Songs Of The Week 2021: Take 1

Neil Morton


South Gotta Change: Adia Victoria

When Nashville-based songwriter and poet Adia Victoria unveiled her impassioned single South Gotta Change in August she had no idea it would be so prescient. As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris restored dignity and empathy to US politics, the South showed that it can change.

The 34-year-old South Carolina-born musician described our Song Of The Week at as ‘a prayer, an affirmation, and a battle cry all at once’. It was co-written with Marcello Giuliani and Mason Hickman after the death of civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis. ‘I pondered the work he accomplished and the work left to us who remain.’

Victoria added: ‘No other place embodies the American experiment with the precision of the South. It is home to both unspeakable horror and unshakable faith.’ When she cries ‘I stood up to the mountain, told the mountain: Say my name’, she is confronting a legacy of oppression and racism while proudly connecting with her black heritage.

Producer T Bone Burnett, born in St Louis and Texas-raised, knows all about gothic blues, not to mention the centuries-old scourge of white supremacy. The Georgia election result, with Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock becoming the state’s first black senator, joined for the Democrats by a young Jewish politician in Jon Ossoff, will have gladdened their hearts. Small steps, big statement.

The Nashville Scene devoted an entire edition, with Victoria as guest editor, to her song, the issues it raises and the symbolic alliance of black singer and white producer. In a joint interview, Burnett said: ‘My thesis is, essentially, that the Civil War never ended. There was a ceasefire but it was never resolved. I believe we’re in the moment to finally resolve the Civil War in favour of equal rights for all people.’

Victoria added: ‘In the South I think one of the reasons we are so hard-pressed to get past the Confederacy is because the myth will not die. You think of what James Baldwin said: The reason why white people hang on to their hate is they don’t know what to do without it. They’d be flailing in the wind.’ The unpardonable behaviour of desperate Donald Trump supporters on Capitol Hill confirmed that viewpoint.

In a later essay, Burnett wrote: ‘While African Americans and their descendants have been overcoming indignity for over four centuries, they have in return given the world literature, art, music, knowledge and wisdom, and shown the world grace, courage, faith, perseverance and forgiveness, and for that, the world owes them the deepest respect and gratitude.’

On a becalmed Capitol at Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Amanda Gorman, at 22 the youngest poet to deliver the presidential poem, recited The Hill We Climb eloquently, movingly and without rancour. This was not fake muse. It was half written when the Capitol was stormed; it would soon be completed. Her message about the need to heal was the same Victoria had committed to song:

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped

That even as we tired, we tried

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious

Not because we will never again know defeat

But because we will never again sow division

For her debut single in 2016, Stuck In The South, Victoria lamented: ‘I don’t know nothing ’bout Southern belles/ But I can tell you something ’bout Southern hell/ When your skin give ’em cause/ To take and take’. The pain is still there but the maturer South Gotta Change, while echoing the Sam Cooke sentiment, emphasises hope: ‘I won’t go blindly in the night, I would drag you to the light.’ We’re gonna find a way.

Nobody’s Stopping You Now: Lake Street Dive

Rachael Price’s soul-laced voice is a priceless gift. Our Song Of The Week at is Nobody’s Stopping You Now, Lake Street Dive’s advance single from their latest album Obviously, due out in March. It’s optimistic, uplifting and just what we need right now.

The track, typical of the Boston band’s contemporary brand of retro soul-rock, is lead vocalist Price’s letter of encouragement to her younger self, an ode to originality and staying true to oneself, co-written with stellar stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney.

You’re on the cusp of an obsession

Time is not on your side

All winter slaving for perfection

But somehow you’re never satisfied

That hunger will last you for a lifetime

Until you learn how to set it down

Sip the nectar from the honeysuckle bush

Nobody’s stopping you now

It’s OK to let the real you out

Nobody’s stopping you now

Kearney took to Twitter to expand on the creative process: ‘Rachael wrote the song as a lullaby from her adult self to her childhood self. I thought this was such a beautiful concept and was honoured to get to complete this letter of reassurance to baby Ray Ray. I remember sitting by a river in Colorado on a show day of ours listening to our first completed set of lyrics for this song and shedding real tears thinking about finding the words to say to a young girl who is struggling – a message of hope that life will get better, and that she can be free to be herself and be her own version of womanhood, in her own time.’

The album’s title is the first word of opening dance track Hypotheticals. From the outset Lake Street Dive lean on Nashville-based producer Mike Elizondo’s hip-hop recording expertise. A versatile man for a versatile band who once said they ‘wanted to sound like The Beatles and Motown had a party together’. Their love of The Beatles has never waned judging by their New York rooftop cover of Don’t Let Me Down for one of their Halloween specials.

Multi-instrumentalist Elizondo has collaborated as a songwriter with Dr Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent and has helmed the dials for Fiona Apple, Mary J Blige, Carrie Underwood and 21 Pilots. We’ve been a band for so long that we didn’t want to just become a feedback loop of our own ideas, says Kearney. It felt like a really good time to bring in another person, and Mike really opened us up. He encouraged us to make bolder arrangement choices, take those chances and try those things. The record really is a success in what we set out to do: continue to challenge ourselves, continue to grow, and do things we’ve never done before.

This great live combo started out in 2004 as a quartet, with guitarist Mike ‘McDuck’ Olson and drummer Mike Calabrese, all friends and fellow jazz students in Boston. It was Olson who hit on the name, derived from the dive bars dotted along the Minneapolis street where he and other young musicians congregated. They are now a quintet, their sophisticated fusion of rock, jazz, soul, pop, country and R&B embracing a new songwriter in Akie Bermiss.

The 11-track album is the first to feature Bermiss, a Brooklyn keyboardist recruited after touring with the band in 2017, who gives an amusing account of his induction one night in Chicago. ‘There was a formal engagement situation. They took me to dinner and told me it was a band thing they like to do, and while I was distracted, they each put plastic engagement rings on my plate and asked if I would take their musical hands in band marriage.’

‘Akie brought a lot of stuff to the table,’ says Kearney. ‘It’s pretty remarkable that you can add somebody to the band after 14 years and have this new writer fit into the grand scheme.’ The new album, which includes our first taster Making Do, a warning of the diminished world future generations will inherit, has a lot to live up after the swagger of 2018’s Free Yourself Up. But nobody’s stopping Lake Street Dive now.

American Stooge: Mary Chapin Carpenter

When Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a song about the enablers of Donald Trump’s alienating presidency, she could not have imagined his term would be defined by chaos on Capitol Hill and democracy itself under siege. Our Song Of The Week at is American Stooge.

Cast in a bluesy JJ Cale groove, the song is a wickedly witty putdown of political yes-men inspired by Senator Lindsey Graham’s hypocrisy in turning from strident Trump critic to arch ally…

It’s the American way

To hell with the truth

He’s suckin’ up to the dude

He’s an American stooge

And maybe he likes it that way

One of only 15 women voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Carpenter describes the track as an ode to all the apologists who have caved in on their principles for the sake of political survival. She told American Songwriter in August that what started out as a character study of Graham became ‘an indictment of all those sycophants who inhabit the halls of Congress. It’s not just Republicans, it’s Democrats as well. They’re all over the place’.

She said of Graham, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race before the primaries: ‘He is unapologetic in his desire to remain relevant and the way to do so is to hitch his wagon to the biggest star in the universe. I found that to be breathtaking in its honesty but so calculating and damaging to the greater good. Where is your soul, man? How do you face yourself in the mirror?’

Once he stood at a fork in the road

Scratchin’ his head which way to go

Power on his left, conscience on his right

A soul in the balance in a knockdown fight

When he's not kissin’ the ring and levellin’ threats

He’s proud to be your favourite hypocrite

Polishin’ soundbites for the folks at home

A moth to a flame and a microphone

The track appears on Carpenter’s 15th studio album The Dirt And The Stars, produced by Ethan Johns and recorded live at Peter Gabriel’s studios in Bath. All 11 songs, enriched by guitarist Duke Levine’s accomplished Telecaster, were written at her farmhouse retreat in Virginia before the pandemic struck but chime with our emotions in these disturbing times. Here’s a solo version of American Stooge for her Songs From Home series.

American Stooge aside, the album – one of our 30 favourites of 2020 (see below) – is characteristically wise and intimate, full of whispered thoughts and a quietness that speaks strength. Songs such as All Broken Hearts Break Differently, Where The Beauty Is, Nocturne and the bewitchingly nostalgic Between The Dirt And The Stars are true to her desire for ‘no sugar-coating’ with sentimentality eschewed.

She says on her website: ‘The songs are very personal and they’re difficult in some ways, and come from places of pain and self-illumination, but also places of joy, discovery and the rewards of self-knowledge. They arrived from looking outward as much as inward, speaking to life changes, growing older, politics, compassion, #metoo, heartbreak, empathy, the power of memory, time and place.’

Carpenter leaves us with a post-pandemic goodwill message: ‘We are going to need one another even more when we gradually emerge back into the sunlight, blinking, wondering, questioning, worrying, fearing, dreaming, exhaling... We all hope that this is not going to last forever, but we’re going to be forever changed by it.’ Could be a lyric idea for her next thought-provoking song.

Epistle: Jealous Of The Birds

Epistle, a love letter to love itself, by the Northern Ireland singer-songwriter Naomi Hamilton, is our Song Of The Week at Performing under her project name Jealous Of The Birds, she can make the spirits soar.

Epistle is one of the standout tracks from her second album, Peninsula, released in September and produced by David Wrench and Marta Salogni just before the March lockdown. Hamilton explores ‘this idea that no man is an island. Each of us is more like a peninsula, reaching off into the expanse of our own individuality but still connected to a bigger land mass and sense of community’. No fan of Brexit, then.

County Armagh-born Hamilton, whose alt folk-rock music has matured wonderfully since the adolescent preoccupations of her promising Parma Violets debut in 2016, borrows a line from Marrow, a song on her last EP Wisdom Teeth, as a theme for her latest recording: ‘You call me peninsula, an island no more.’

Hamilton draws on her influences, Nirvana, Elliott Smith, Fleet Foxes and The Beatles, as Peninsula opens in post-punk rock mode with Young Neanderthal before the nuanced folk beauty of Kodachrome, Haze Of The Hill, Pendulum and Pulaski Skyway takes over. Her love of poetry and painting shines through her cinematic lyrics, informed by her Belfast university degree in English literature and creative writing.

Instrumentally, the penultimate track Always Going embraces both styles and deliberately complements the captivating Epistle. She tells Atwood Magazine: ‘Each song has its own internal logic, but they’re aligned in the same way – kind of like vertebrae in a spine. I want my music to hold the same dualities that our everyday lives have and hopefully Peninsula comes close to doing that.

‘Epistle is a love letter affirming the desire to live, travel and navigate hardship with another person throughout life… I wanted it to have a youthful hopefulness and yet the self-awareness of the complexity of braiding one’s life with another. There’s an equality of trust to that which is really beautiful to me.’

Jealous Of The Birds is an old user name of Hamilton’s on social media, a platform for her art and her pride as a gay activist as well as her band’s moniker. She hopes her music, such as the delightful Dandelion which was used in the TV series Normal People, ‘sound like a real friend talking. I love the idea of songs having that same kind of intimacy. I don’t want them to be posturing or pretentious; just down-to-earth songs that you could share with a friend’.

The multi-instrumentalist’s subtle use of strings on Epistle is as pleasing as the acoustic guitar hook and that beguiling vocal. ‘I know wherever we go, there’ll be joy and flow of the river, of the river,’ she sings in the lovely refrain. It’s the closing track of one of my favourite albums of 2020, leaving us with hope after all the hopelessness.

MY TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2020 (in no particular order)

Jealous Of The Birds (Naomi Hamilton): Peninsula

Fleet Foxes: Shore

This Is The Kit (Kate Stables): Off Off On

Aubrie Sellers: Far From Home

Courtney Marie Andrews: Old Flowers

Bruce Springsteen: Letter To You

Brandy Clark: Your Life Is A Record

Sarah Jarosz: World On The Ground

Dion: Blues With Friends

Waxahatchee (Katie Crutchfield): Saint Cloud

Diana Jones: Song To A Refugee

Kris Drever: Where The World Is Thin

A Girl Called Eddy: Been Around

Emily Barker: A Dark Murmuration Of Words

Kathleen Edwards: Total Freedom

Bob Dylan: Rough And Rowdy Ways

Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards: Bitter Better

Robert Vincent: In This Town You’re Owned

Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Dirt And The Stars

Gretchen Peters: The Night You Wrote That Song

Secret Sisters: Saturn Return

The Hanging Stars: A New Kind Of Sky

Sarah Siskind: Modern Appalachia

Bonny Light Horseman (Anaïs Mitchell): Bonny Light Horseman

Lori McKenna: The Balladeer

Robert Jon & The Wreck: Last Light On The Highway

Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels

Laura Marling: Song For Our Daughter

Katie Pruitt: Expectations

The Lost Brothers: After The Fire After The Rain

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