Songs Of The Week 2022: Take 1

Neil Morton


Under The Milky Way: Emily Barker and Lukas Drinkwater

Most artists have produced new work in isolation during the pandemic but few as resourcefully as Emily Barker and Lukas Drinkwater, quarantined in a hotel room. Our Song Of The Week at is Under The Milky Way from their absorbing new album Room 822.

The couple, visiting Barker’s family in her native Perth in October before embarking on a Covid-hit tour which was partially cancelled then somehow rescued, were forced to isolate for two weeks amid the state’s tight restrictions, luckily in a five-star hotel. Barker had planned an album of covers of her favourite Australian songs, so what better opportunity. First problem: reducing a long list to 10.

It helped having a producer on hand in multi-instrumentalist Drinkwater who performed technical wonders in dampening noises off: a humming fridge, sirens outside their city hotel, helicopters landing on the roof of the hospital opposite, room service intrusions and the swish of a rowing machine in the room above.

They had packed as many instruments as possible, and additional gear was dropped off at the hotel. Production by necessity had to be sparse, no bad thing. Under The Milky Way is one of many songs to have inspired Barker as she grew up. Released in 1988, it was described as an accidental hit for a Sydney-based new wave band The Church (admire those mullets in the video).

Lead singer and bassist Steve Kilbey, who wrote the song with Karin Jansson, wasn't sure what it was about; a special cigarette may have been involved. ‘Perhaps I looked up at the wonderful glittering heavens and was inspired – I don't know.’ He told Guardian Australia in 2014: ‘Like all my songs, it’s a portal into your own mind where I give you a guided meditation. It’s a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.’ The record became something of a curse, overshadowing the band’s other offerings, although Kilbey admitted it has been a good earner.

Its anthemic chorus – ‘Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find’ – became a soundtrack for so many Australian lives as wedding or funeral songs, for school choirs and symphony orchestras. Barker and Drinkwater stripped it down and turned up the subtlety courtesy of Emily’s alluring vocal, Lukas’s wondrous bowed double bass and guest Aussie songwriter Fanny Lumsden’s harmonies.

‘I found myself gravitating towards songs that meant a lot to me in my late teens growing up in WA – songs I would put on the tape deck of my yellow VW Beetle while driving to the coast with the windows down, singing at the top of my lungs,’ says Barker on ‘Fighting through the fog of jet lag, we started recording on day two. Lukas, with bags of studio engineering experience and immense patience, overcame the setbacks and the days ticked by as he captured our performances. By day 12, we had recorded 10 songs by some of Australia’s finest songwriters and Lukas mixed the album over the final two days of a somewhat surreal, but productive stay.’

We love their covers of The Waifs’ charming hymn to homesickness London Still, Silverchair’s Tomorrow, Nick Cave’s Push The Sky Away, Stella Donnelly’s devastating Boys Will Be Boys and Paul Kelly’s climate change wake-up call Sleep Australia Sleep. But Under The Milky Way is on repeat here, its air of mystery quietly and beautifully magnified by the couple in Room 822.

I Lied: Lord Huron (with Allison Ponthier)

‘I Lied’ – the political declaration we would all like to hear – is also the title of a beautiful song by Los Angeles-based indie rock band Lord Huron and our Song Of The Week at Ben Schneider plays the love cheat and Allison Ponthier the victim.

The track appears on the band’s fourth album Long Lost, released last year, and was written by Schneider, their founder and creative force. The singer-guitarist delivers the first two verses, an admission of betrayal to his partner in a doomed relationship: ‘I bore a flame that burned a thousand suns for you but it died/ Told you I could never love somebody else but I lied.’

Ponthier’s crystalline vocal responds to Schneider’s Ricky Nelson balladry: ‘I read your letter in the morning by the lake and I cried/ They were tears of joy, my chains are finally broken.’ Lap steel heightens the haunting quality of this heart-tugging waltz. We won’t spoil it by reprising the final cutting couplet.

Lord Huron began as a solo project in 2010, named after one of the Great Lakes near Schneider’s birthplace in Michigan. He was later joined by Mark Barry (drums), Miguel Briseño (bass/keyboards) and guitarist Tom Renaud. The swelling of strings gives the music a dreamy, retro feel.

I Lied is our second choice drawn from Long Lost, one of our 30 favourite albums of 2021. ‘As though Roy Orbison and Ennio Morricone had got round to collaborating,’ the blurb said of the title track. ‘The Big O meets The Big Valley’ was our description. Much of the album is cinematic with its sweeping sonic landscape and spaghetti western twang, ‘the perfect soundtrack for a road trip to nowhere’, as one critic put it.

‘We wanted it to feel like you were coming upon a long lost classic,’ Schneider told Atwood Magazine. ‘To feel like you discovered some album you somehow missed from a time period you can’t quite figure out. It’s nostalgic, and the tones and the way it’s recorded, the song structures, and some of the rhythms and melodies remind you of something, but… you can’t define it.’

Ponthier’s guest appearance preceded her debut EP, Faking My Own Death, which included the heavenly Hell Is A Crowded Room, co-written by Rick Nowels. She wrote her breakthrough song Cowboy after moving to New York in 2017 and revealing her sexual orientation. ‘I guess it was time to live my truth as a gay cowboy,’ she told American Songwriter.

The Texas-born singer toured with Lord Huron in North America in September; sadly, due to Covid the band had to cancel next month’s dates in the UK and Europe. NPR Music’s Ann Powers commented: ‘Ponthier invokes Chris Isaak invoking Roy Orbison, Cat Power invoking Peggy Lee, Lana Del Rey invoking every singer David Lynch ever ushered on to the stage of Twin Peaks’ Bang Bang Bar.’ The latter part of that sentiment could apply to Lord Huron too.

Song Of The Seasons: Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Neil Young is well into his 70s and still evoking the Seventies. Our Song Of The Week at is Song Of The Seasons, opening track of his latest album with Crazy Horse, Barn. True to himself, ever melodic and defiantly relevant.

The title refers to the converted recording studio high in the Rockies in Colorado where the Canadian-born American songwriter has made his home. Prolific seems an understatement to describe Young’s output. This is the 41st studio album of his career, the 14th with Crazy Horse and most consistent of the five currently occupying places in the UK Americana Top 40 charts.

In Song Of The Seasons Young’s weathered, high-register voice weaves his favourite themes of love, nostalgia and protection of the planet, his harmonica interplaying gorgeously with Nils Lofgren’s accordion. ‘In the colors of the falling leaves/ I see nature makes no mistake… Song of the seasons coming through me now/ Like the wind in your hair.’

Like most of the tracks that follow, it feels like a first or second take, as if it’s being composed on the hoof. Apparently, that was the case. There are reflections of past London visits (‘I see the palace where the queen still reigns/ Behind her walls and lonesome gates’) and allusions to the disturbing present (‘Masked people walking everywhere’). We’ve heard these melodies before but there is comfort in familiarity.

Young, who keeps himself busy curating and expanding his impressive Archives, explained the organic process to Rolling Stone: ‘I don’t sit and play the guitar and sing the song. I might sing one verse, or think it while I’m playing, maybe humming or something. Then I write all the words out and I try to never do it again until it’s being recorded with the band. Right before we do it, I’ll show the band the changes and I’ll let them play for a few minutes. Then I just start.’

The attraction of Young’s music is its rugged, sometimes ragged glory, whether he’s playing plaintive ballads such as Tumblin’ Thru The Years, the mysterious minor-key They Might Be Lost, the long, slow-smoking standout Welcome Back or barn-burning grunge like Heading West and the angry Human Race (a new anthem for climate change activists?).

In Canerican Young celebrates his recently gained right to vote in the US, for Joe Biden of course: ‘I am all colors, all colors is what I am/ Stand beside my brother for freedom in this land.’ As always with Young, the personal links arms with the political. The pursuit of change for the better has been a constant companion for this grizzled romantic. ‘Yeh, I’m older now, but I’m still dreaming,’ he sings in Shape Of You.

In the absence of retired guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampredo, Lofgren takes time out from Springsteen duties to provide distinctive fretwork and multi-instrumental flourishes as he reunites with rhythm section buddies Ralph Molina (drums) and Billy Talbot (bass) who summon ghostly CSN&Y harmonies.

Sometimes one wishes Young had invested more time in sharpening his lyrics and refining guitar licks but the intention here was ‘feel’ and raw immediacy; that aim was achieved. Barn, its cover photo taken by his long-time partner and actress Daryl Hannah who produced the accompanying documentary, is deliberately loose, recorded largely live beneath a full moon, like a jam between old friends.

The seminal Harvest was recorded in a barn too, 50 years ago, and will be commemorated soon but this Barn is more Harvest Moon. I can’t be the only one who began to strum a guitar more seriously after hearing Heart Of Gold. Young gave many of us a soundtrack to our formative years. To quote a contemporary, perhaps he’s trying to keep us forever Young.

Didn’t We Have A Time: North Mississippi Allstars (featuring Lamar Williams Jr)

New music for a new year: the bittersweet Didn’t We Have A Time by the US Southern roots band North Mississippi Allstars is our first Song Of The Week of 2022 at The Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody, present the honey-coated voice of Lamar Williams Jr.

The track, cast in a bluesy Ry Cooder groove, will appear on Set Sail, the band’s 13th album, to be launched late January, a little over two years since the critically acclaimed Up And Rolling. Throughout their 25-year voyage the siblings have been prolific collaborators, this time enlisting Lamar Jr, son of the late Allman Brothers and Sea Level bassist Lamar Sr, on vocals and Jesse Williams (no relation) on bass, who co-wrote the song with the Dickinsons.

Sons of renowned Memphis producer Jim, who played piano on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the Dickinsons describe their music as primitive modernism. They blend the new and sometimes futuristic with the traditional to produce variegated roots music that showcases Luther’s guitar wizardry and Cody’s multi-tasking on drums and various keyboards. The family accent is sweetened by the harmonies of Luther’s daughters Lucia and Isla.

‘The chemistry we have with this line-up is powerful,’ says Luther. ‘We are all second-generation musicians and share a telepathic, relaxed ease about creating and performing. I believe music is a form of communion with our loved ones and conjuring this vibe with members of musical families can be inspirational.’

Production values are in their blood too. Luther and Cody handle the dials for their Allstars project as The Dickinson Brothers. Separately, clients have included Samantha Fish, RL Boyce, Lucero, Amy LaVere, Birds Of Chicago, Ian Siegal and the late Otha Turner. ‘We learned an enormous amount from our father,’ says Luther. ‘Cody and I made mistakes, but we’ve always believed in ourselves, and we had to learn for ourselves. Rock ‘n’ roll is self-taught. Each generation has to reinvent itself and shed the skin of the elders.

‘On Set Sail, we feel as if we’ve once again broken the code, and know what we want and how to get it. We’ve been fortunate to play music with Mavis Staples, Phil Lesh, William Bell, John Hiatt and Blind Boys of Alabama and we strive to live up to their example. We have to prove to the elders that their fight will carry on and pass through future generations.’

Didn’t We Have A Time is the album’s third teaser following the funky soul of Set Sail Part I (Part II will follow) and See The Moon in which Sharisse Norman joins Lamar at the mic and Luther excels with imaginatively phrased fretwork. The new song is a Cody favourite: ‘Hearing my nieces was a high point. It was meaningful, deep and beautifully sad, but also hopeful.’

The nostalgic song, like the title track, suggests impending doom (climate change if not the pandemic) but there’s a glimpse of light:

I’ll see you on the other side of the end

Our friendship will transcend

Meet me on the tree that we rise in the wind

We’ll ride again, my friend

And if tonight we’re blinded by the final white light

Of our last call

Didn’t we have a time

We had a ball

The Dickinsons first met Lamar (Les Brers, Revival) at the Allman Betts Band Family Revival and quickly became friends. ‘Lamar and I are like-minded,’ says Luther. ‘He has a true-blue quality in his musicality that will pull you in and break your heart. At the same time, Jesse grew up playing music with his brothers and his father – as did we. He plays like a sibling.’ Soulmates and ties that bind.

Phil Shaw’s Top 50 Songs Of The Year

Neil Morton’s 30 favourite albums of 2021

Here Comes The Song 2021 playlist on Spotify (10 hours of music at ‘neilmorto’)

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