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Songs Of The Week 2021: Take 1

Neil Morton


Deserving: John Smith

John Smith’s new album The Fray has arrived like vaccine for the soul. The British singer-guitarist is so deserving of our attention. Song Of The Week at is Deserving. This is a personal statement – and a universal one.

The Fray, his sixth studio album recorded in the coveted Wood Room at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios and co-produced by his good friend Sam Lakeman, explores the emotional turmoil of the pandemic. Like so many others Smith has endured heartbreak during the last year but his resilience and trust in hope shine through that engagingly rich rasp of a voice.

The soaring track opens with Smith’s impeccable guitar, in demand down the years from artists as diverse as Joan Baez, David Gray, Tom Jones, Lianne La Havas, Cara Dillon and Joe Henry, and builds beautifully with ethereal vocal contributions from Sarah Jarosz and Courtney Hartman.

It is remarkable how much intimacy can be created by musicians so remote. Long-distance guests help to ensure variety, from the sumptuous harmonies of Lisa Hannigan and Jessica Staveley-Taylor to the subtle harmonics of Smith’s jazz guitar hero Bill Frisell who adorns the gorgeous The Best Of Me.

Smith was on tour in Australia when the world turned upside down. A year of cancelled gigs, including his first headline tour of the US, was dawning. He and his family decided on the move to North Wales before personal calamity struck: his wife lost a pregnancy and then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Smith told Blue Grass Situation that the songs tumbled out of him. ‘It was devastating. But all you can do is try and make sense of it, and the way I do that is write songs.’

In an interview with American Songwriter he said: ‘With newfound pain from so many directions, dealing with the uncertainty it brings, I closed the curtains and picked up the pen, turning to songwriting as a lifeline. It’s been a hell of a year but I feel I’ve created my best work as a result – and as a necessity. A lot of these songs are about accepting that life is hard but just holding on and trying to enjoy it anyway.’

Smith’s defiant optimism is comforting on the title track: ‘Holding on to hope/ I don’t need a decent reason/ Yes and though it disappears sometimes/ It returns with every season.’ His central message, articulated in the haunting Hold On, is: keep your chin up and dig your heels in. ‘If we don’t hold on, we’re lost.’ Other standouts among 12 tracks of high quality are Sanctuary, Eye To Eye (a delicious duet with Jarosz and, like The Best Of Me, co-written by Sarah Siskind), Star-Crossed Lovers (featuring the formidable Hannigan) and the cathartic One Day At A Time.

Mark Radcliffe welcomed ‘an unassuming name for a hugely impressive guy’ on his BBC Radio 2 Folk Show. Smith informed listeners that the track Deserving confronted the domestic tensions caused by lockdown: ‘Being stuck at home and having one too many pointless arguments with people close to you. Everyone’s been through that stir crazy feeling. Maybe behaving badly at times and you think, hang on, do I deserve all this love when, actually, I’m not that easy to be around?’

The years are passing quicker

And my days are twice as long

I should have settled down by now

I thought the anger would be gone

Raging and hurting

Am I deserving of your love?

Crashing and burning

Am I deserving of your love?

The Essex-born, Devon-raised songwriter is happy with his quieter existence in North Wales after the bustle of Liverpool and Brighton. His rescheduled UK tour in September is eagerly anticipated. With the last line of the song, Smith answers his own question: ‘I am deserving of your love.’ Of our admiration too.

Transatlantic: Aoife O’Donovan with Kris Drever

The door to a new normal is creaking open, musicians are coming out to play and concert tickets are being bought. Two shows we’re looking forward to feature folk artists Aoife O’Donovan and Kris Drever who have just collaborated for a magical track, Transatlantic, our Song Of The Week at Presenting an air of grace.

Irish American O’Donovan, lead singer of string band Crooked Still and member of multi-instrumental trio I’m With Her, links virtual arms across the pond with Scottish guitarist Drever for an alluring ballad which celebrates her Gaelic roots and a video filmed by Ben Conley in Orlando, Florida, commissioned by the Brooklyn-based Irish Arts Center for its Grásta: Grace In Uncertainty project.

O’Donovan began writing the song some time ago after one of her frequent transatlantic trips, her own special relationship. ‘The lyric started as a classic love song but when I dusted it off for this project it became something different. I felt strangely moved by the nostalgia and longing for camaraderie, innocently described by my pre-pandemic self.

‘As I finished the tune in January – feeling certain of nothing but the uncertainty of these times – I immediately began to hear the voice of Kris Drever, a friend based in Glasgow.’ Orkney-born Drever enlisted sidemen Euan Burton (bass) and Louis Abbott (drums), with Jeremy Kittel’s violin and viola drifting over the air waves from Brooklyn.

O’Donovan’s delivery has power beyond its delicacy and dovetails with Drever’s warm harmony on a chorus which echoes the traditional tune Loch Lomond…

You take the high road – and I’ll take the low road

I’ll get there before you

We’ll make it to Scotland

Or have we forgotten

What we’re going there for?

The single, which follows 2020’s EP Bull Frogs Croon (And Other Songs), ‘captures the wistfulness of the not-so-distant past’, says the Boston-born songwriter, but it also chimes with pent-up lockdown feelings of wanderlust and companionship…

Everything’s broken around me

The heather dies when I pass

The sky looks like a foundry

Where my heart is metal cast

Jamie, try me

Pour me another I’m dry

Hold on to whatever will be

And we’ll raise our glasses high

We must wait until early next year for O’Donovan’s rescheduled UK tour. Before that in May she will premiere a new work with the Orlando Philharmonic entitled ‘America, Come’, marking the 101st anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s right to vote. Drever’s October date at Kings Place, London, is on our calendar too along with shows by Gretchen Peters, PP Arnold, Mavis Staples, Sara and Sean Watkins, John Smith, The Staves, Larkin Poe, Laura Veirs and Courtney Marie Andrews. A toast to the gig economy.

Mother: John Lennon

It is thrilling and chilling, half a century on, to hear the voice of John Lennon grappling with the traumas of his childhood on his cri de coeur, Mother. Even more so when the 1970 track and 2003 video have been digitally remastered to mark what would have been his estranged mum’s 107th birthday. It’s our Song Of The Week at Otherworldly.

The funeral chimes at the start were said to represent a death knell for The Beatles (one for each member) following the band’s break-up as well as saying goodbye to the mother and father, Julia and Alf, who abandoned him. Mother’s Day would always bear a special poignancy for Lennon...

Mother, you had me but I never had you

I wanted you but you didn’t want me

So I got to tell you – goodbye, goodbye

Father, you left me but I never left you

I needed you but you didn’t need me

So I got to tell you – goodbye, goodbye

The anguish and anger in the voice, one of rock’s most distinctive, were influenced by Lennon’s primal scream therapy treatment with psychologist Arthur Janov to help him come to terms with his painful past. Janov explained: ‘He was almost completely non-functional. At the centre of all that fame, wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.’ The song’s long, intense coda (‘Mama don’t go, Daddy come home’) remains a challenge to the listener as if a fly on the wall of those sessions.

The shrieks were double-tracked and recorded at different times to lessen the impact on the singer’s vocal cords. ‘It’s just a matter of breaking the wall that’s there in yourself and letting it all hang out to the point that you start crying,’ his widow Yoko Ono told Uncut magazine in 1998. ‘He was going back to the days when he wanted to scream, Mother. He was able to go back to that childhood, that memory.’

The sparse production, with final reverb tweaks provided by Phil Spector, gives the song from his debut solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band a haunting quality. Lennon, on piano and guitar, is joined by Ringo Starr on drums and bassist Klaus Voormann who designed the cover for Revolver. Yoko, who has authorised the April 16 re-release of the remastered album accompanied by out-takes, jam sessions, studio conversations and a 132-page book of rare photographs, posters and lyrics, says of Lennon: ‘It was a revolution for a Beatle to say: Listen, I’m human, I’m real. It took a lot of courage for him to do it.’

Those Beatles’ magical history tours in Liverpool include a visit to John’s Aunt Mimi’s house in Menlove Avenue, the road on which her sister Julia was knocked down and killed by a car driven by an off-duty policeman in 1958. Lennon was 17. His father, a merchant seaman who had served in the war, had long left an increasingly chaotic household which led John to live with his aunt. His relationship with his mother was eventually repaired and Lennon would write about her in the elegiac Julia on the White Album and the disturbing final track on that 1970 solo work, My Mummy’s Dead. ‘I lost her twice,’ Lennon said. ‘Once as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again when she actually physically died.’

The mournful Mother has been covered by Barbra Streisand, Shelby Lynne, Maynard Ferguson, Lou Reed and David Bowie but none have captured the raw, visceral hurt generated by Lennon for whom the lyric had unique meaning. As we await 11 hours of music on this so-called Ultimate Collection, here’s the 1970 original. Julia died at the age of 44; her son was only 40 when he was gunned down in New York in 1980. He once invited us to imagine what might be; we still wonder what might have been.

Satisfied: The Staves

One of the rare joys of lockdown has been listening to the harmonies of the vocally distanced. Luckily, we had the Staveley-Taylor sisters, aka The Staves, to show us how to sound celestial with a stripped-down version of a track from their latest album, Good Woman. Our Song Of The Week at is Satisfied.

The Hertfordshire trio – Emily, Jessica and Camilla – completed the album, their first since the splendid If I Was six years ago, before the pandemic but delayed its release. It was a cathartic exercise after a turbulent period of grief and loss, but many of the songs chime with the emotions of these isolated times... Next Year, Next Time, Paralysed and the exquisite, Beatles-esque Nothing’s Gonna Happen.

The songs evolved over a number of years and for the home straight they enlisted indie producer John Congleton, noted for his work with Phoebe Bridgers, St Vincent and Sharon Van Etten, to add sonic flourishes. At times a little of the intimacy is submerged but not on Satisfied which benefits from the full band treatment. The raw beauty and fragility of their soulful voices is not to be tampered with.

The Staves’ sophisticated fourth album has been described as an anthem for female strength and sisterly bonds following the death of their mother in 2018 (the track Sparks is a tribute to her). Their grandmother had passed away two weeks earlier. Then Milly, who was living in Minneapolis with her partner, ended the relationship and flew back to England. The following year Emily’s daughter Margo was born. Such upheaval explains the band’s hibernation but it also informed the new material.

Jessica decided Satisfied should be guitar-driven. She told Stereogum: ‘I wanted it to be a band song. I was into War On Drugs at the time. I wanted it to have a feeling of strength but not masculine. It felt pretty watertight from conception. Even with just the acoustic guitar, the structure felt like it made sense from the beginning.’

The song is asking its subject: ‘Will they ever be satisfied with what they have? Is it ever enough? But it is also urging them not to give up on themselves, and love.’

And it’s never enough, ’til you know it's dead

Keep wasting all your time trying to meet it there

Did you need it that night, did you really care

Well you just leave it on the corner ’til you’re


Good Woman closes with Waiting On Me To Change in which The Staves defiantly declare: ‘I’ll change, I’ll change, I’ll change when I want to.’ The listener will be more than satisfied with that sentiment.

Faceless Angel: The Coral

Some songs you can waltz to; some you can ride the Waltzer to. Our Song Of The Week at is Faceless Angel by Wirral band The Coral, a sinister-sounding single that celebrates the magic and mystery of the fairground.

Faceless Angel was meant to be a ride, the chug-chug of electric guitars evoking the clanking of rusted ghost train wheels, but the lyric suggests a ghostly character drifting through a DC Comics shadowland. The spooky song will appear on the group’s 10th album, Coral Island, their own double ‘White Album’ after more than two decades of highly creative indie psych rock. Funfairs and the oddballs who inhabit them is the theme.

Faceless angel

Hitchhikes through the rain

Trying to get back

To the place from which he came

Fallen brother

Forever on the run

It’s been that way

Since his time had begun

Armed with seaside memories of Rhyl, Blackpool and New Brighton that stick like candyfloss, the lead singer James Skelly told NME he was inspired by the Hellblazer series of graphic novels. ‘It’s like a fallen angel and a pulp mystery, based on old comics. My dad had a burger van when I was a kid so we’d pop up at fairs and shows on the Wirral. When we were setting up in the morning you’d see everyone putting all the rides together. At fairgrounds you always sensed anything was possible. There’s a magic and a smell there. You can feel it.’

Keyboardist and fellow songwriter Nick Power has produced an illustrated book to accompany the album, Coney Island meets Brighton Rock with characters from the songs recreated. ‘The one thing still clear in my memory is how the Waltzers had a really strict soundtrack with the likes of Joe Meek [the trail-blazing producer behind John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me and The Tornados’ Telstar] and Gene Vincent, British rock ’n’ roll with a bit of Pink Floyd thrown in. Most of the tracks are like murder ballads or songs about being haunted by girlfriends who have died in a drag race crash.’

Ah, that Power keyboard vibe. I know the tone is different, a technical step-up from the Tornados’ space pop sound, but it does summon sepia images of the funfair and the early Sixties. As a 12-year-old I was sitting in a café on the front at Rhyl with our family when a peroxide blond (thank you, Mr Meek) came in and ordered an egg and bacon roll. Mum and dad didn’t have a clue who the striking customer was but I pointed to the billboard at the theatre across the road which listed The Tornados below the name of comedian Arthur Askey. They knew him. Heinz Burt, the German-born bass player, could not hear dad crack some sort of 57 Varieties joke (the pop star had even had beans thrown at him by xenophobic bigots at gigs) but was probably aware of the nudge-wink reaction from a table of teenage girls befitting the saucy postcards along the promenade.

The Merseyside band, whose line-up is completed by guitarist Paul Molloy, Paul Duffy on bass and James’s brother Ian Skelly on drums, release Coral Island on April 30, recorded at Liverpool’s Parr Street Studios and their first music since 2018’s Move Through The Dawn. All five musicians, friends from their high school days in West Kirby, have contributed songs and there are the customary collaborations.

The Faceless Angel video, directed by Edwin Burgis (who has worked on visuals with Arctic Monkeys), was filmed in a purpose-built palace inside a deserted Chinese restaurant in Cardiff. A suitably surreal setting for The Coral’s distinctive brand of baroque ’n’ roll. Welcome to the house of fun and fright.

Why The Bright Stars Glow: Valerie June

When the world needed an injection of hope, the scientists provided it. Musicians and songwriters are rolling out the positivity too. Joyously so in the case of Valerie June’s latest offering, Why The Bright Stars Glow, our Song Of The Week at The American embraces multi genres but we can call this astral soul.

It is a further advanced track from her latest release, The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, due out in March. The Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based singer embarks on a dreamer’s journey in search of enduring beauty, her instantly recognisable vocal suitably ethereal. The earlier aperitifs were Call Me A Fool, featuring Stax legend Carla Thomas, and Stay/Stay Meditation/You And I.

‘It finally became clear why I have this dream of making music,’ the multi-instrumentalist said. ‘It’s not for earthly reasons of wanting to be awarded or to win anybody’s love – it’s because dreaming keeps me inquisitive and on that path of learning what I have to share with the world. When we allow ourselves to dream like we did when we were kids, it ignites the light that we all have within us and helps us to have a sort of magic about the way we live.’

Her country and the world are ready to start the healing process, June believes, after all the turbulence of political and social unrest during the pandemic...

When the race is run

And the gold is won

Look how far we’ve come

Dancing in the sun

It is then I know

Why the bright stars glow

Produced by Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, CeeLo Green) and recorded in Miami and Los Angeles, the album is her first since 2017’s The Order Of Time, admired by Bob Dylan, and is described by Uncut Magazine as ‘elegantly subversive, a psychedelic tour de force that mixes folk, soul and spiritual Van Morrison-style hymns into a delirious, unique whole’.

On landing Splash she said: ‘For this album I wanted to see how we could bring some modern elements into that band-in-the-room approach I’ve taken with my records in the past. Any time you create, you should always be exploring and changing and trying things you’ve never done before.’ The producer hired an eclectic band of musicians led by Al Green keys man Lester Snell; there are luscious strings, smouldering horns and African rhythms. Church imbued June with her love of gospel and she was introduced to blues, R&B and soul by her father, a part-time music promoter said to be the first to book Prince in western Tennessee.

Looking back, June observed that the various recording sessions had been conducted with a full moon or shooting stars as a backdrop. ‘The moon and stars are so involved in this album. I don’t even know how to explain it, but they are there.’ She told Shore Fire Media in New York: ‘I see these songs almost like matches for people to strike when they need to reignite that inner light and keep going when things feel dark. I hope it helps them to feel empowered, to realise their strength and their beauty and all the gifts they have to give.’

‘It’s been a hard year,’ she added. ‘We could open a lot of doors in the way of love and respect and kindness to one another because a lot was revealed to us. What do we want to do now that the veil has been torn and we can see everything? I think it’s time for anybody who has a heart that is open to start working on the healing. Don’t waste any time. Just believe that human beings can as great as the light of the moon and stars and make it happen.’ Otherworldly words as well as sounds.

I Ain’t Living Long Like This: Shannon McNally

Combine the velvet vocal of Shannon McNally, the writing of Rodney Crowell and the spirit of Waylon Jennings, and you have one of the great foot-stomping country-rock tracks and our Song Of The Week at, I Ain’t Living Long Like This. Waylon would have loved it. Rodney still does.

Crowell’s song, the title track of his influential debut album in 1978 and relayed to a wider audience by Jennings on What Goes Around Comes Around the following year, is the lead single from McNally’s May release The Waylon Sessions. Instead of unveiling new material McNally took the bold step of paying homage to Mr Outlaw Country.

You would think McNally might regard this musical territory as too testosterone-heavy but the Long Island-born songwriter says: ‘There’s a feminine perspective hidden inside each of these songs. My job was to find a way to tap into that and draw it out. I have never heard a woman sing any of them but these tunes are poignant and relevant to me and women in general.’ Not a pronoun is changed.

In an interview with American Songwriter, who premiered the single, she said: ‘Waylon was the cornerstone of my record collection. What appeals to me is that sense of self. He was an artist so important to American music, and I just thought I can do that. I wanted to get the sound right, and I wanted it to be respectful. I wanted deeply authentic players. Getting the guitars right was really important. I didn’t want to re-interpret the grooves or reinvent the wheel at all.’

She is grateful for the artistic freedom gained by her switch to Blue Rose Music. ‘I’m tired of the market dictating to artists what it is that they are and what they have to be,’ she said. ‘I had the opportunity to make the record I wanted to make. But what has gotten so boring to me about the modern landscape is that everybody is worried about all this other crap before they’re worried about their soul. The entire music business is a mess, for writers, for artists, for everybody. Everybody gets screwed. If this isn’t a spiritual pursuit for you, go get a job. I need to do what channels through me, and Waylon’s attitude and perception of life is something that we need. I want to have fun and I want to feel good, I want to bring some joy, and I want people to feel that same sense of freedom that I feel.’

Crowell, who sings one of the verses, tweeted: ‘Her brains, beauty and big heart notwithstanding, the fact Shannon is bad-ass enough to pull off a Waylon Jennings covers album surprises me not in the least.’ Other tracks include Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys and I’ve Always Been Crazy. Crowell’s fellow Texan, who formed supergroup The Highwaymen in 1985 with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, died in 2002.

McNally has recorded a covers album before – 2013’s Small Town Talk, a tribute to Bobby Charles and a collaboration with Dr John. For The Waylon Sessions she recruited an impressive cast: Crowell, Buddy Miller, Lukas Nelson, Jennings’ widow Jessi Colter, Waylon’s old pedal steel player from The Waylors Fred Newell and guitarist Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives), who brought in drummer Derek Mixon, bassist Chris Scruggs and Bukka Allen on keys.

McNally’s last album, 2017’s Black Irish, was produced by Crowell and featured a smouldering track they wrote together, Banshee Moan, a former Song Of The Week on this website. McNally, whose music transcends genre and on this occasion gender, has been called ‘probably rock’s most talented undiscovered gem’, working under the radar for nearly two decades. This record can raise the volume for a singular voice.

Stay Awake To Dream: Lauren Housley

On the day Joe Root recorded that special hundred in his 100th Test another Yorkshire milestone was being celebrated. It was only a single but a beautifully crafted one. Our Song Of The Week at is Stay Awake To Dream by Rotherham-born songwriter Lauren Housley.

It is a soulful, thoughtful entrée to her third album, Girl From The North, due out in April, which follows 2017’s The Beauty Of This Life and 2015’s Sweet Surrender. It marks a journey of rediscovery with tales of love, loss and trauma. She told Americana UK, who premiered the video: ‘To move forward we sometimes have to go back. I wanted to prove to myself that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can make great music. Returning to my hometown of Rotherham a few years ago, after leaving at the age of 18 [she was earlier based in Newcastle and Manchester], seemed like the most bizarre decision I’d ever made. It was never part of my plan but it has has enabled me to reassess my life and career goals and move forward in a way that feels true to myself.’

The sound is more Nashville, where she has performed (My Sleeping Heart was inspired there), than South Yorkshire. She was influenced by her father’s Elvis impressions and her mother’s Motown and Eva Cassidy records but the northern connection features strongly in her lyrics. Stay Awake To Dream, exquisitely sung, recalls a disturbing episode from her childhood, the bleak verses contrasting with the hopeful chorus...

Don’t want to end up like Bobby

She’s gone lost her head

But I’d never be broken by the things that you said

I made the decision to be no angry man’s wife

14 and knowing to say no to this life…

I’ve got rain in my eyes seeing stars through the trees

The darker the night the brighter they seem

While everyone else falls asleep

I lay awake to dream

Housley, who says music is her therapy, wrote the new material with guitarist husband and long-time musical collaborator Thomas Dibb, mostly recorded in a studio the couple built beneath a food hall in Rotherham, which they used for their wedding reception. ‘This is a real step up for Lauren in songwriting and storytelling,’ said Dibb. ‘She is drawing on inspiration from her childhood, growing up in a working-class town, having big dreams and exploring the world through her art. I hope young girls and women can listen to Lauren’s story and find inspiration in it themselves.’

We have been playing this gorgeous track since the summer of 2019 when Housley and friends performed an acoustic version for the Under The Apple Tree sessions, recorded around one mic outside the studio in Bob Harris’s garden. Like a certain cricketer, this songwriter is here for the long run. Roots music, you might say.

Killing The Blues: Rowland Salley

It is often rewarding to trace a great song back to its source. Killing The Blues, famously covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, was written as long ago as 1977 by American musician Rowland Salley. It is our Song Of The Week at Rowland who?

You might not have heard of him, but you’ve probably heard him. On some lyric sites, he is actually listed as Salley Rowland or misspelled his name while some of those who have recorded his composition have been lazily credited with writing it. Illinois-born Roly, now 71, is the bass player with Chris Isaak’s band, Silvertone. He didn’t submit Killing The Blues for critical assessment until his only album of the same name in 2005. He once said: ‘The part I like best about writing is the second you realise that you’ve just written a song.’

His solo album was recorded on weekend breaks in Vancouver during filming for The Chris Isaak Show in 2004. Shawn Colvin, who sang it on her Cover Girl album in 1994, said: ‘Larry Campbell told me in 1981 while we were in a band together that I should learn this song by his friend Roly. Just when you think there’s no new way to say anything, you hear a song like this and think, that's as good as anything before or since.’ Colvin’s version remains Salley’s favourite.

The reimagining by Plant and Krauss on 2007’s classic Raising Sand album was a restrained and smouldering duet, enhanced by T Bone Burnett’s inspired production, and earned the songwriter a belated Grammy. Plant recalled in an interview with The Times in 2008: ‘When I first heard it, I was driving through the Welsh borders in Herefordshire. I just stopped the car. It was so poignant, so masterly.’

Krauss added: ‘When you combine a melody that lifts you up with a lyric like that, it’s a twisted thing. When you get the combination, it’s really something.’ Salley, an accomplished water colour painter whose art has featured on three Maria Muldaur albums, said the song concerned a fork in the road of a cherished but doomed relationship. It was even used in an advertising campaign for the chain store JC Penney, which included sentimental images of family reunions and Fourth of July celebrations. Bit of a stretch for a break-up song.

The striking aspect of the original is the range of Salley’s tenor; some interpreters did not risk attempting the higher register. Plant and Krauss achieved it perfectly, their synchronicity reminding us of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in an earlier magical heyday.

The song’s bruised beauty is compelling, its chorus daring you not to join in...

Now I’m guilty of something

I hope you never do

Because there is nothing

Sadder than losing, yourself in love

Now you ask me, just to leave you

To go out on my own

And get what I need to

You want me to find what I’ve already had

Somebody said they saw me

Swinging the world by the tail

Bouncing over a white cloud

Killing the blues

John Prine covered it too. So did Chris Smither and Billy Ray Cyrus with Shooter Jennings. Robert Vincent and Anna Corcoran, UK Americana award winners, are the latest to do justice to the song. But Roly the creator killed it first.

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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Apr 27, 2021

Great selection. Thanks

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