Songs Of The Week 2022: Take 2

Updated: 2 days ago

Neil Morton


The Weight: Mavis Staples & Levon Helm

If the 1978 live album The Last Waltz featured the definitive recording of The Band’s stellar song, The Weight, then the version on the newly released Carry Me Home must run it close. Our Song Of The Week at is a gospel-soaked classic.

The common denominators are Mavis Staples and The Band’s late singer-drummer Levon Helm. What gives the track added poignancy is the knowledge that this was the last time Helm and Staples would perform it before the throat cancer he thought he had conquered returned to claim him in April, 2012. The Staple Singers – Pops, Mavis and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha – had recorded it with The Band at the time of their farewell concert at The Winterland in San Francisco in 1976, minus audience, for inclusion in Martin Scorsese’s rockumentary released two years later. Has there been a finer rock film?

Carry Me Home, another memorial of a live album, was recorded in the summer of 2011 at one of Helm’s famous Midnight Ramble shows in Woodstock, New York. We always wished we could have attended one of those special nights in The Barn, which helped to pay his mounting medical bills, but this is a sweet substitute.

Helm had always sung the first verse of The Weight but here defers to Mavis’ honey-rich delivery before picking up the later ‘Go down Moses’ stanza. You can detect in the husky rasp that there is enough of the old Arkansas tenor left for us to admire. This is his only vocal lead but that unmistakable tight drumming is as authoritative and attractive as ever. ‘The place just went wild when Levon sang,’ said Staples. ‘It was a real full-circle moment to be performing that song together again.’

Mavis wasn’t to know this was the last time she would see her great friend. ‘We hugged and hugged. In my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me. I take him everywhere I go. And some sweet day we’ll be together again.’ The Weight would become Helm’s closing song at his Rambles and, aptly, it is the album’s final track, an unforeseen requiem.

Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece follows wonderful covers of Bob Dylan’s You Got To Serve Somebody, Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem This Is My Country, Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River To Cross and Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The Staples’ This May Be The Last Time (turned into a hit by the Rolling Stones) and Larry Campbell’s gorgeous When I Go Away, which Levon covered on his Electric Dirt album, maintain the joyous standard.

There is so much to enjoy beyond the magic of our two hosts, backed by their respective bands – the guitar work of Rick Holstrom and Campbell and those magnificent horns, particularly the unexpected tuba solo on The Weight.

Helm’s final recorded work can finally be heard more than 10 years on. It has been worth the wait. Fortunately, we’ll be seeing Mavis soon in London during the 82-year-old Chicagoan’s European tour. It is a bonus to learn that Helm’s daughter Amy, an impressive blues-soul singer herself, will join her idol and mentor on stage as she did on those Ramble nights. The circle will be unbroken.

Read more about The Weight, The Last Waltz and Robbie Robertson’s memoir here

Hard Times In Babylon: Rachel Baiman & Kris Drever

Rachel Baiman and Kris Drever are about to embark on a UK tour together, and one song is bound to resonate throughout. Hard Times In Babylon, our Song Of The Week at, was written by the estimable Eliza Gilkyson who will surely approve of this moving rendition.

The song, a lament to a departed drummer friend of Gilkyson who took his own life, is the title track of her 2020 album, a musical diary devoted to love and loss. Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist Baiman links up with Scottish singer-guitarist Drever, quickening the tempo slightly and combining for an alluring interpretation of the creator’s powerful original.

Chicago-born Baiman, lauded for her fiddle and banjo playing rooted in bluegrass, picks an acoustic here as Drever and Watchhouse’s Josh Oliver add lovely layers of electric guitar to Riley Calcagno’s acoustic lead. Lauren Horbal’s deft brush work and Adam Chaffins on bass complete the line-up. Above all, the voices of our protagonists dovetail serenely.

‘I first heard the song at the beginning of a long solo drive,’ Baiman told Folk Radio UK. ‘I must have listened to it 20 more times before I reached my destination. What grabs me is the sense of community Gilkyson is referencing. The description of musicians and creatives living under one roof, trying to make it through hard times. Seeing the ghost of a lost friend at a venue they used to haunt, and mourning with one another.’

Baiman captures the sense of hopelessness in the erudite lyric. But there is always hope in Gilkyson’s formidable songs:

Woody, you were my hero

A shoulder to cry on when I bottomed out at zero

In the hour of the wolf, just before the dawn

Hard times in Babylon

OK, so you had to go

Take a walk on the wild side

Down to the valley of the shadow

But it just don’t seem like you

You could have called out

There’s not a man or a woman gathered here tonight in the big house

Who wouldn’t run to pull you through

Orkney-born Drever, juggling his time with the trio Lau, his solo shows and numerous fine collaborations, worked with Baiman remotely, the pair trading ideas. ‘I recorded the track with a full band, in a simple, understated folk style that I thought would be the extent of the vibe for the song,’ she says. ‘But Kris came back with these incredible vocal harmony ideas and guitar lines, which brought out an entirely new shape in the arrangement. I know he was watching that Beatles documentary at the time, and I’m sure I can hear that, which I love.’ And so do we.

No wonder Baiman was bowled over by the enhanced arrangement. The swell of vocals and guitars sound glorious during a middle eight which is the crux of Gilkyson’s message:

Got to hang together when the air’s this thin

Hand out the masks for the oxygen

Live for something

We’re coming upon a time in our lives

When the little dreams live but the big dream dies

Not for nothing, not for nothing

Four years on from Baiman’s well-received debut LP Shame, last year’s Cycles album revealed a grittier quality to her writing with a collection of songs about ‘how we destroy and rebuild as families and as a country’. She has matured into a fearless, sometimes political voice for ‘the immense strength of women in the face of adversity’.

On tour Baiman and Drever will perform separate sets but join forces for a number of songs. Hard Times In Babylon will be one of many to savour.

Point Me Toward The Real: Ezra Furman

‘When I look to the future I want to know who has my back,’ says Chicago-born, Oakland-based songwriter Ezra Furman. Our Song Of The Week at is her haunting single, Point Me Toward The Real, a real beauty of a song about recovery and self-discovery. There are nods to Bob Dylan in the melody and echoes of Neil Young and Patti Smith in the vulnerable vocal. The narrator describes a car journey after being released from a psychiatric hospital; Furman hadn’t experienced it herself but was eager to discuss ‘what you do after abuse, imprisonment, a brush with death’. ‘Who do you call when it’s supposedly over?’ she asks. ‘Where do you go? We’ve all been going through something terrifying. We’ve all made friends with death in the last two years. What is real, what and who can I rely on? Point me toward the real; there’s no other direction I want to go.’ Furman, who came out last year as a transgender woman, has released her first music since 2019’s Twelve Nudes album and the soundtrack to the Netflix movie Sex Education. The former punk rocker’s latest tracks, including Book Of Our Names, reveal a more measured, slow-burning approach although the protest singer’s anger within her is never far from the surface. The producer is John Congleton (Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, St Vincent and Future Islands), the sumptuous horns were arranged by Nate Walcott of Bright Eyes and soulful harmonies provided by Shannon Lay and Debbie Neigher. As one fan tweeted: ‘Awesome. Chord progression comes from heaven. Every lyric lands.’ The lyric points to Furman's central theme of love and care: You asked me who I might like to see on my first night back outside

But my friends are few and my lover is through and my family’s horrified…

I’ve been lied to and abused Time to try to heal Cut me loose, cut me loose Let me get hurt, let me feel Cut my bound hands and point me toward the real

The most recent track, Book Of Our Names, was inspired by her Jewish faith; Furman apparently toyed with the idea of training to be a Rabbi. ‘The song is about what it feels like to live together under an empire that doesn’t value your lives. I sing it as a Jew and as a trans woman, knowing well the stakes and consequences of being part of a hated population. But it is a protest song intended for use by any movement for collective survival and freedom.’

The Book of Names is the Hebrew biblical equivalent of Exodus. ‘I started to think that the act of saying names out loud, of seeing individuals in their full irreplaceable uniqueness, holds the seed of true liberation.’

Let any doubters or detractors be pointed toward the real.

Heaven And Light: River Whyless

They could have moved to Nashville but settled for Asheville. Presenting indie folk-rock band River Whyless, named after a line from an e.e. cummings poem. Their latest album Monoflora provides our Song Of The Week at, Heaven And Light. A divine sound.

The North Carolina-based quartet – Halli Anderson, Daniel Shearin, Ryan O’Keefe and Alex McWalters – are all songwriters who met at Appalachian State University. They converted drummer McWalters' mountain cabin into a studio, transferring equipment from Shearin’s home in town and spent 30 days recording in 2019 before the pandemic struck. Only now have they been able to promote the fruits of their labour.

The vocal interplay between violinist Anderson, guitarist O’Keefe and bassist and multi-instrumentalist Shearin is a delight, as engaging as Darlingside, Watchhouse and Lula Wiles. Folk, roots and bluegrass blend with early Fleet Foxiness and Beatles-like psychedelia although the synth effects are more sparing than on their previous two albums, Kindness, A Rebel and We All The Light.

The songs were mostly written from scratch or from scraps of undeveloped ideas, an improvised team effort. Their self-produced record explores themes of wanderlust, lost innocence and the marvels of their inspiring surroundings and the natural world.

Heaven And Light examines our capacity to be wonderful and woeful at the same time, captured by the line 'We are parasite, we are divine'. 'The idea had a certain meaning to me in 2019, but after having gone through the pandemic it resonates so much stronger,' McWalters told The Boot. 'To see how people have behaved throughout the past couple of years has been eye-opening. You can turn on the news and hear about amazing acts of kindness followed by stories of selfishness.'

Time and again it's true The quicker the judge, the quicker the fool Longing to leave it all, longing for you As you show me, show me a kinder day In the end now, the end now Don't we fade to the same heaven and light? Heaven and light

The American poet cummings, who used lower-case spelling for his work as well as his name, loved to invent words, such as ‘the whyless sky’. It struck a chord with the band who chose the prefix ‘river’ for its ever-changing, ever-bending qualities that reflected their music.

'The word whyless to us means something inexplicable,' said McWalters. 'Which is how we feel when we're in Asheville making music. Every time we'd come back from the west, we'd get our first glimpse of the Appalachian mountains and we'd go: we’re home. A certain sound comes out of you. Subconsciously we're fed by this place.’

The drummer gave an insight into the creative process on Monoflora: ‘With each of us being songwriters, it’s like having four cooks in the kitchen, which can lead to a lot of creative stalemates. We wanted to obscure the fingerprints of who actually wrote each song. We were deliberate about not writing anything outside of the band because with multiple writers and styles an album often doesn’t feel as cohesive. Even though we still have three vocalists on it, this record feels like it's all coming from one vision.’

For further evidence, listen to Oil Skin, Time Is A Holy Ghost (featuring Anderson’s sizzling violin) and Michigan Cherry. The first line of Oil Skin, ‘When I was a child my mother would bathe me in the sink, pull the oil from my skin’, had been ‘kicking around my head for years’, O’Keefe told The Bluegrass Situation. It might have made earlier albums but only worked when Shearin suggested switching from waltz time to a 4/4 beat.

‘We left the vocal melody resembling the original waltz and that was the key. It has a subtle trippy cadence that I wouldn’t have naturally thought of. It still took some work but we had unlocked the door and stepped inside.’ Where Heaven And Light awaited.

The Bay Of Fundy: The Unthanks

If The Unthanks did not exist, we would have to invent them. Singing sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, at their most majestic, have revitalised a song first recorded in 1967 entitled The Bay Of Fundy, our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song. A glorious preview of their autumn album Sorrows Away.

The album title strikes a note of optimism after the pain of the pandemic though The Bay Of Fundy is a brooding piece, beautifully sung and played with pianist, composer, producer and musical director Adrian McNally at the helm. Its cinematic soundscape makes it an inviting contender for a future Netflix seafaring drama.

The song was written by American folklorist and songwriter Gordon Bok who grew up in Camden, Maine. The bay in Nova Scotia, Canada, which touches the tip of Maine, has the highest tides in the world.

It tells the tale of being aboard a boat, stranded on the tide, waiting for days to be delivered safely to shore. It happened to Bok as he drifted for 11 days on a windless voyage from Maine to Halifax. ‘It was a long and weary trip on a little black schooner that seemed to move only by the slatting of her gear,’ Bok recalled. The sense of isolation, according to The Unthanks, provokes thoughts of the magnitude of nature compared to our tiny selves.

We wonder if, apart from the eerie melody, the Tyneside siblings were lured by Bok’s reference to 'East-North East'.

Fundy's long and Fundy's wide Fundy's fog and rain and tide Never see the sun or sky Just the green wave going by Cape Sable's horn blows all day long I wonder why, I wonder why East-by-North or East-North East Give her what she steers the best I don't want the foggy wave To be my far and lonely grave Give her staysail, give her main In the darkness and the rain I don't mind the wet and cold I just don't like the growing old

Audiences during the current tour are being treated to more gems from the album, their first non-project work since Mount The Air, 2015's Folk Album of the Year. Their 11-piece ensemble includes core members Niopha Keegan (fiddle and vocals) and multi-instrumentalist Chris Price augmented by regulars Lizzie Jones on trumpet, drummer Martin Douglas, Becca Spencer (viola) and Kath Ord (violin).

The Unthanks have always loved a project from their tributes to the songs of Anthony And The Johnson, Robert Wyatt and Molly Drake to wonderful alliances with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Charles Hazelwood’s Army of Generals.

For the latest in their Diversions series of records they returned to their roots with an unaccompanied outing, a nod to the popular singing weekends they regularly organise. They created song cycles from Emily Brontë’s poetry (McNally using the poet’s own tiny piano), collaborated with Maxine Peake to produce ground-breaking theatre and provided the soundtrack for Mackenzie Crook’s BBC adaptation of the Worzel Gummidge books.

Back to the day job. Soon we can savour more original, multi-directional, genre-defying music for the heart and soul. Thankfully, The Unthanks will continue to do their best to drive our sorrows away.

I Will Be Glad: Jess Jocoy

Nashville-based songwriter Jess Jocoy is pursuing silver linings and her golden voice has found an album’s worth. Her new single, I Will Be Glad, is our Song Of The Week at A pleasing appetiser for her forthcoming release Let There Be No Despair.

Jocoy counts her blessings with a song rooted in the passing of her father, her close relationship with her mother and the challenge of love with another. She says: ‘While I like to include little hints of my truth within my songs I Will Be Glad has a lot of personal truth. It’s a salute to my parents for raising me to look for the good and always give thanks, for all my faults and misgivings or when the road feels a little too long.’

The accompaniment has a stripped-down, soft-hued beauty: Ethan Ballinger’s hypnotic acoustic guitar hook, Lydia Luce’s melancholic violin, Brian Allen’s fine double bass and Matty Alger’s rim and brush subtlety provide the perfect foil for Jocoy’s aching vocal as she taps into the power of resilience. The lyric reveals an admirable maturity to match the emotional intensity of her singing.

In the end that big old mountain we keep climbing

I pretend that I’m already at the peak

In the end when the sunshine turns to rust

And my body returns to the dust

For all the sweetest days I’ve been given

I will be glad

I can’t say I answer every call

Oh and sometimes I catch fire like the treetops in the fall

But I’m learning that good lessons

Leave their scars like raw confessions

And the ones that hurt the worst make you stand tall

Let There Be No Despair, produced by Brandon Bell with help from Alger and due out on May 20, is billed as ‘a record for the days when life tries to break your heart’. It follows her lauded debut album Such A Long Way (‘aiming for a sweet spot somewhere between Jason Isbell and Emmylou Harris’) and self-produced EP Brighter Eyes, both crafted in Jocoy’s adopted city whose country-folk songwriters had captured her imagination as a youngster who was driven around Washington state to singing competitions and karaoke sessions by her parents.

The album blends the personal with imaginative storytelling songs in which she inhabits disparate characters. The Gardener tells of a Montana woman who, unable to bear children, coaxes new life in the form of flowers from the earth while the haunting Waiting To Exhale deals with abuse and a survivor’s steadfast spirit. ‘Part of me feels like I may not have a right to tell some of these stories, because they aren’t my own,’ she says, ‘but it’s the heartbreaking truth that someone out there has lived through these things. I sing for them, hoping they’ll hear it and know there’s light after darkness.’

Inspired by her mother’s rural hometown along the Arizona-Mexico border, she turns Living In A Dying Town into a powerful portrait of a defiant resident proud of her roots and willing to fight for them. In Jericho Walls she sings disarmingly about the barriers she has built around herself. Readers of this website may recall our Song Of The Week choice featuring Luce (her gorgeous song Occasionally) and we sang the praises of Ballinger for his pulsating electric guitar work on Aubrie Sellers’ Worried Mind which is echoed during the title track of Let There Be No Despair.

When Jocoy lost her father to cancer in 2013, six months after his diagnosis, she decided to thread her grief into the fabric of her songs, acknowledging that pain is a universal feeling. ‘That’s when I really started to learn how to write sad songs,’ she says. There will be hope, there will be joy.

I don’t get to hear my father’s voice

But his hazel eyes reflect within my own

If there ever was a time you’d need clout to turn back time

It’s when you gotta let somebody go

Jocoy moved to Nashville in 2014, and her journey of self-discovery has reached an important landmark. After the pandemic shut down the world and slowed her swift rise to recognition, she is looking forward to promoting her art with her first UK tour in June and July. We will be glad to be there.

Harness The Wind: Calexico

US indie band Calexico are celebrated for their desert noir soundscapes but just when the world needed hope they’ve shone a light in the darkness. Our Song Of The Week at is the buoyant Harness The Wind.

Hope is the theme of their 10th studio album, El Mirador, and you can hear it in the glittering guitar of lead singer Joey Burns, the busy drumming of John Convertino, the urgent bass and synth of Sergio Mendoza and a chorus swelled by the harmonies of regular collaborator Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine.

Do you dream of flying

At the speed of light?

Shooting for the moon

Another lonely night

You get so high

Don’t wanna come back down

To a world of problems

With answers never found

Are we just falling stars

Dancing across the sky?

If our worlds don’t collide

Is there a chance for you and I?

Burns, who founded Calexico with Convertino over 30 years ago, explained the idea behind the song: ‘When we recorded it felt like we tapped into a spark of bright light and positivity. Everything fell together quickly and naturally. It's a song about hope and compassion to fellow travellers who are trying to find their way.’ As the blurb says, welcome to ‘a blast of danceable optimism’.

‘El Mirador stands both as a lookout point and beacon in the dark; an opportunity to search inwards, ponder our connections to the Earth and its people, and hopefully illuminate a path forward,’ Burns added. ‘It is dedicated to family, friends and community. The pandemic highlighted all the ways we need each other, and music happens to be my way of building bridges and encouraging inclusiveness and positivity. That comes along with sadness and melancholy, but music sparks change and movement.’

The band named after a California-Mexico border town, with Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet a haunting presence and multi-instrumentalist Mendoza sprinkling his magic in his Tucson studio, have composed a 12-track love letter to the ghostly landscape of the American South-West, the TexMex and mariachi textures richer than ever. Their cinematic sound is evocative of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti westerns, particularly the exuberant El Burro Song (beyond the brass listen out for the donkey brays) and two foot-tappers named after a Colombian dance, Cumbia Peninsular (featuring Spanish singer-guitarist Jairo Zavala, aka DePedro) and Cumbia Del Polvo.

Constellation is another celestial standout, a sister song to Harness The Wind, and on the title track Calexico are joined by Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno, Tom Hagerman of Devotchka on solo violin and strings, and Alessandro Stefana on electric guitar, banjo and lap steel. El Paso, with Pieta Brown contributing a fine lyric, has a Tom Waits vibe and contains the memorable lines: ‘Fighting for a border/ That’s hard to understand/ And harder to find/ Than the truth in this land.’

The singing is as much in Spanish as English, and the musical accent is distinctly Latin. A vibrant fiesta for the senses.

Weep & Whisper: The Hanging Stars

When all the talk is war, catastrophe and crisis, it can be heart-warming to roll back the rock years to the Summer of Love. Our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is Weep & Whisper, a shimmering galaxy of guitars from The Hanging Stars that is evocative of the spirit of 1967 when the news agenda was just as bleak.

For those of us weaned on The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Bros and Love’s Forever Changes, this is a throwback to psychedelia written in the here and now from the London-based band’s fourth and finest album, Hollow Heart. The Hanging Stars would only have read about that era or seen the film footage but they immersed themselves in its music. Sample the evidence as the cosmic country sonics of Weep & Whisper send you soaring beyond eight miles high.

The album was recorded between lockdowns in the Highlands, the band having decamped to Edwyn Collins’ studio in Helmsdale with producer Sean Read. ‘The stars aligned,’ lead singer and guitarist Richard Olson told the music blog Say It With Garage Flowers. ‘We grafted and were so focused. It was magical from start to finish.’

The track was a high point for Olson too. ‘When you’re standing in the studio, and the sun’s setting over the bay, and you’re singing Weep & Whisper, you think you’ve made it. The songs had been written, demos had been sent to each other, and we finished them in the studio. We threw the rulebook out the window – we had to.’

Weep & Whisper is a love song to lost dreams, arranged by pedal steel maestro Joe Harvey-Whyte. ‘Patrick [Ralla, the band’s multi-instrumentalist] and Joe did their guitars in one take – it wasn’t edited. Me and Sean sat there and were like: Shit, this is what it’s all about. That was one of the finest moments of my musical career.’ Sam Ferman’s bass is a darting delight and drummer Paulie Cobra impresses with deft brushes and harmonies more Laurel Canyon than Walthamstow.

Olson’s attractive vocal is gaining authority. ‘I think I’m finally entering Swedish Sam Cooke territory,’ he jests.

We used to talk about the times

Future days of beauty, truth and promised lands

Echoes of a stream to cross

Weep and whisper for a time that never was

So please forgive my true despair

At the time that we won’t have or hold or share

Despite the band’s broadly optimistic outlook, Olson admits to having produced his darkest lyrics, a reflection of the times. He is probably referring to the political I Don’t Wanna Feel So Bad Anymore where the glorious 12-string intro signals their jingle-jangle influences – you can hear The Byrds, The Doors (that organ sound), The Beatles, The Who. The effect is uplifting.

The radio-friendly riffs of Radio On (‘Big Star meets the Velvet Underground’), Black Light Night and Ballad Of Whatever May Be contrast thrillingly with the subtle layers of Ava (echoes of Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead) and the disturbing Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart (‘Us trying to be Fairport Convention’).

CSNY, Starry Eyed And Laughing, The Turtles, The Beach Boys, Bread, The Stone Roses… we all love indulging in what-does-this-remind-you-of parlour games. But the time may have arrived when we say The Hanging Stars sound just like, well, The Hanging Stars.

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