. Not sure why. I’d like to.

Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs, ”I’ve Seen All Good People” from: Under The Covers, Vol. 2
I love all these Sweet/Hoffs covers, my favorite being the Marmalade song “I See The Rain,” which I have begged Ms. Hoffs to sing at a forthcoming Cabinet Of Wonders (which request seems to have been successful). I think Steve Howe even plays guitar on this. (The last time I saw Yes, he looked so like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons and played phenomenally well. I really like a solo album by him called Beginnings, on which another of my favorite bands, Gryphon, plays on a song called “Lost Symphony.”) Anyway, Yes. You don’t need me to persuade you how great Yes are/were. I don’t need to persuade Matthew Sweet—who wrote “Someone To Pull The Trigger,” a heartbreaking classic—or Susanna Hoffs. Last time I saw Yes, they had a reserve Jon singing (not Anderson but Davison) who did a very good job, making me wonder all about what really matters when you see bits of old bands reformed and with members missing, and rogue different versions of those bands, and when, even with original members (though these are ever-decreasing), it becomes a tribute band and if it even matters. I’m glad they’re getting into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame because they seemed really obsessed about it: That in itself isn’t very dignified, given what a pile of bullshit it is, but they did seem to be lobbying heavily for inclusion. I’m glad it paid off. I’d even consider seeing Anderson, Rabin And Wakeman, to see how it compares. I thank Dag Juhlin for getting me into Yes. He did that single-handed by sending me a cassette with Going For The One on one side and Steely Dan on the other. His tactic was 50-percent successful.

John Prine, “Sam Stone” from: John Prine
Steve Goodman and John Prine were the two songwriters I really aspired to be when I first picked up a guitar, which I first picked up really just to write songs. That, and I wanted to perform like Loudon Wainwright, who I used to get to see quite often in England. I loved the songs on which Prine and Goodman duetted (“Souvenirs” and so forth), and I could play, literally, every song on every one of their records. I used to busk a lot, and my repertoire was entirely those three artists. I hardly bothered playing Bob Dylan songs. Well, “Sam Stone” is on the first side of the first Prine album, so it’s classic, peak Prine (though the standard of his output has been high throughout his career), but I’m not even sure I fully understood half of it when I first heard it because it’s such Americana: “little pitchers have big ears”—I had no idea what that meant at all. But it’s a great song—the casual brutality of the images—and the simple beautiful melody. I love the Swamp Dogg cover of this song, too. I love all Swamp Dogg covers. “Lady Madonna” by Swamp Dogg! And how about Bobby Goldsboro’s “World Beyond,” by Swamp Dogg? Now I just want to talk about Swamp Dogg. In fact, I’d rather be writing about the music I like now than almost all of this stuff, if I’m honest, because I feel like I may have written all these things before about how much I love John Prine and Steve Goodman and Bob Dylan and so forth.

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MAGNET Feedback With Mark Eitzel

I saw this piece as an interview. MAGNET chose these songs for me, and someone at the magazine really knows what I like. I mean, there are many others—“Heart And Soul,” Joy Division; “I Cover The Waterfront,” Billie Holiday (live at the Storyville Club); “Never Be That Tough,” Simone White; Digital Gardens, Big Sir (the whole fucking record). And on into infinity. But I was very happy to talk about abstract songs that don’t need huge choruses to make time disappear. —Mark Eitzel

Bird Of Youth, “Bombs Away, She Is Hear To Stay” from: Defender
The undefeated Beth Wawerna writes an anthem for empowerment that has no chorus. It doesn’t lecture, there’s no argument—it states simply that she is not moved (though, of course, she is), that it will take an army to move her (and it will), and I would gladly go into battle to defend this song.

Buzzcocks, “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” from: Love Bites
Basically the soundtrack for the early “Mark”—and also to a slightly lesser extent for the later one. Its genius is simplicity and honesty and teenage bounce.

Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker” from: You Want It Darker
I guess what it comes down to is this: You balance on a beam, and some teeter and totter, and some beat gravity. LC could balance on a toe. I saw him once, and it changed my life. Later, I got thrown out of the festival. This song is made of smoke. It’s like something from that Christian station off the 5. But that’s all such fakery. This is the way a believer actually speaks.

Elvis Costello, “Lipstick Vogue” from: This Year’s Model
“I wouldn’t worry/I had so much fun/Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.” Come on. It’s just one of the best songs ever written. This lyric is one of those brilliant pieces of confetti the gods drizzle on our little meat parade. It’s bitter youth, injured pride and that great glittering knife where irony becomes anger. Listen to this song—you don’t have to listen to me. Elvis is such a genius.

Giant Sand, “1972” from: Chore Of Enchantment
I love this band. My favorite Howe Gelb story is how many years ago he tried to beat jet lag in the U.K. once by doing a hit of acid every day—and this song sounds just like that. Not sure what happened in 1972, but it was quick and not without a little pain.

Rickie Lee Jones, “Chuck E.’s In Love” from: Rickie Lee Jones
So this song was a big hit with my friends in 1979 —and really is a perfect expression of the liberated hipster—absolutely individual and rare. You can’t fake the joy in her voice. She was part of the zeitgeist and also right there on her block. It’s the kind of song the world triangulates around. Me? At the time, I was all self-important youth. It was all Magazine and Joy Division and the Raincoats and Iggy. I listen to this more honestly now than I ever could then. I love her, and I wonder if she is sick or happy to sing this song now. Probably happy.

Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds” from: single
I grew up with a healthy distrust of Elvis. Maybe I read the NME too much at the time. This is iconic because: 1) You can see him singing this coke bloat, sweaty and karate kicking way on the other side from sunlight; 2) You can hear it in the BVs and the way the producer lowers and raises the volume at the end just like the live show to really make them cheer; 3) He sings it like Job. This song could be his actual life. Who could he possibly trust? He made his brand, and now it’s king-sized, in a mirrored room, and he can yellow those sheets railing against a justice that will never answer him back.

R.E.M., “Nightswimming” from: Automatic For The People
The great thing about this song is that it is no metaphor. There really was a postcard on the dash. They really did vanish into the night in a van. There is a sad acceptance. I never thought it was actually about swimming—though I’m sure that did happen. We all make up stories about the song, and the best ones are evocative without imposing the story on the listener. No one cares what you know—they wanna know if you can take them somewhere. This is simple as love.

Judee Sill, “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” from: Judee Sill
A flawless person. I really think she wrote from such a pure place. If she were an artist, all her paintings would be skies with perfect rainbows with smiling souls rising through the clouds to a heavenly reward, yet somehow you know they are crying inside and the whole thing made with crayon. She’s the god above greatly amused. This was a live performance, though she plays so perfectly you can’t tell until 2:00 or so, people applaud at the end. Almost nothing beats her song “The Kiss” (see the version on The Old Grey Whistle Test), because she lets herself into those tonalities that are of the spirit. It ebbs and flows just like hope.

Patti Smith Group, “Pissing In A River” from: Radio Ethiopia
It’s been years. Dammit, I love her. This track is ambitious and American and simple. Makes me feel stupid to write about it. It sounds sculpted and also improvised. It’s a piece of art from artists. It’s generous. Sometimes in songs I can hear applause lines written in, and though I’ll applaud almost anything, it’s kinda bullshit. This thing takes you over and leaves you gasping for air by the end. “Should I grow the length of the river?” Wow.

Songs: Ohia, “Hold On Magnolia” from: The Magnolia Electric Co.
The version I have is from a show in Atlanta. You can tell there are 50 people in front entranced. The rest are talking. It’s an amazing recording, like hearing something from the broken heart of America. He sounds like an angel. A song of forgiveness and beauty. Still they talk and talk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this without actually knowing what’s going on. All I see is the light shining. Such a great songwriter. Check out the live concert on YouTube from Columbia, S.C. A perfect show.

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MAGNET Feedback With Alejandro Escovedo

Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent two-thirds of my life listening to music and the other one-third writing and playing songs. Sometimes even in my sleep. Since I was really young, records were huge for me. I would look at those 45s and wonder how they were made and what made them sound so magical. I still feel that way. No matter how many years I make music, I still feel like it’s the one constant in my world that makes the most sense. I hope I always feel that way. Listening to and writing about these songs was a rush of so many memories, and where I was when I first heard them and who I was with. It’s really how I store history in my head: what music was around then. It’s like we’re all part of one big family of songs, and sometimes certain ones make the most sense. Then things change, and other songs take over. I hope it will always be that way for me and everybody else who loves all these sounds. —Alejandro Escovedo

Chris Bell, “I Am The Cosmos” from: I Am The Cosmos
Big Star still comes through loud and clear from more than 40 years ago, and a big reason for that is Chris Bell. He had a cosmic touch he brought to rock ’n’ roll, and coupled with Alex Chilton’s more streetwise sense, they formed a complete whole. Because Bell didn’t get to stick around as long he became a bit of an unsung hero, but to everyone whoever really listened to Big Star, it was obvious that Bell was a big part of what made that band so unique and unequaled. On this solo song, he almost sounds like he knows his time on the planet is limited and he’s getting ready to depart. Right into the cosmos.

John Cale, “Paris 1919” from: Paris 1919
There’s only one John Cale, and there won’t be any more. Here’s someone who had heavy classical training, came to America to work with a symphony under a Leonard Bernstein fellowship and ended up changing rock ’n’ roll forever in the Velvet Underground. He, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker didn’t last long as a band, only two albums with Cale in it, but nothing was the same after them. It was Cale who brought in so much of the musical experimentation into songs like “Heroin” and “Sister Ray.” And then he was gone. By the time he made Paris 1919, he was ready to add a lot of his classical influences and bump them right up to rock ’n’ roll. This song still feels like it’s part of a bigger picture, almost like a movie, and Cale is pushing away at all the boundaries to get as many influences in as he can without it being cluttered. John and I worked together, and it changed my life. He showed me there is nothing to ever be afraid of in music. It’s always a friend.

13th Floor Elevators,“I’ve Got Levitation” from: Easter Everywhere
There was never a band like the 13th Floor Elevators. Their main lyricist, Tommy Hall, also just happened to play electric jug. He was on a one-man quest to elevate the world through the use of LSD and thought he could do that by starting a rock band in 1965 in Austin. He enlisted 17-year-old Roky Erickson to sing his lyrics, and put him with a band called the Lingsmen. “I’ve Got Levitation” is a call-to-arms for the Elevators’ quest. The manic bubbling of Hall’s jug, which was played with a microphone held up to the top of it while Hall blew away feverishly, still perplexes listeners. “What is that sound?” It was the sound of the music of the spheres, and it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever do it quite like this again. The band had a small hit with first single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” in ’66, but after that it was police harassment and mental hijinks that finally did them in. Some went to jail, some went insane. Either way, the 13th Floor Elevators were over before they really got started. To hear them now is to be amazed at how passionate and powerful they were. They really believed their music could change the world, and for those who heard it and agreed, it clearly did.

Calexico, “Falling From The Sky” from: Edge Of The Sun
Whenever I drive from Texas to California and I go through New Mexico and Arizona, I think of Calexico and then try to listen to one of their albums as quick as I can. They capture the wide-open mystery of so much of that land and remind me what an endless melting pot music can be. The way their voices blend with the horns and guitars is something all their own. Sometimes it makes me want to go find them and sit in and feel what a luxury it is to play with musicians like that. One of my dreams is to someday make a whole album with them in some out-of-the-way town; maybe even record it outdoors so the landscape seeps into the songs. “Falling From The Sky” feels like a song that arrived completely written when it came down from the clouds. Calexico is definitely one of America’s treasures.

The Dandy Warhols, “We Used To Be Friends” from: Welcome To The Monkey House
Portland is such a great music city and has been for a long, long time. One of the bands I always think about when it comes to Portland is the Dandy Warhols. They have that proud Portland edge of playing rock with plenty of bite to it. Starting with their name, which immediately flashes feelings of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, the band has an uncompromising vibe that the Velvets helped invent 50 years ago. When we were recording last April in Portland, I thought about the Dandy Warhols and what the scene there must have been like when they started. I’m a big fan of finding about how different cities can cause different styles, like when I came to Austin in ’81 and we started Rank & File. I always feel like Portland gave that impetus to the Dandy Warhols: the rain, the coffee, the trees, the river. Everything around the city blends together to give groups their soul.

Sheila E., “Girl Meets Boy” from: single
You can absolutely tell from the first notes in this song dedicated to Prince how heartbroken Sheila was about his passing. I know how close they were and how strong their musical connection was going back all those years. There’s no way this music could’ve been anything different than what it is: a woman pouring out her feelings about someone she loved. As someone in my family, I share Sheila’s pain when she’s singing and also feel all that she’s remembering about her years with Prince. The Escovedos all have a similar spirit in our sensitivity, which no doubt dates back to my parents Cleo and Pedro Escovedo and the way they raised us, which Sheila got directly from her father and my brother Pete. It doesn’t get any deeper than family.

Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” from: Heartbreaker
What’s so great about Ryan Adams is how he can mix up wildness and sophistication. Bob Dylan was the king of that in the mid-’60s when he first went electric. That kind of music jumps up the excitement level because it delivers everything. It’s also so hopeful and beautiful. What really comes through is how the singer is out there on a limb and isn’t joking. He’s been sad and he’s been high, and you can immediately hear that in the words, in the voice, in the music, in everything. Pure inspiration.

Neko Case, “People Got A Lotta Nerve” from: Middle Cyclone
Some singers are inspirational from the first note. They convey such a deep compassion that it’s like they’re opening an upbeat way of looking at things. Neko Case has always had that in her voice and songs. She sings about a lot of different things, but somehow always comes through as offering more than what was there before the songs started. Plus, she has Kelly Hogan in her band, which gives her extra points immediately. Kelly came to Portland to sing on my new album and took it all to a whole new level. So hooray for both of them, and for this right-on song that says so much about the modern world.

Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball” from: Wrecking Ball
There’s one thing that’s a given: Bruce Springsteen will always surprise you. It’s mind-blowing about the depth and breadth of the music he’s created and how it never stops. He might go quiet for a minute or two, but you know he’s coming around the corner that’s going to knock you out. “Wrecking Ball” did that to me. It’s like a folk song that has a steam engine attached to it, pushing it forward in a way that turns it into a modern fable. I remember when he first got going and reading the line Jon Landau wrote about seeing the future of rock ’n’ roll and its name was Bruce Springsteen. I never would’ve guessed back then Landau would one day be my manager or that I’d end up onstage singing with Springsteen. But that to me has always been the beauty of rock ’n’ roll: There’s no way to predict what’s possible. “Wrecking Ball” is one of those songs that makes everything seem possible. Whenever I need a shot of energy to get me past a roadblock or brainlock or some other kind of lock, this one always comes to the rescue with flying colors. I hope he sings forever.

David Bowie, “Lazarus” from: Blackstar
David Bowie is probably the most influential musician I’ve had. Something about his approach to what he did got so deep inside me, it’s like he’s always been there. Every time he’d shift styles, I was right there with him. If I had to pick one artist I could listen to for the rest of my life, it would probably be Bowie. When he died, it felt like the world had lost a big part of itself—especially when I heard this song. It seemed like his death was part of his art, which you’d almost expect it to be. Now I go back and listen to all his albums, and each one has a world of memories for me: what I was doing when they came out and what was happening in the world then. It’s like I see history through David Bowie’s songs. I love his voice, I love his writing, I love everything about him. Sometimes I’ll play one of his songs in my sets, and the choice will change depending on how I’m feeling. He really was the ultimate chameleon in rock ’n’ roll, but it was never an act. It felt like that’s who Bowie was at the moment. Whether it’s one of his last songs like “Lazarus” or one of his first, it’s one long line of sheer greatness. I think that will never change for me.

Roky Erickson, “Starry Eyes” from: Don’t Slander Me
When Roky Erickson got out of the Rusk State Hospital for the mentally insane, he was lost. His years in the 13th Floor Elevators had been exhaustive, much of which was due to the massive amounts of LSD the band took. He’d been arrested for marijuana in 1968 and pled insanity to escape prison. Rusk was probably worse. When he finally was free and back in Austin, Doug Sahm set up a recording session with Roky and his band Bleib Alien. They recorded two songs for Sahm’s indie Mars Records, and “Starry Eyes” is one of them. It’s such a pure blast of Texas rock that it’s impossible to see why it didn’t become a big hit. It sounds like something Buddy Holly might have done if he’d lived long enough, and Doug’s chiming guitar and Bill Miller’s electric autoharp create their own Wall of (Austin) Sound. The single got a little airplay here and there but disappeared pretty fast. The vocals are so pleading and pure that to this day, it might be one of the very best things Roky ever recorded. The other side of the single was “Red Temple Prayer,” with the unforgettable chorus “Two-headed dog, two-headed dog/I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog.” Roky was to go on to a whole new career, some of which worked and some didn’t. He’s one of the greatest rockers ever out of Texas and still playing. He even has his own flavor named after him at Amy’s Ice Creams: Roky Road. They should rename a street there Roky Erickson Avenue and turn his birthday, July 15, into a city celebration every year.

Steve Earle, “Transcendental Blues” from: Transcendental Blues
What I’ve always loved so much about this song is that while it could only be by Steve Earle, it’s like he took a time machine back to the ’60s and dropped by a Byrds session in Los Angeles and asked them for help. The backward-sounding guitar solos, the echoed beats and the way he sings might have been inspired by their “My Back Pages” track, but then again Steve is such an unpredictable artist, there’s no way to tell what inspires him. It might be something he cooks up completely in his own head. Either way, there’s a relentless power to this song; at the same time, there’s such an undercurrent of sweetness that runs all the way through it. Maybe even a little Allen Ginsberg. I was born in San Antonio, and Steve is from around there, too, so who knows: We might have bumped into each other as children downtown by the Alamo. And even if we didn’t, it’s still cool to dream about such a meeting of two really little guys looking at each other across the plaza and trading transmissions about sometime ending up in the same racket. But back to “Transcendental Blues.” It’s one of the best songs of the past 25 years and always sends a chill up my spine.

Skip Spence “Cripple Creek” from: Oar
When Moby Grape’s first album came out in 1967, it was one of the best things I heard that year, which included Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and so many other timeless releases. There was something so appealing in all those songs. Two really stuck out: “Indifference” and “Omaha.” When I noticed that each was written by Skip Spence, I knew something amazing was happening. Then I read about how Spence’s mental problems caused him to leave the band and end up in Bellevue’s psych ward in New York. When an Alexander Spence solo record titled Oar arrived in 1969, I couldn’t believe how unique it was. He played all the instruments himself, recorded it in Nashville in three days and then disappeared. All those songs were like listening to someone losing himself but struggling to hang on. I’d for sure never heard anything like it. “Cripple Creek” could have been on the Band’s second album, but only if Richard Manuel had dropped all his defenses and come out the other side. Skip Spence was someone who’d been imbued by brilliance and visions but was battling what came with it. I’ve still never heard an album like Oar. Fifteen years ago, there was a tribute album to Oar called More Oar, and I got to record the song called “Diana.” It was cathartic trying to get inside Spence’s mind to try to find the heart of that song. I gave it my best, like the other 16 people on More Oar, including Robert Plant, Beck and Tom Waits. I heard that Skip got to hear the new versions when a nurse played him the tape of the whole album in his hospital room in Santa Cruz, and when it ended, he passed away. I still get chills thinking about that, and how he had lived on the streets and in group homes all those years after he recorded Oar in 1969 and rode his motorcycle back to California from Nashville. And that was pretty much it for Skip Spence: a rock ’n’ roll hero.

Uncle Tupelo, “Gun” from: Still Feel Gone
Having been in a band with a brother, I know what it’s like. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo always felt like they were brothers. They had a submerged warfare going on that supplied so much tension that it was impossible not to think they weren’t related. You had to be related to be so dramatic together. This song could have been Jeff’s call to freedom in the band and maybe an early sign he would head off on his own. It’s definitely a rocker that shows his love of rock ’n’ roll, even when he says he sold his guitar to the girl next door. There’s also such a strong undercurrent of something sinister getting ready to happen, maybe it’s him knowing fireworks are coming for the band. When Uncle Tupelo split in half to make Son Volt and Wilco, it’s like fans got a bargain: two great new bands. “Gun” shows what Tweedy had in him and also showed he was only getting started when he did it.

The Velvet Underground, “What Goes On” from: The Velvet Underground
When I bought the third Velvet Underground album, I wasn’t sure what was going on except that it took my breath away. It was a lot quieter and was missing all the wilder instrumental sounds that John Cale brought to the band with his electrified viola. It seemed like the band had turned a corner into almost a folkier era. Of course, I was wrong. They were still the pioneers they’d always been; you just had to listen with open ears. “What Goes On” stood out immediately as one of the highlights. It had a relentless beat from Maureen Tucker’s jungle drums and a hypnotic rhythm guitar pattern, sometimes slashing and never slowing down. There was also this persistent organ playing chords in the background that got completely under my skin. Then there was Lou Reed’s voice. He sounded sweet and angry at the same time, which was one of his specialties. The lyrics were Reed at his best, like a missive from Manhattan that had to be reckoned with. When he broke into what he once called his “ostrich guitar” lead, it felt like a million bees had been let out of their hive and trying to sting you all at once. It was the Velvets at their best. More than 10 years later, I was working at the big Harry Ransom library at the University of Texas in Austin, and on the first day, a grad student came in and brought back all these dozens of books he checked out over the past 10 years. Turns out it was Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, who’d been working on his doctorate there. We got to be friends later, and he loved coming to our shows and talking. And he could really talk. I wrote a song for Sterling called “Tugboat” after he died in ’95 because he’d ended up working on tugs in the Houston Ship Channel after he got his Ph.D. I never could figure how that happened, but that was so Sterling: enigmatic to the end.

Lucinda Williams, “Are You Alright?” from: West
A great Lucinda Williams song can smash your heart into a million little pieces almost without trying. And this is a great one. She tiptoes right up to the mystery of love and makes it seem like something you can understand, and before the song is over you realize you’ll never realize what it all means, and it’s going to be one of those things where you just have to live with the mystery. And Lucinda does that with such a beautiful voice that sounds like she knows so much more than anybody else. There are times when Lucinda writes like she’s made some kind of deal with a being from the beyond that lets her know everything while we know nothing. She was around Austin when I first got there in ’81, but it was obvious she wouldn’t be there forever. “Are You Alright?” is so direct and disarming, it’s like there are all these laser beams being zapped toward you and there’s no escape. She’s reaching out and asking the one question we all want to hear from someone we love: “Are you alright?” That says it all.

Sir Douglas Quintet, “Mendocino” from: Mendocino
No matter how much time you spend in Texas, whether you’re born there or you end up living in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, El Paso, wherever, Doug Sahm’s music is going to get into your bloodstream. It’s like he’s in the air there, and it’s just a matter of time before songs like “Mendocino,” “She’s About A Mover,” “Groover’s Paradise” or even “You Never Get Too Big And You Sure Don’t Get Too Heavy That You Don’t Have To Stop And Pay Some Dues Sometime” (that’s a real song title) will start bouncing around in your head and your heart. Doug Sahm is Texas music. That should designate him State Musician and put his picture up in the capitol. This song was his comeback from two years of tripping in the Haight-Ashbury with Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and all the others, and brought him back to the top 10. It’s got that far-out vibration that Doug loved so much but also was tight and compact and delivered the pop goods. It was also his last hit single, but that didn’t matter to Doug. He was always in it for the groove and had about as much fun as any human that ever lived. Whenever I want to reconnect with my true roots, I listen to Doug, in the Quintet, the solo albums and right on through the Texas Tornados. He was a guiding light forever and still is. Sometimes I think it’d be fun to get with the Quintet’s Vox organist Augie Meyers to make a whole album in one day. Just doing Doug songs we both love. I did “Too Little Too Late” for a tribute album a few years ago and was so happy to take one of Doug’s later and lesser-known songs and really do a trip on it. Doug would’ve been happy about it for a few seconds, would’ve told me he liked it, but quickly added his original was better. That was Doug, and that’s why we loved him. I miss him every day.

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MAGNET Feedback With Martha Wainwright


I must admit to having written about songs of artists that I’ve had some contact with. It’s been a great privilege in my life to have worked with many of the songwriters on this list. When I hear and see other people doing what I do, it helps to form who I am as an artist. I guess I’ve been shaped by the music and artists who I’ve listened to over the years. Many I envy for their talent, and some I try to emulate in my own way. I can only hope that they feel the same way about me. —Martha Wainwright

Antony And The Johnsons, “Hope There’s Someone” from: I Am A Bird Now
I remember seeing Antony, now ANOHNI, play a lot in the early 2000s and getting a sense of how special she was, but it wasn’t until I Am A Bird Now and this song that Antony became a more realized artist. The right combination of sheer incredible talent, being truly and wonderfully different and an incredible album launched this artist into fame. She pushed out the walls of what is considered acceptable and normal and made the world a better place—a world where a song like this and a voice like this can cradle us in its beauty.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “God Is In The House” from: No More Shall We Part
A beautiful modern-day gospel triumph. I must also say it’s amazing having a mom and aunt who are Bad Seeds. Kate and Anna were the back singers for this album, and I don’t think they even realized how hip they were for being in the Bad Seeds. Of course, they came back from the studio refreshed and looking younger, having fallen in love with Nick and all the guys in the band.

Leonard Cohen, “Tower Of Song” from: I’m Your Man
I’ve been covering this song since I was 16 years old. Not only is it lyrically brilliant, but it speaks to me as a child of musicians. I feel I’m in the tower of song and that the legends around me are like neighbors in life. Such a great concept and image of Hank Williams in the tower and the power of song.

Billie Joe & Norah, “That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine” from: Foreverly
This one is tough because Songs Our Daddy Taught Us by the Everly Brothers was in constant rotation in our house. The record was my mom’s copy, and it has wafted in and out of my life as long as I can remember: Songs My Mommy Taught Me. Everything that Norah does is natural, effortless and genuine. Her voice fits this music very well. I can’t say I don’t prefer the original, but kudos for doing it.

Beth Orton, “Central Reservation” from: Central Reservation
This is a fun sort of “feel good” song from Beth’s seminal record, but it doesn’t lack substance. Nothing that Beth does lacks substance. She is an artist with great turmoil and feeling in her lyrics, and her charm, intelligence and beauty come out in her work.

Prince, “Kiss” from: Under The Cherry Moon
Well, what can you say about a triple threat? The man is beyond reproach, and the song is perfect pop.

Steely Dan, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” from: Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan is one of my favorite bands in the world, which irks some of my friends because they just don’t get the appeal. This is probably one of their most famous songs and is a classic example of quirky, fun lyrics and fantastic musicianship. This song puts me in a mood of unabashed freedom. It makes me want to dance badly and make out with strangers.

Sufjan Stevens, “Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!” from: Illinois
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t both jealous of and a little in love with Sufjan Stevens (despite never saying his name exactly correctly). He came to my birthday party recently and made me a pair of pants. Very cool pants. I wear them with great pride. I love his creativity, and this song is a good example of it.

Richard And Linda Thompson, “Shoot Out The Lights” from: Shoot Out The Lights
This is brilliant! It’s music as communication and language.

tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain” from: Nikki Nack
Super fun yet disturbing, too. Merrill is a brilliant artist with a sound like no one else. I remember the first time I saw her on Jools Holland, and I needed to stand up and stand right in front of the screen and watch closer. This is a great song and an example of her wit and ability to make a statement in a powerful way. I’m glad to report that she wrote a song for my new record, Goodnight City, and she plays on it, too, so I sound a little like her, which is exciting!

Rufus Wainwright, “Going To A Town” from: Release The Stars
What a powerful song—an anthem really. Of Rufus’ songs, this one is one of the most direct. It gets to the point and strikes the perfect chord. Rufus has a poetic-yet-unpretentious way of telling it like it is on this song. It makes you want to do better.

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MAGNET Feedback With Madeleine Peyroux


Nowadays, there seems to be more music available and fewer curated places to look for what’s out there. I admit I’m not one who tries to keep up with the times, perhaps because I’ve lived in places where the radio didn’t help me through the rough stuff, perhaps because I got so caught up in the older records around the house. That said, on the rare occasion that I’m purposefully looking out for what’s new, I can’t do better than to ask a person. For me, it’s still the best and most influential way to find good music: to get it from someone else’s playlist, from the selection of a fellow human’s hand. So I’m honored, though somewhat perturbed, by having this responsibility in my lap this time. Hopefully, I can try to give back some of what I got over the years. —Madeleine Peyroux

Willie Nelson, “Crazy” from: …And Then I Wrote
How does Willie Nelson sing? Is he possessed by some sixth sense, something or someone that speaks with melody in every breath? I could listen to just Willie’s voice forever, I think. Ironically, it doesn’t matter what song it is. His own compositions are wonderful, such as this classic doozy that brought Patsy Cline into mainstream limelight, the lyrics of which make as much a winning case for minimalism as his vocal style. He might also be a good example of how a singer writes with their own voice in mind, though I doubt he’d admit to it. When I listen to him I feel a rare sort of calm, self-awareness and a simultaneous drenching in melody. That would be the kind of monk I’d like to be when I grow up: one who is silenced by the simple power of Willie’s voice.

Chet Baker, “Do It The Hard Way” from: It Could Happen To You
Another “artiste” who might be lost in some historical lexicon. Chet Baker’s sound is deceptively simple, but every note and every phrase is concisely put together. It is sensual and “cool,” yes, but that is only a small part of the story. Like all masters, his sound lingers on the melody, and his phrasing gives us a character with a background. I think we know who this person is when he is singing, unlike his public persona, which was under the radar and eventually tragic. Another wonderful, swooning, lesser-known track of his is “While My Lady Sleeps.” He’s that calming sound that comes off the waves at dusk, when the day’s work is done and all’s right with the world. A good friend to have, indeed.

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows” from: I’m Your Man
Well, there are just too many great Leonard Cohen songs to mention. And for the record, pun intended, I think his own versions are stunning, and often better than others’ covers, including my own cover of his song “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” Perhaps some of Cohen’s songs are just too powerful to be pegged by any artist, like “Hallelujah,” which has been so often and so well-covered, perhaps best by the late, great Jeff Buckley. But I chose “Everybody Knows” because I’m not sure anyone else could ever really do it justice. Perhaps one of the old bass singers like Hoppy Jones of the Ink Spots or soul man Isaac Hayes could really strut around those lyrics. But Leonard does it righteously, and the song carries our Western political story across in my favorite way. It’s not outraged at the reality of corruption in the world, as if that were news, and it’s not preachy. It’s pensive, wise and willing to face the news. Literally.

Bob Dylan, “Lay, Lady, Lay” from: Nashville Skyline
Probably like many of us, I’ve lived through different periods of my life alongside different periods of Bob Dylan. Willing to change and grow, perhaps like Picasso, he might be one of the few songwriters and performers who has defined so much for so long and so many. I’m from a later generation, so I discovered his different periods totally anachronistically, but all the more fun because I was discovering something by myself, whether it had already taken the world by storm. This song is one of the very first. My first gift of Dylan on LP was the Biograph set, and this was the first song out of the box. I was 13 years old and had just moved to a foreign country, a suburb of Paris. Men ogled me and other girls my age more openly than they had at home in the states (or so it seemed). And I had seen some horrible mistreatment of my mother by men by that time. So I wasn’t interested in a seductive male voice telling a woman what to do. I was against anything like it. Yet, here is this song and this singer, carrying a masculine message to a woman in his voice without the meanness, the arrogance, the violence that seemed to pervade the male culture around me. It might seem odd to hear me say it, but it was kind of like hope. Now, decades have passed. I’ve been through my first love with many other Dylan records, the bootleg tapes, his 21st century songs and a few incarnations of trying to cover them myself. I just want to say that that message of hope, albeit with a lot of work on my end of the deal, did not disappoint.

Serge Gainsbourg And Brigitte Bardot, “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” from: single
So there are two versions of this song with Serge Gainsbourg. The first, with Brigitte Bardot, was not released for 20 years after it was recorded in 1967. The second was released in 1968 with Jane Birkin, Serge’s longtime partner, and caused a lot of scandal, and it is the most well-known. It’s an essential song on the list for feminists. How do we defy the sexualization of women all around us and still free ourselves from the bondage of puritanism? How do we begin to talk about sex without losing sight of romance and love? And how do we assert our romantic freedom? Well, when you listen to this, you think—I guess we’re working on it! And I want to be clear on a distinction: Talking about something is a part of dealing with it. So when Bessie Smith says, “He knocked me with a rocking chair … that’s just a little love lick dear, ” or Billie Holiday says, “He beats me too, what can I do,” or Jane Birkin utters “oohs” and “aahs” in the octave range of an altar boy as Gainsbourg makes love to her on tape, we are seeing something important take place. We are getting a glimpse at what’s usually behind closed doors, and we’re talking about it in public. Aren’t we getting exactly what we need from these artists? The truth? As a side note, the version with Bardot has something more thoughtful in the arrangement with its heavenly church-organ sound, which sends an even stronger message about the whole concept of love being divine and sacred.

Bessie Smith, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from: Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Oh, my honey! Oh, my honey! Yeah, this had to have been exciting way back in 1920-something when she covered this Irving Berlin tune. She’s called the Empress. Why? I really don’t think it’s just about the blues at all. It’s about something human, something complete in its essence from her. If you can’t hear the magic through the cloudy recording quality, try to picture her presence in the appropriate setting a little bit. Can you imagine a performer today who walks a member of the audience up onto the stage by staring into their eyes? She did that. Do you know of a performer who owns (not rents) a private plane? She owned a train. She was as technically versatile as Whitney Houston (one of the best singers of all time), as soulful as Aretha Franklin (need I qualify?), as dramatically powerful as Billie Holiday and as musical as Louie Armstrong. It’s a shame when we relegate her work to the old catalog of race records in a country where we are starving for American culture on a daily basis.

Joe Cocker, “Delta Lady” from: Mad Dogs & Englishmen
To me, it’s a symphony. Probably much of that is Leon Russell’s brilliance. I just don’t think we hear a band with vocalists, groove and rock energy like this anywhere. This record is so feel-good, I often wondered how it was done. So when I learned it was a last-minute thing, I found it very interesting. You can’t think about what you’re doing too much before you go introspective. Not to say that you can’t be introspective and think about what you’re going to do in preparation. But once you’re doing it, I think you have to be completely freed of purpose and just enjoy yourself. And that’s what I feel when I listen to this, so I’m guessing that’s what these amazing musicians were doing, and doing it all together at once!

J.J. Cale, “After Midnight” from: Naturally
So who is J.J. Cale really? I mean, is anyone really this cool? I believe so. I think he can be that cool because he’s doing everything for the right reasons. It feels like the intention is everything in this music. Even the intentions he masterfully keeps mysterious. When he sings this song, is he singlehandedly seducing every single woman in the world on purpose, or was it just a careless whisper to his own true love? Either way, I couldn’t imagine wanting to play guitar the way I want to now without hearing J.J. Cale—he’s defined so much in so little time and with what seems like so little effort. And I just like to hear that again and again!

Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” from: Lady Sings The Blues
I was invited to sing as a guest in a large group of American jazz musicians for a Billie Holiday tribute concert a few years ago in Brazil, as part of a festival that takes place in a mining town deep in the mountains, Ouro Preto, which means “black gold,” a former center for the Brazilian gold rush and, consequently, African slave labor. Naturally, several of Billie’s most well-known tunes were suggested and arranged before rehearsal, including “Strange Fruit,” an important part of Billie’s work. When the charts were passed out, one of the musicians cracked a joke about the title, which caused a few of us to gasp and stare, to which was the reply, “Sorry, I don’t know what this song is.” Out of the following pause, another person exclaimed, “Let’s not do this song.” So a fluent and accomplished jazz musician of my generation was ignorant of a milestone like this one. Up to a point, I wouldn’t blame someone for being ignorant. but I assume that that person is wiser now. We didn’t do it at that festival, and I haven’t heard it covered much. When Billie performed this tune on live television in 1957, she was being harangued by the FBI’s soldiers in the war on drugs, and she would soon be arrested while in hospital just before her untimely death in 1959, 20 years after she first recorded the song, which some believe started the FBI’s agenda against her. That TV performance must be the greatest performance of the song available to us now. Billie Holiday has been called a tragic figure for so long. But look at what she accomplished for the rest of us to savor—racial integration on the bandstand, open discussion of lynching and domestic violence, and iconic musical creativity that influences generations. It’s beyond triumphant and anything but tragic.

Joni Mitchell, “The Fiddle And The Drum” from: Clouds
Joni is another giant songwriter whose repertoire has defined decades of many of our lives in the states. And I don’t say that to distract from her prowess as a vocalist. She flutters over one hurdle to another like a hummingbird, through several registers, always in view of that sweet nectar, phrasing. I chose this song because it is relatively less known these days, (I just discovered it myself) but stands the test of the classics. For all she has given us over the years, from the sound of her voice, to the immense landscape of her ideas, to the strange and perfect guitar voicings underneath it all, there is no one place to focus ourselves on her. But this song, in part due to its being a cappella, but also because it is the most humble of stories, has the most naked approach that I’ve heard thus far.

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MAGNET Feedback With The Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey


The folks at MAGNET saw fit to give me a crack at Feedback, and I’m honored. They must know me well, because the list of 20 songs they sent me were mostly slam dunks for me to relate to and enthuse over. It would’ve been almost scarily prescient if they’d thrown me songs by Nice As Fuck, La Luz, Courtney Barnett, case/lang/veirs or Summer Cannibals, artists who’ve been inspiring the hell out of me recently. It’s like they slipped into my house and saw the LPs stacked up by the turntable—though the selections here did seem to prove a decent knowledge of my record collection, so I’m pretty cool with that. —Scott McCaughey

The Beach Boys, “Heroes And Villains” from: Smiley Smile
This song has always been huge for me. As a kid, I bought the 45 when it came out, with its silly cartoon pic sleeve (and puzzling b-side “You’re Welcome”—1:17 long, two words?). I just thought, here’s a way-cool pop song—I didn’t know anything about Smile or the many permutations Brian Wilson put the song through. And then in March 1973, I saw the Beach Boys live for the first time. The wide-reaching Surf’s Up and Holland had sparked a resurgence in my interest in the group, which now bordered on fanaticism. Future Young Fresh Fellow Chuck Carroll and his brother and I drove four hours to see the band in the men’s gym at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Seated in folding chairs in the front row, we were excited but not quite prepared for the majesty of the Beach Boys’ experience of that era. They opened with “Heroes And Villains,” and it opened up a whole new world for me. I felt engulfed and lifted by the most gloriously beautiful sounds I’d ever witnessed, and newly aware of how intense and fully realized a live performance could be. (This is all without Brian’s onstage participation, by the way, which, of course, had been the norm for many years.) They concentrated on material from Pet Sounds forward and only touched upon their surfin’ hotrod hits in the encores. (Yeah, I was thrilled to hear those, too.) Afterward, we strolled surreptitiously into the backstage locker room (what security?) and chatted with Carl, Dennis, Al and the Wilsons’ mother, Audrey. I told Carl I loved all the old songs, but that newer songs like “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road” were more specifically blowing my 18-year-old mind. He said, “That means a lot.” I’ll never forget that moment. Through all the innovation and brilliance, the mysteries, miseries and triumphs, the Beach Boys have never stopped inspiring me.

The Smithereens, “Hand Of Glory” from: Especially For You
What a strange song. Written by my dear friend Jimmy Silva (1952-1994), it was covered by our pals the Smithereens on their breakout first LP. Drummer Dennis Diken had played on Silva’s original version, and the Smithereens stayed fairly true to it, it being an already perfectly formed slab of driving psychedelic folk/rock. On its surface, that is. Snatches of images, swathed in hypnotic reverbed harmonies, reveal a dark undercurrent beneath the 12-string slither: “Tallow drips upon a withered hand, beneath the shadow of a gallows pole/I took the branch of a tree, let it lie in a pickling jar/Hand of glory.” I recall that the lyrics were inspired by Jimmy’s delving into mythic 1890s tome The Golden Bough, but really, what better formula is there than a disturbing lyric delivered via shimmering pop song? It’s always been there for me. On the lighter side, when Silva got that first sizable publishing check in the mail, he bought himself a brand-new Ford pickup, referred to fondly from that day forward as his “Royalty Truck.” By the way, I first jammed in Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak’s basement with him, Dennis, and Mike Mesaros, pre-Pat DiNizio, in 1978. Thus, a case could be made for me being the original singer in the Smithereens, which would have resulted in very different, and less successful, lives for all of us. Thankfully they found Pat—I could never have written songs that exceptionally inescapable. In February, I played an emotional memorial show at Thee Parkside in San Francisco, in which Messrs. Mesaros and Diken were reunited, and proper due was paid to our dear musical friend Eric Scott (Flywheels) as well as long-gone Mr. Silva himself. They will abide.

The Dream Syndicate, “Tell Me When It’s Over” from: The Days Of Wine And Roses
The year: 1983. The place: Paramount Theater, Seattle. I went to see U2 (they were triumphant), but I was even more excited to see the opening band. I’d fallen for Days Of Wine And Roses like just about every other record store clerk across the land, and seeing the Dream Syndicate’s noisy mayhem firsthand was electrifying. I remember Karl Precoda’s guitar strings broken and wrapped around the neck of his Strat squealing through the last song. I’ve been lucky enough to play this song with Steve Wynn many times over the last decade, either in the guise of the Baseball Project or the Miracle 3. There’s something about its loping, droney groove that gets me (and the audience) every time. Add Peter Buck doing the stately riff on 12-string and super-powerhouse Linda Pitmon drumming, and I’m pretty much in heaven. A caterwauling, cacophonous heaven.

The Mendoza Line, “Catch A Collapsing Star” from: Full Of Light And Full Of Fire
Well, here’s a three-headed monstrosity of a band that never got their fucking due, that’s for sure. There are scores of Mendoza Line songs that demand attention, and indeed, this is one of them. Tim Bracy’s patented Dylanesque delivery (he must get sick of hearing that) in top form, and soon-to-be-ex-wife Shannon McArdle’s harmonies raised to almost Chipmunks status—it’s a combination that I find disturbingly irresistible. In the words of Rod Stewart, if you don’t know them, I really don’t know where you’ve been! Find and purchase all of their CDs (no vinyl, I’m afraid, a product of their times), listen to them relentlessly, kiss your children when you put them to bed, and don’t use the corkscrew for anything evil. Full disclosure: Timothy and I co-wrote “Dark Hand Of Contagion” from the Minus 5’s Killingsworth; it’s a deviously depressing number, but the line “Your wedding day was so well-planned, like a German occupation” always gets a hearty laugh at shows—not my line. Tim and Elizabeth Nelson Bracy have a highly current combo called Paranoid Style with a fresh LP that’s raunchy and torn, and I only helped or hindered on a couple songs. “Accept no imitations, baby, catch a collapsing star/It’s our limitations that make us what we are.”

Wilco, “Candy Floss” from: Summerteeth
You know those early-ish Who records with the overdubbed acoustic guitar mixed really loud and the drums flailing away and the lovely harmonies and the driving rhythm not necessarily featured like it should have been? This bonus track from Wilco’s masterpiece (neither their first nor nearly their last) Summerteeth always reminds me of that curious 1960s production niche. Was it intentional? I wouldn’t doubt it. The fact that “Candy Floss” in all its joyous glory was a “bonus track” only confirms how great this record is and exemplifies what would become a career-defining trait of one of the world’s Truly Greatest Bands Of All Time, which is: nothing but great songs, sublime production, wild abandon, considered humanity, all the time. This song places itself as a toss-off when in fact for any other hopeful contender it could be the culmination of all they’d hoped to achieve. Being friends with other musicians might skew your perceptions of their work favorably, but I’ve never felt it to be the case with Wilco—I’m pretty sure I’d be a worshipful fan even if they were a bunch of jerks I’d never met. Yeah, they aren’t.

The Monkees, “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” from: More Of The Monkees
The Monkees took young, freckle-faced me by storm. I was already a Beatle-maniac, so they didn’t change my life in that same way. But they perfectly fed my appetite for perfect pop records, and let there be no doubt that they made plenty. We all know that the group benefited from superb material from top songwriters, and “Look Out” is one (some might say the lesser) of maybe four Neil Diamond-penned ditties. “I’m A Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” were both hit singles, but “Look Out” has its own charms, the trademark Diamond acoustic-driven rhythm, and Davy Jones at his heart-throbbing best. Speaking as someone who has (ridiculously?—you be the judge!) devoted an entire side of an album to lavishing appreciation on Michael, Peter, Davy and Micky (and let’s not forget writers/producers Boyce & Hart), I can only say in my defense that the Monkees records were fantastic then and have definitely stood the test of time. And I watched Head recently and I think it’s a cruelly underrated film. So there.

Richmond Fontaine, “Northwest” from: We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River
On side two of the Of Monkees And Men platter, I offer the Minus 5’s sincere appreciation of other non-fictional sorts who’ve affected me strongly and positively in one way or another. From lost friends and musical cohorts Jimmy Silva and John Weymer (the latter my notorious bandmate in high school aggregations Hannibal’s Chorus Boys/Vannevar Bush & His Differential Analyzers), to legendary film star Robert Ryan, to Portland’s own long-lingering combo Richmond Fontaine. Now that Fontaine has announced its intentions to finally call it a day, the song I wrote for them (tipsy but unbowed at the Montage bar in Portland) can also be seen as a sort of eulogy like the others. They’ve recently given us an unasked-for but exquisite final statement, and You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To is in constant play in my mind. “Wake Up Ray” and “I Got Off The Bus” are as good as songwriting and sympathetic symbiotic group playing get. If these are their last words, they will be remembered. Now, “Northwest” is a sweet snippet, and as someone who lives in Portland within spitting distance of I-5, I hear it and feel it as intended, I guess. I’ll just say that Richmond Fontaine has created a body of work that, while certainly appreciated more abroad than here “at home,” still deserves more attention and I daresay will find it as the years scroll past. I was so pleased to join them recently as they celebrated the release of their new album with shows in Seattle and Portland in which the Minus 5 joined in, and boy, was it spectacularly worth it. If you were there, stand up loud and proud, because you and we all won.

Mott The Hoople, “All The Young Dudes” from: All The Young Dudes
David Bowie did the world one of countless favors when he gifted this song to Mott, thus reviving an all-time favorite band and making possible the ultimate glam-rock trilogy of All The Young Dudes, Mott and The Hoople. There’s never been a song before or since like “Dudes,” with its crowning melodic guitar riff, genius meandering chord progression, anthemic outcast lyrics and the audience shoutouts as the song fades away (“You there with the glasses—I want you.”). Ian Hunter still encores with it, and at the ripe age of 75 (or so), he still owns it and is still the Dude. (Sorry, Jeff Bridges. You’re awesome, too.) I followed Mott around England in 1974 (thanks, Britrail Pass) and to think 40-some years later I’d have actually joined Ian onstage for this song a number of times … it’s unfathomable. Thanks, Ian!

The Posies, “Golden Blunders” from: Dear 23
In a way, the Posies mirror the development of the Young Fresh Fellows, but only by outdistancing us at every milestone. Like the YFF, Jon and Ken made a first record bathed in innocence and lack of self-examination, and that very innocence and inexperience (though better than what anybody else was doing!) was a part of what made the music so endearing. They took a huge leap when they graduated from the sexy PopLlama Products label to DGC, and from self-produced-on-a-parent’s-eight-track-machine to a produced-by-John-Leckie sophomore effort. Yes, Leckie of Beatles and XTC fame, amongst so many other credits. The album is a thick, powerful record that to its credit does not sound dated at all 20-plus years on. It most reminds me of another one of my all-time favorite albums/productions: Wish You Were Here by Badfinger, helmed by another former Abbey Road tape-op by the name of Chris Thomas. And while “Golden Blunders” is not my favorite song on Dear 23 (that honor reserved for “Apology”), it is perfect, and was covered by a Beatle. Yeah—my friends wrote a song and Ringo Starr recorded it! That’s just too damn cool. The Posies carry on, off and on, and no one can stop them.

Alexander “Skip” Spence, “Little Hands” from: Oar
“Little Hands” opens Skip Spence’s one and only album so perfectly—it seems to fall out of the ether and magically coalesce, much as it must have when Skip layered the sounds together one by one in Columbia Records Nashville recording studio back in 1968. And then the ghostly voice rises over the creakily irresistible guitars, singing of children and mothers and drummers and freedom. It’s hard to ever truly know what Spence was getting at with this singular album, captured at the only time in his life when it could have been possible, when he was far enough out there but not too quite far. There’s never been another record quite like it, and it was a worthy if risky proposition to give it the tribute album treatment years later. Robert Plant rose to the challenge of covering “Little Hands” and wisely made it his own—smoothing the rough edges cost the song some of its mystery but the essence is still there, beautifully sung. Covering these songs was a real challenge and credit to Plant, Beck, Mudhoney and many others for fine versions. The Minus 5 drew the outtake “Givin’ Up Things” (mislabeled “Doodle” at the time), and I’m still very pleased with the rendition Peter Buck and I concocted, with the basic acoustic guitar and live vocal recorded by a microphone laid inside the clothes dryer in my basement. Don’t try this at home, kids. When I lived in Cotati, Calif., in 1978, Skip came over to my house after a Moby Grape show down the street at the Inn Of The Beginning (in which he did not perform but slept on drum cases to the side of the stage). He asked to hear Rubber Soul and I was pleased to oblige. After the LP ended, I asked what he wanted to hear and he replied: Rubber Soul. And it was done.

The Kinks, “Wicked Annabella” from: Village Green Preservation Society
Yes, obviously Village Green Preservation Society is in my Top Ten Desert Island All Time Golden Greats Super Hits. How could it not be? As quintessentially English as the subject may be, I relate to it completely. “Wicked Annabella” is pretty weird, musically and lyrically, and that’s a plus. The Minus 5 covered it on the flip of a Spanish 45, along with Guided By Voices’ “Echos Myron.” Now that’s a double b-side for you.

Fernando, “True Instigator” from: True Instigator
Fernando is flat out one of my favorite singers. I first heard him when a friend from Portland turned me on to Pacoima, in all its bilingual Luther Russell-produced glory. Even a few boring hours up I-5 in Seattle, Fernando was a secret then. It’s many years later and I’m really happy to see him out there touring non-stop (with European and U.S. stints alongside fellow travelers Dan Stuart, Richmond Fontaine and the Jayhawks) and spreading that amazing voice around. Peter Buck and I both made some noise on his latest, the gorgeously spooky masterpiece Leave The Radio On. “True Instigator,” the title track from his previous album, shows how adept Fernando Viciconte is at delivering a heavy Neil Young-style rocker, with sidekick Dan Eccles (also of Richmond Fontaine) lighting up on the guitar.

Michael Stipe, “The Man Who Sold The World” from: unreleased
Yeah, I was sad when R.E.M. announced to the world in 2011 that its mission was complete. I wanted to go around the world (or at least do a week in New York or Dublin or Athens or … ) playing the songs from Collapse Into Now so everyone might realize that final album belongs right up at the top of R.E.M.’s canon. But I knew well enough at the end of the touring cycle in 2008 that it might not happen again. Even at the luxurious level that a band of R.E.M.’s stature allows, touring can be a disruptive and exhausting endeavor. So, while I couldn’t love it, I understood and respected the decision. Peter and Mike quite naturally continued showing up on stages and riding in vans in ensuing years, and often I was happily there beside them. Michael delved into his many other artistic interests, and I have to say I love his work in sculpture, photography, etc. It would have been sad to be deprived of his incredible voice and gift for interpretation, but we don’t have to worry about that. He’s turned up on occasion opening for Patti Smith, singing covers of songs I love (including the aforementioned “All The Young Dudes,” as well as personal R.E.M. favorite “New Test Leper”). After Bowie died, Michael appeared on The Tonight Show with this amazing rendition of a song once famously covered by his friend Kurt Cobain. And took it to a very special place. Exquisite! And please, kudos to “the pianist,” who’s only credited as such as far as I can ascertain. A truly brilliant arrangement.

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