Culturedarm’s Songs of the Month (April 2015)

Prince 1

A late edition this month, owing to the UK general election 2015 occupying the last couple of weeks; but here are plenty of words and some excellent songs and videos to – more than, I think – make up for it.

Prince – ‘Uptown’ & ‘I Would Die 4 U’

I’ve been listening to these two songs by Prince on repeat for much of the past month-and-a-bit, courtesy of my two preferred Prince albums: ‘Uptown’, the fifth track overall and the first on the second side of Dirty Mind, was released in September 1980 a month ahead of the album as its lead single, and became a hit on the Hot Soul and Hot Dance Club charts; while ‘I Would Die 4 U’ proved the fourth single from Purple Rain, reaching number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 following its release in November 1984.

‘Uptown’ is built upon a simple and relatively sober looping bass line, with propulsive percussion, funk guitar, and keyboard flourishes around the chorus. The sound is upbeat, just tethered by the bass, as Prince recounts, briefly perturbed, being asked ‘Are you gay?’ by a lady he finds attractive. Deeming her ‘a crazy, crazy, crazy little mixed-up dame’, Prince declares ‘She’s just a victim of society and all its games’ and quickly decamps to ‘Uptown’: apparently drawing upon the commercial district of his Minneapolis home, but here equally a realm of the imagination, where there is freedom of persuasion and expression, sex and dancing, and good times rolling all night long. The funk guitar and Prince’s high-pitched, tenacious vocal make this really sensual; and there’s a nice astral interlude before the song slowly fades out.

There is nothing else like the relentless, skittering percussion of ‘I Would Die 4 U’; and as keys dissolve and the percussion claps and synthesizers emerge momentarily, Prince offers at once a profession of faith and an entreaty, uttering urgently ‘I’m not your woman / I’m not your man / I am something that you’ll never understand / I’ll never beat you / I’ll never lie / And if you’re evil I’ll forgive you by and by’. The lyrics are vaguely spiritual, shuffling between a skewed Old Testament religiosity and New Age suggestiveness, and there are some of these overtones to the music too, with the song’s great power coming from the intensity of Prince’s performance.

Prince is notoriously averse to his music appearing on YouTube and via other social and digital media outlets. The video below contains a fantastic excerpt of Prince playing ‘Uptown’ live at the old Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, in early 1982; but there’s nothing like this available for ‘I Would Die 4 U’, and some of the prominent covers and remixes of the song which are about are atrocious.

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Johnny Cash – ‘The Mercy Seat’

On the theme of religion, and especially the Old Testament, here’s Johnny Cash’s cover of Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’, from American III: Solitary Man. A profoundly well-written song, it is full of overt allusions to the Bible, and philosophical investigations too as the protagonist, going about the course of his life on death row, begins ‘to warm and chill / To objects and their fields’. But the language remains colloquial and replete with keen observations. The rhetorical twisting as the condemned man weighs his fate and his guilt prefigures the physical twisting he will endure in the electric chair; and Cash’s cover crashes to a climax amid the clanging keys of piano and organ. The experimental video below is by Bill Totolo.

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The Kingsmen – ‘Louie Louie’

At the end of the month, 28 April, Jack Ely, the former lead singer of The Kingsmen, died after a period of illness. He was 71. The Kingsmen’s cover of ‘Louie Louie’ remains the most well-known version of the song: it persisted at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks from the end of 1963, and became notorious, and endures to this day, owing largely to the difficulty interpreting Ely’s energetic rendering of the lyrics.

‘Louie Louie’ was written by Richard Berry in 1955, with his original take on the song released in April 1957. Drawing most clearly upon Chuck Berry’s ‘Havana Moon’, but also from the first-person perspective of Frank Sinatra’s ‘One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)’ and from the sound and speech patterns of local Latin American music, Richard Berry’s composition depicts a young man sailing the sea and hoping ardently for some alone time with his love. The relative incomprehensibility of Ely’s vocal, however – buffeted by the noisy garage rock of the band – led listeners in 1963 to begin attributing to the song a set of varying dirty lyrics.

The FBI got involved, but their lengthy investigation into The Kingsmen’s recording proved inconclusive. Dirty renditions of ‘Louie Louie’ routinely incorporated sexual intercourse, oral sex, infidelity, masturbation, and menstruation: all aspects of my favourite version of the song, performed by Iggy and The Stooges and preserved on the live album Metallic K.O.. Ely’s vocal, delivered in the truest spirit of rock and roll, made this and other related highlights possible; punctuated by his climactic cry, ‘Okay, let’s give it to ’em right now!’.

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Prurient – ‘Dragonflies To Sew You Up’

Prurient’s new album, the 90-minute long Frozen Niagara Falls, was released this week on Profound Lore Records. At the tail end of March he offered his first look at the work through the densely constructed ‘Dragonflies to Sew You Up’. Fissured tribal drums compete with steady and sleek late-night synths, equally resolute as Prurient anxiously menaces the immediate space with an overwhelming black metal cry. The margins of the song are traced via bar-room chatter and wandering piano.

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Nicole Dollanganger – ‘Sleepy Towns and Cemeteries’

Following her headlining role atop last month’s list, another song from Nicole Dollanganger’s Observatory Mansions. This one features gently rumbling guitar and synth sounds diffusing light over Dollanganger’s voice as, plaintive and wonderful, she repeats, ‘He casts the kind of glow only a city knows / He’s so alive in the places everyone here has a hole’.

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Townes Van Zandt – ‘Nothin”

Townes is approaching his bleakest here, closing on the lines ‘Sorrow and solitude / These are the precious things / And the only words / That are worth remembering’. The tenth and final song on 1971’s Delta Momma Blues, the footage in the video below is from James Szalapski’s documentary film Heartworn Highways, where Townes performs ‘Waiting ‘Round to Die’.

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Grimes – ‘Dream Fortress’

‘Dream Fortress’ is gracefully poised as the middle of the three songs at the heart of Halfaxa. The unofficial video below was expertly and beautifully made by Anastasia Shulepova.

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Van Morrison – ‘Brand New Day’

I could have selected any or all of the songs from Moondance, Van Morrison’s second solo album and the record of his that I’ve been listening to most lately: ‘Crazy Love’, the tender soul song sung in falsetto which I wrote about at the beginning of last week; ‘Glad Tidings’, the album’s sprightly R&B closer; the cascading ‘Caravan’; or the centrepiece ‘Into the Mystic’. Instead I’ve opted for ‘Brand New Day’. Discussing the song with Ritchie Yorke ahead of Yorke’s 1975 biography Van Morrison: Into the Music, Van explained:

”Brand New Day’ expressed a lot of hope. It was really weird when I wrote the song. I was in Boston and having a hard job getting myself up spiritually. I couldn’t relate to anything I  heard on the radio. I’d listen to FM. And get the same thing every day and every night. Then one day this song came on the FM station and it had this particular feeling and this particular groove and it was totally fresh. It seemed to me like things were making sense. You know what I mean, things were starting to make sense as far as the music was concerned. The drums were playing really laid back and I didn’t know who the hell the artist was. It turned out that it was The Band.

I’d been sitting on the grass across the street from where I lived before the record came on. I was just sitting over there and I looked up at the sky and the sun started to shine and all of a sudden, the song just came through my head. So I went into the house and I started to write it down, right from ‘When all the dark clouds roll away.’ I’d turned on the radio and I’d heard that song and I just thought that something was happening. The song was either ‘The Weight’ or ‘I Shall Be Released”; I think it was the latter.’

Later, in November 1973, Morrison told Yorke that ‘Brand New Day’ was the song he was happiest with from Moondance: ‘It’s the one that says it for me because it’s still saying it right now. In fact it’s saying it more now than it did when I recorded it […] I really feel in touch with that song.’

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AraabMuzik – ‘Electronic Dream’

It’s not easy to separate out the songs on AraabMuzik’s Electronic Dream: as much as they’re defined by their prominent use of samples, the tracks segue without break into one another and the album is unified by a dark aesthetic and passages of near-repetition. Still, I’ve never been a fan, for instance, of the utilisation of Jam & Spoon’s ‘Right in the Night’ on ‘Golden Touch’, the second or third track on Electronic Dream depending on how you procured your copy. But while the album more than recovers ground from there on, its best song still may be the title track, which opens the collection.

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Waxahatchee – ‘Air’

Ivy Tripp was released on 7 April, but ‘Air’ emerged as the first single from the upcoming album back in January. Of the work, Katie Crutchfield has stated, ‘The title Ivy Tripp is really just a term I made up for directionless-ness, specifically of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something of today, lacking regard for the complaisant life path of our parents and grandparents’.

As she continues to refine the engaging roughness that outlined her debut, 2012’s American Weekend, Crutchfield’s voice is becoming increasingly emboldened and the sound palette of Waxahatchee is extending to take in new forms. ‘Air’ is decidedly reminiscent of 90’s alternative rock, featuring pulsating drums, a lagging guitar, and sustaining keys, complemented by decade-and-genre-crossing ‘ooh-ooh’ vocalising. Yet it is also distinctly a Waxahatchee song, characterised by its openness, with imagery which can be oblique yet directly meaningful, and lines of piercing emotion, as Crutchfield soaringly sings ‘When we are moving, we just pretend / To be strangers lamenting a means to an end’ and ‘You were patiently giving me / Every answer as I roamed free’.

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Young Thug – ‘Constantly Hating’

Young Thug’s latest album, Barter 6, came out in the middle of April – its name changed just days before the release from ‘Carter 6’, Thug’s tongue-in-cheek intervention into the ongoing dispute between Lil Wayne and Birdman, and his own curious way of paying homage to his idol. This has spurred a war of words between Wayne and Thug; but musically Thug remains apart from other rappers owing to the way he can push and pull, build up or break apart a song through the qualities and the temperament of his infinitely mutable voice. The video for ‘Constantly Hating’ was released at the same time as the album. The song incorporates a soft and spacious, wetly reverberating beat, accompanying Thug’s lithe and relaxed flow.