Reflecting on The Unintended, a wonderful and well-kept secret

After listening to Eric’s Trip for my recent Top 20 Canadian Albums post (https://songsuneedtohear.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/here-now-whats-your-all-time-top-20-canadian-albums/), then also to Elevator for the more recent – and quite long 🙂 – post about Rick White & Julie Doiron’s music (https://songsuneedtohear.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/erics-trip-the-charming-indie-queen-julie-doiron-and-the-legendary-yet-underrated-rick-white/), I naturally ended up listening to one of Canada’s best-kept secrets : The Unintended. And at that point, I was totally ready for this dreamy psychedelic-folk-rock band. Spoiler alert : when I update my Top 20 Canadian Albums list, I’ll most certainly find a place for this little gem.

But let’s go back a bit, back in 1997, when lo-fi garage band Eric’s Trip had disbanded, and its former leader Rick White was working wholeheartedly on his second major project, the wonderfully haunting psych-rock band Elevator.

At an Elevator show, Dallas Good of country-folk-rock group The Sadies came up to White. They talked about their musical influences and quickly became friends. Good played guitar live with Elevator and later contributed to the band’s records starting in 2002 with Darkness – Light. White also provided lyrics for a few songs recorded by The Sadies over the years.

In 2004, a mysterious album that seemed to appear out of the mist was released, an eponym LP by the band The Unintended. This atmospheric album brings together Rick White, Dallas Good and the three other members of The Sadies, as well as Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo. They convened at Keelor’s farm to record the songs in just a few days, in a very natural manner it seems. Rick White writes and sings most if not all of the songs, and the others members (especially Good) bring their musical ear to create the desired sound. White’s wispered vocals and creative influence are all over this album, his personal “demons” are poetically exposed through the lyrics as always (and the music is very Elevator-esque), but The Sadies’ solid contribution brings great strenght to the album (kudos to Mike Belitsky on the drums!). Some songs on this record stood out right away for me (Angel, for example), but like many masterpieces, the overall product grows on you with time, slowly but surely.

Aside from some Gordon Lightfoot cover songs they made together a few years later, this album is their one and only, and it makes this record even more special, like a precious (unintended?) moment in time.

The Unintended members went on to work on their own projects. White kept making interesting albums including a few Elevator records with Good before the band broke up, his three solo records and many collaborations. The Sadies released some great stuff (like the New Seasons album that I had the pleasure of listening to recently), and Greg Keelor kept on making albums with Blue Rodeo and other artists.

And now, should we wait for the next incarnation of The Unintended?

Well, it appears that one of the main inspirations behind The Unintended, White, has voluntarily withdrawn from music (and people, in a way), moved far into the countryside to live a life as little anxiety-inducing as possible.

The first song from The Sadies’ 2016 release Northern Passages, written by Dallas Good, is dedicated to his reclusive old friend. Riverview fog is also, I think, an homage to their collaboration, because many songs from The Unintended CD are referenced here in the lyrics (stay calm, quiet getaway, no curse of time, …). We can definitely feel Good’s caring feelings and his respect for White’s choice of creating art away from it all, yet there’s this unescapable worry and longing for lost days of togetherness and shared creativity. I have myself often reflected on how we litterally force ourselves to live in an alienating stressful environment with crazy and artificial expectations (appropriate for machines perhaps, not humans), and fantasized about dropping it all to live somewhere deep in the woods or on a endless flowery field. I have many friends who struggled with mental illness and had to withdraw, so I can definitely relate to this melancholic song of unconditional friendship. BTW, the rest of the album is also great.

I wish White – and all creative people struggling with our less than healthy lifestyle – rest and inspiration. And thanks in advance, because perhaps that’s how our collective wisdom will be renewed. It’s not doing so great right now.

Monet found great joy in painting his garden following the changing seasons. Even the tempestuous Rousseau found his exile less painful by allowing himself to explore his growing interest in botany (see Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire). Being on vacation right now, I enjoy sitting with my book and glass of wine under the tall tree in my backyard, watching leaves being pushed around gently by the wind and the faint ray of sunlight trying to make its way through. Surely, I’ll get inspired too.

Have a nice peaceful one, everyone!

Here! Now What’s Your All Time Top 20 Album Covers?

One could wonder why make a top twenty list about album covers now that people are buying less and less records, and prefer to listen to an unlimited variety of songs on the Internet. Or, one could stay that, for this exact reason, it is the perfect time to talk about albums.

More often than not, I find myself listening to albums rather than playlists. Albums have overarching themes, a distinct style, and an atmosphere that give direction to the music and tie everything together. The order of the songs is carefully planned so they flow perfectly from one to the other. Listening to an album means getting the whole artistic experience, every vibe, every symbol, every feeling the band wanted to convey. And the cover is the final touch, the icing on the cake. Translating an entire musical experience into an image, a single image, can not be the easy task.

I want to do my part and salute artists who care enough to produce beautiful and memorable covers. So what do you say, let’s bring albums back to the forefront, and the front of albums at the forefront of discussions : the album cover, a forgotten piece of art.

Once again, don’t expect the usual top 20 list… although it’s not completely out there either. And don’t hesitate to comment and share your own choices! Mine keep changing anyway.

#20. Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch

Now there’s a good combination! This brilliant and hilarious droodle (doodle + riddle) by Roger Price is the perfect cover for Zappa’s 1982 release. Listening to Zappa’s intricate wacky cool song at the same time is just perfect, and completely trippy. Once again, here’s proof that you don’t need big production, just a really clever and fitting concept.

#19. London Howlin’ Wolf Session

Looking at that cover, I feel suddently immersed in the 70s. I’m walking by in my funky elephant pants, and I see these guys hanging out on a sunny day in London. Perhaps Howlin’ Wolf or Clapton starts stroking his guitar, and a nice vibe starts to flow around. Yeah… I really miss the “organic” feel of pencil drawings, now that images are always generated by computers. These “real” drawings feel warmer somehow.

#18. The Ramones, The Ramones

A simple concept that fit this debut album perfectly : The Ramones, in black and white, standing against a brick wall. Four guys in their leather coats and blue jeans, standing around unimpressed. So… what makes it special? It’s all in the attitude.

#17. The Wailers, Burnin’

Burnin’ is the last album by the original Wailers, and on the cover, there’s an illustration of their faces “burned” into wooden planks. All six of them, in a bouquet, like the six sides of the Wailers. The result is splendid, and once again, there’s an “organic” feel here that I appreciate a lot.

#16. Weezer, Pinkerton

What a superb 19th century japanese print by Hiroshige, taken out of the illustrious series Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido. As pretty as this scenery is, with its nice contrast between the black night and the white snow, it’s still a cold and lonely landscape… Indeed, things don’t turn out too well for the unpleasant Pinkerton, or for the Weezer guys as far as I can tell from the unfortunate encounters depicted in these songs.

#15. Eric’s Trip, Love Tara

A young couple in the corner behind the stage, lost in a heartfelt hug, unrecognizable from their 90’s style long hair mixing together. This lovely black and white cover by indie alternative band Eric’s Trip looks just like the album sounds : genuine, relatable, moving… with lots of distortion! Ah, the energetic and uncompromising feelings of youth…

#14. Led Zeppelin, Four Symbols

This artwork is actually an oil painting, affixed on a degraded wall. I read it’s supposed to reflect the contrast between country and city. So the country is represented by a picturesque landscape, while the city is represented by a wall with peeling paint… But is it really a painting, or is it a window?…

#13. Janis Joplin, 18 Essential Songs

This is one of the best pictures of Janis that I know of, a spectacular image, and a great choice for an “Essentials” compilation. This cover captures both the intensity and authenticity of Janis’ performance, the singular movements of her body, and the nice lighting effect.

#12. U2, War

This is a remarkable cover. A back and white photo of a naked child, hurt, who’s looking straight into the camera, or straight at us the viewers, with an intense, accusing look. War brings pain, resentment, and loss of innocence.

#11. Nirvana, Nevermind

Here’s another memorable image. Do you remember the impact of that cover in the early 90s? The complete picture shows a naked baby in a shark tank. Someone dangles a one dollar bill in front of him as motivation. After the wild flaky money-crazy 80’s period, Nirvana tore the place down with that cover, which launched the “grunge” period.

#10. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

Ten years later, Radiohead chose to expose another type of societal peril : over advertising, and the use of fear to control people and increase consumption. Advertisements are indeed attractive, colourful, and this image is very beautiful. But one cannot help but feel discomfort when looking at this carefully. That discomfort is accentuated by the fact that the words are taken out of context, and stacked together like floors of city buildings that eventually fade away and disintegrate like darkish smoke.

#9. Nina Simone, Fodder on my Wings

What a beautiful and somewhat unsettling painting by Gabriel Jarnier, meant for a truly unique artist.  The level of detail, the choice of colours, and the elegance of it all, it’s quite impressive. Jazz legend Nina Simone is a tragic queen, but an undeniable queen nevertheless.

#8. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

This album cover is a piece of art by Efram Wolff, which brilliantly shows Stevie Wonder, who became blind shortly after birth, as someone who can perhaps see better than most people. This is of course in connection with this album’s socially charged lyrics. This artwork has a special warm sunny aura about it too.

#7. Jethro Tull, Aqualung

This famous Burton Silverman painting on the cover of the no less famous (and rather epic) Aqualung album is amazing for several reasons. The realism of the scene, the precise and haunting look in the man’s eyes, his body shape and arm position leaving the spectator to wonder… Silverman and Jethro Tull managed to created a character, a very intriguing character, to illustrate the story being told in the Aqualung song. That’s quite an added value for an album.

#6. The Beatles, Abbey Road

Legend has it that photographer Ian Macmillan had just a few minutes to take this picture, while a cop was stalling trafic… How nice it is to be stars. This image is wicked cool. But it inspired the wildest of theories and drove people completely mad (notably one interpretation that the real MacCartney had died and been replaced by an impostor… What? can’t you see the clues on the cover?). That’s quite an achievement for a cover!

#5.The Clash, London Calling

This photograph is a punk classic. Raw and pure intensity, live from a punk show! The Clash’s bassist is caught right before everything goes flying. Time is standing still, and we hold our breath. Apparently, Simonon smashed his bass because bouncers wouldn’t let people stand up out of their seats. I wouldn’t have expected people to sit still either, but I think I would have kept my bass. 😉

#4. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine

Forceful. Troubling. Unforgettable. This Pulitzer-winning picture of a Vietnamese buddist monk self-immolating to protest oppression can be found on a debut album, Rage Against the Machine’s debut. What a fierce, daring, and loud debut. Yes, Rage’s arrival on the american musical scene was anything but quiet, and the band clearly let us know, with this cover, how it was gonna be with them starting right now.

#3. The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico

This is the classic amongst classics. Andy Warhol’s image of a simple yellow banana, on the cover of the enigmatic and atmospheric Velvet Underground’s debut album, has fascinated fans for generations. “Peel slowly and see”, it said, as people uncovered a skin-coloured banana underneath… Once again, a great fit between the songs and the cover artwork.

#2. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Ziggy Stardust, beamed down from another planet at 3 AM, straight into an american back alley. Standing there over a pile of cardboard boxes, in a dominating pose, debonair, yet ready to show us his monstrous alien power with a powerful powerchord… Utter genius.

#1. Pink Floyd, for their cumulative body of works!

And there’s plenty more where that came from! Thank you, Pink Floyd, for your obvious interest in visual arts, for the time and effort you put in your musical and visual arrangements, and for your complex and sometimes quite disconcerting images!

Welcome the new year with La bottine souriante!

So long 2014! While preparing to welcome in 2015, I thought I’d share some wonderful festive music which we particularly enjoy here in Québec to ring in the new year.

“La bottine souriante” was created in 1976 and is mostly known for its wonderful rendition of Québec traditional music. Songs from the first few decades featured vocal harmonies, accordeons, guitars, pianos, harmonicas, mandolins, and crazy foot works! Indeed, in addition to Yves Lambert’s distinctive voice and accordeon playing, “La bottine souriante” included insane foot rythms by Michel Bordeleau, a great addition to this upbeat music which will have you dancing in no time.

Québec folk music is influenced among other things by old French songs and celtic music. In more recent years, the band explored some new sounds, widened their brass section and added some jazz elements and world beats. “La bottine souriante” is a hit here in the province, but the band also played in France and around the world. The group won several prizes including a BBC Folk Award in 1999.

I saw them live about 10 years ago and it was one of the best shows I had ever seen (and I have seen a few). It took perhaps two or three songs to get the crowd fired up to the point that there wasn’t anyone left sitting on their seat. Below is a live show from 1998, so dance the night away!

Happy new year to all!

Amazing Music Videos: Hurt by Johnny Cash

Let me apologize for waiting this long to post about this incredible work of art! A strong candidate for the number one spot in my Amazing Music Video series.

The adventure began with yet another incredible idea to come out of the brain of famous bearded genius Rick Rubin, a prolific and very influential producer who is responsible for several of the most important albums of the last few decades. Johnny Cash, now in his 60’s-70’s, had been working with Rubin on the American Recordings series: the AR albums comprise new versions of famous songs by american songwriters. On the fourth american recordings record, intitled “The Man Comes Around”, Johnny Cash performs a stunning and unforgettable version of alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails’s iconic song “Hurt”. Using the same strong lyrics (aside from the removal of one little word), he made the song his own and took it in a different direction, as an old man emotionally looking back on his life. While many I’m sure dismissed the raw alternative NIN song right off the bat were then surprised and blown away by it, once they let Johnny Cash do the storytelling (which, incidentally, is also relatively common with Rick Rubin’s albums – he breaks the frontiers of genres and brings out a performance that can be understood by a wide audience).

Directed by Mark Romanek, this video has nothing to do with “blingbling” or what not. It’s not about escaping reality by daydreaming about obscene wealth and fame and nonstop lapdancing (sigh…). It is a naked portrait of a legendary figure in music, now in his 70’s and in fragile health, looking back on his life and career as the “hell-raiser man in black”.  It’s an incredibly moving video, which won best cinematography at the MTV awards; Romanek really should have taken home the best video awards but he lost to Missy Elliot… at least he didn’t lose to 50 cents’s In da club! That was the year of the famous Britney-Madonna kiss too… but let’s rejoice that somehow out of this could rise a wonderful work of art which will stand the test of time (unlike others who shall remain nameless).

I heard someone say once that this video is like a baroque painting. What do you think? Here goes:

PS. If you haven’t seen my “Hurt – original vs cover song battle” between Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash, I invite you to take a look and make your choice (if you can, it’s a heartbreaking choice!) : https://songsuneedtohear.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/hurt-vs-hurt-nin-vs-johnny-cash/

 

Jolene: Dolly Parton vs The White Stripes

This is a heartbreaking song about an ordinary woman who watches helplessly as her lover is slipping away, talking about another woman in his sleep: the stunning Jolene, with her flaming locks of auburn hair, ivory skin, emerald green eyes, smile like a breath of spring, and voice like summer rain… That’s a bit discouraging, indeed. So the desperate lovesick protagonist begs Jolene, who she knows she can’t compete with: “please don’t take my man… even though you can”. The song ends with this endless melancholic plea, leaving the audience wondering and hoping that this goddess Jolene chose another man, a single man. Well, what we really want might be for the protagonist to find the self-confidence to leave this guy who might already be cheating on her! But somehow, the strenght of the lyrics, the despair and sadness, end up making you feel for (and perhaps even relate to) this brokenhearted woman and her cruel fate. There’s a deep feeling of loneliness conveyed in both versions which will be the object of discussion today: Dolly Parton’s original country-folk version from the 1970’s and The White Stripes’ slow-garage-rock 2000 version.

Everyone knows Dolly Parton as the energetic charismatic blond country star with a southern charm and lots of personality. She is first and foremost an acclaimed songwriter. Coming from humble beginnings, she slowly but surely became an immensely popular star in the US, where she now has her own theme park! “Jolene” is one of her signature hits. Legend has it that she was inspired to write a song about a woman named “Jolene” after meeting a young fan named Jolene. And then Dolly added in the dramatic overtones, inspired by the fact that her husband was spending a lot of time with a pretty redhead who worked at the bank when they first got married. But they’ve been married for decades so it turned out well after all.

The White Stripes are one of many bands/artists to cover this song, but their version is rather unique and was well-received. It might be a bit strange to hear a man singing this song, but the feelings conveyed are so profoundly human at the core that you quickly forget and get into Jack’s intense desperate pleading (especially in this live version). Personally, I really like the slower rythm, which I think fits better with the suffering portrayed in this song. The White Stripes sound is harder than Dolly’s version, obviously, and Dolly’s clear voice differs from Jack’s raw husky voice. These are two very different sounds, but again, as is often the case with my original vs cover battles, maybe it’s the powerful lyrics that make the song in the end.

 

The Best of the Best of(s) Series: Leonard Cohen (1975 and 2002)

I don’t think this will happen often : posting about two “best of” compilations at the same time… But Leonard Cohen isn’t your usual singer/songwriter/musician. With this many great songs, it’s no surprise that at least two compilations made the list.

Let’s start with the first one: the 1975 release “Leonard Cohen, the Best of”. While I was enjoying “The Future” album from 1992, a friend of mine told me that I absolutely had to listen to Cohen’s 60’s and 70’s stuff before I could even start saying that I knew about and enjoyed Leonard Cohen. So I borrowed this compilation from another friend, and indeed, only then did I start to understand the kind of unbelievable wonders that this Montréal-born artist could create. This “Best of” compilation comprises some of his greatest older tunes, classics like “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Chelsea Hotel”, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, …  Simply put, there just isn’t one bad song on this album. BTW, in addition to the links below, you can also find many of these songs on these previous posts: https://songsuneedtohear.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/how-to-start/ ; https://songsuneedtohear.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/famous-blue-raincoat-leonard-cohen-vs-tori-amos/

In 2002, a 2-disc compilation intitled “The Essentials” was released. Practically all of the songs on the 1975 best of compilation are included on this one as well. But a few cool ones were added, like “The Stranger Song”, an all time favorite of mine. And then, there’s a few great classics from the 80’s: “Everybody Knows”, “I’m Your Man”, “Tower of Song”, “First, We Take Manhattan”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, and of course “Hallelujah”, a wonderful song that was covered by just about everyone (Willie Nelson, Elton John, Bono, Rufus Wainwright, John Cale, K.D. Lang, Jeff Buckley, …). “The Essentials” compilation continues with some nice hits from the 90’s: “The Future”, “Waiting For a Miracle”, and also “Anthem” which brought us the wonderful phrase “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. The album finally ends with four songs from the 2001 CD “Ten New Songs”, which he made with Sharon Robinson (a frequent collaborator of his).

Two heartbreaking omissions on “The Essentials” compilation: “Teachers” and “Master Song”. How could those two masterpieces from his first album not be considered essentials?!! But it’s OK, I forgive you, Leonard Cohen. In a world dominated by insipid sorta-dance music about cheap booty-calls, this timeless music fills the heart and mind. Leonard is an artist who can accompany you your whole life. His genius, poetic and touching lyrics about human desires, his beautiful melodies, and his distinctive hypnotic voice, constitute quite the musical work of art. While I think that his first albums are unforgettable and comprise some of the greatest lyrics I have ever heard in my life, I do agree that all of his albums are worth listening to.

 

Kashtin!!

The Innu nation is the most populous Aboriginal nation in Québec. If you lived in Québec at the end of the 80’s, you at least knew two or three songs in Innu, thanks to awesome country-folk band Kashtin, composed of Florent Vollant and Claude McKenzie, two artists from Maliotenam, located in the Northern Coast region (Côte-Nord). But their songs were also popular in Canada, France, and several other countries. This great folk music about the Innu people of Maliotenam, traditional values, life’s struggles, and much more (I unfortunately don’t speak Innu so I can’t give much more detail…), it sounds good even twenty five years later. Hurray for those intriguing lyrics, catchy melodies and good guitar riffs, and the talented musicians who can make it all sound great. Now I can’t get these songs out of my head (but it’s a much more pleasant feeling than having, lets say, “who let the dogs out” stuck in there…)

Now these videos are not quite the high resolution type… But you guys can still appreciate the nice retro feel of old beta/vhs tape, right?  You see, I really wanted to post the original 80’s videos for the songs “Tshinanu” (Our People), “Tipatshimun” (The Devil’s Song), and “E uassiuan” (My Childhood). I also added two songs from Florent Vollant’s 2003 album “Katak”, which are really cool. BTW, Miam Maikan (White Wolf) was featured in the excellent movie “Looking for Alexander(original title: Mémoires affectives) by François Leclerc. Check it out if you can!