Songs Of The Week 2022: Take 3

Neil Morton


Champion: Warpaint

When England’s victorious women footballers have tired of Sweet Caroline and Three Lions (Football's Coming Home), they might consider something more chilled and contemplative for their winding-down playlists: Champion by US indie rock band Warpaint. Our Song Of The Week at is a track made for Lionesses.

The launch single of Warpaint’s fourth album, and their first for six years, Radiate Like This, builds subtly and the ethereal groove is hypnotic. The Los Angeles quartet – Theresa Wayman, Emily Kokal, Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa – say the song is about ‘being a champion to oneself and for others. We are all in this together; life is too short not to strive for excellence in all that we do. It’s about finding your confidence and self-belief and uplifting your loved ones to do the same’.

I’m an ocean

Breathing in and out

I’m a million years old

I’m a champion

We’re all the same sun

We’re all our own sun too…

And here it is, I’ve got you

And here it is, I talk to you

I hope you figure out

Everything you’re on about

This could be the Lionesses’ mantra. Their eloquent captain Leah Williamson has spoken about an Apple Music playlist of songs that helped her tackle setbacks such as injury lay-offs and upbeat tracks that motivated her for admirable action on the pitch. It is an eclectic mix.

There are familiar choices such as Adele, Cat Burns and Ed Sheeran but then there are more discerning picks featuring Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, rapper Tems, Nathaniel Rateliff and country artists Chris Stapleton and Mickey Guyton. A former Song Of The Week here, Sam Fender’s Spit Of You, is included. Could there be a place for Warpaint on the subs’ bench?

‘I’m a person that likes to feel the emotion of whatever situation has presented itself,’ says Williamson. ‘And I switch when I’m back at work, like, OK let’s go for it now. And I’ll turn to Motown and soul tracks which connect me to real life. I’m a bit different from others in the sense that generally you listen to pumped-up music with a strong beat to get you moving, but I like music that also chills me out before the game.’

Warpaint’s intricate melodies and hazy harmonies have been described as dream-pop but that is a lazy description for a multi-layered, cerebral approach that channels soul, hip-hop, Weather Station-style jazziness and Radiohead electronica. They have been playing for nearly 18 years and although the pandemic meant they wrote and recorded in isolation their chemistry has not been compromised.

Their recording sabbatical since 2016’s Heads Up was not just Covid-related. Motherhood beckoned, house moves were made (drummer Mozgawa back to her native Australia to record with Courtney Barnett and bass player Lindberg to Utah) and there were solo projects and collaborations. But this Warpaint is hard to wash away. Listen to follow-up single Stevie, Hard To Tell You, Melting and Proof and you realise they are tighter than ever, the celestial guitars of Kokal and Wayman shimmering among the synths and above an imaginative, dynamic rhythm section.

Champion could be the wistful soundtrack to a highlights package of the Lionesses’ extra-time triumph over Germany in the Euro 2022 final. No need for crazy dancing, just a gentle, self-satisfied sway – and a place in Leah Williamson’s playlist of chills and thrills. To the sound of Warpaint the Lionesses can bask in dreamland for a little longer. Game-changers can radiate to this.

Empty Cups: Amanda Shires

Among the canon of songs about rocky relationships Amanda Shires’ Empty Cups has to be one of the most powerful lyrically. Our Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song appears on her new album Take It Like A Man. Shires somehow manages to wear both hearts on her sleeve.

The album is a disarmingly candid exploration of womanhood, her life as a mother and her marriage to fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who plays distinguished guitar on seven of the 10 tracks. ‘Everything on the record is autobiographical. I didn’t hold anything back,’ she says. We are left feeling like reluctant intruders as raw stanzas hang in the air like laundry on full show… 

You’re leaving now through the hole of an argument

I guess for a while you’ve been looking for the exit

You slammed the door so hard I still hear rattling spoons

The sound of silence rings in every room

My hands are two empty cups

Maybe I was asking for a little too much

To keep the newness from wearing off

For every start there’s gonna be a stop

It could have related to a past liaison or another couple – we don’t mean to pry. She is being as honest as Isbell was in the making of his 2020 album Reunions. Shires has rarely sung as emotionally as this, perhaps inspired by producer Lawrence Rothman who championed her cause during the pandemic, co-writing over the phone and online and encouraging her to trust in a voice high in the mix at a time when she seriously considered giving up on music. ‘They understand me and my songs, and don’t make me feel small,’ she told Billboard. ‘I write songs the way I write. They may not be tied up in little bows, but life is not like that. I learned you gotta be an advocate for yourself.’

The 40-year-old west Texan is a fearless trail-blazer on women’s rights; listen to the couple’s performance on The Problem, their song campaigning against draconian abortion laws. She told Rolling Stone: ‘I have had reproductive healthcare – that some might call an abortion– when I was hospitalised in Texas on August 9, 2021, with a ruptured fallopian tube caused by an ectopic pregnancy. For those who are unfamiliar, it is impossible for an ectopic pregnancy to go to term. I would have died; my daughter, Mercy, would have lost her mother; my husband, Jason, would be a widower. I was lucky. This happened to me two and a half weeks before Texas’ abortion ban went into effect.’

Shires’ meditation on the turbulence of her marriage, now consigned to the past, proved cathartic. As she told NPR: ‘We were having a disconnect. People don’t really talk about that kind of thing. My grandparents, they say marriage is hard work sometimes, and then that’s all they say. They don’t have reasons because sometimes it is so vague and nebulous and hard to relate to. But at this particular moment there was just a wall, and it took this music and working on it together to get us to a place where we could talk about our lives.’

Shires, a part-time member of Isbell’s backing group The 400 Unit, compiles diaries and highlights favourite lines, couplets, images and potential verses. She transfers those to index cards, which she pins on the walls of her barn-turned-studio outside Nashville. ‘I start seeing themes and observations that match them.’ Those cards have conjured memorable poetic lines on Take It Like A Man.

Maren Morris, Shires’ bandmate in the country supergroup she founded, The Highwomen, provides stirring backing vocals. ‘I recorded Empty Cups after everyone left because I didn’t want to accidentally cry or get a shaky voice in front of my friends,’ Shires says. ‘I asked Maren to sing on this one because our voices blend like sisters and because I knew that whenever my voice wavered, she’d be steady.’ You can hear the catch in the throat as Shires sings ‘That last talk left me a makeup rainbow of tears’. Vulnerability is as important an attribute as inner strength. As she proclaims on the title track, take it like Amanda.

That Dolly Parton quaver in the voice, belittled by an earlier producer, is at its most alluring on slow-burners such as the faultless Fault Lines, the plaintive Don’t Be Alarmed and the horn-bathed Lonely At Night. The strings on Empty Cups don’t include Shires’ celebrated fiddle but she uses it to explosive effect on the Neil Young-esque opener Hawk For The Dove with her husband duelling on sizzling slide guitar. Sparks fly, as if a metaphor for the volatility of old; or more likely a new surge of creative fire.

Woman Of The Waterways: Ellie Gowers

Ellie Gowers’ forthcoming debut album Dwelling By The Weir is a love letter to her home county of Warwickshire and provides our Song Of The Week at, the joyfully optimistic Woman Of The Waterways. Folk with personal living roots.

The song, an homage to those who live on the water and the river traders of old, was inspired by Rose and Joe Skinner who eventually retired to a canal-side house but who returned to spend nights on the water after yearning for the rocking of the narrowboat as the stillness of home became hard to bear.

‘I had so much fun writing this song and looking at the lives of all the women who had worked on the canal ways,’ says Gowers. ‘With Johnny Holden behind the camera for the video, we took a couple of days rambling around the canal banks and visited places such as Sutton Stop, Hatton locks and Shrewley, each providing its own history and beauty.’

Rose is the principal character in a celebratory song but Gowers was careful not to glamorise or patronise; she acknowledges how tough barge life can be. ‘The days are gruelling/ And the nights are cold/ My hands aren’t as smooth as they should be/ I am told.’ The delicious interplay between See Bye’s violin and Ewan Cameron’s whistle adds an air of melancholy to a buoyant melody.

All the tracks were written when the world shut down without being about the pandemic. ‘The album came together naturally over lockdown when I had time on my hands to explore the place I had grown up. After being away from home for so long, it was nice to return and delve into the history of Warwickshire, taking a look at the people and stories who have shaped it into the home it is today. There are themes of love, loss, nostalgia, and belonging; themes that I’m sure we can all find a meaning in one way or another.’

When Lukas Drinkwater, whose distinctive double bass adorns the album, recommends an artist worth hearing, we take notice. Gowers’ voice combines range, elegance and an inner ache. Here’s a young artist steeped in the tradition but keen to embrace other genres with the talent to achieve that goal. Sample the blues and jazz-inflected Against The Tide and her eco-warrior cri de coeur The Sky Is On Fire from 2021’s highly praised EP Parting Breath.

Woman Of The Waterways follows earlier single Brightest Moon, based on a tragic tale of Coventry evacuees during the blitz in 1940 and the families in Kenilworth who offered them sanctuary. Neither community expected such a devastating outcome. With its poignant ‘Come in, come in’ chorus, it is an apt reminder that we should always welcome those seeking refuge from adversity with open arms.

The title alludes to the Luftwaffe’s use of the full moon for their bombing raids. There is no mention of flights to Rwanda but the sentiment of the song’s wider message is clear. Gowers, who shows respect and empathy for bygone generations, enjoyed a triumphant debut at her home festival at Warwick Castle this weekend. Shakespeare country is a natural stage for a literature-loving songwriter. ‘The earth has music for those who listen.’

Hold That Line: Tedeschi Trucks Band

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s ambitious four-part I Am The Moon project provides our Song Of The Week at The glorious Hold That Line, from the second instalment, Ascension, must already be a contender for Song Of The Year,

Hold That Line manages to match if not eclipse the splendour of Midnight In Harlem for its blend of southern soul-rock with Eastern flavourings. Derek Trucks’ slide is superb as much for the space he allows between the sinuous bouts of virtuosity while his wife Susan Tedeschi bends her aching vocal as well as he does the strings.

The Florida-based band’s epic undertaking comprises 24 songs written by members of the band during the isolation and dislocation of the pandemic, inspired by a mythic Persian tale of star-crossed lovers. It all began with an email from vocalist Mike Mattison, suggesting a group reading of Nizami Ganjavi’s poem of 1188, called the Romeo and Juliet of the East by Lord Byron. ‘When Mike said: Well, what does Layla think about all this? I thought that was an amazing way to look at the story,’ said Trucks.

The poem about lovers Layla and Majnun will sound familiar because it inspired Eric Clapton’s 1970 double album with Derek And The Dominos, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Trucks, long associated with the Allman Brothers Band, was named after Clapton’s alter ego; Tedeschi was born on the day it came out. Tedeschi Trucks Band recorded a magical live performance of the album in 2019, releasing Layla Revisted two years later.

Mattison, who co-wrote Midnight In Harlem and Bound For Glory, harmonises beautifully with Tedeschi, and another delicious feature is the interplay between Gabe Dixon's keyboards and the horn section. Dixon wrote the majestic title track which appears on volume one, Crescent.

‘I came across this line,’ said Dixon, who joined the band in 2018, ‘where Layla’s locked up in her father’s house, pining for Majnun – I am the moon and thou the radiant sun. Her identity seems to be only in relation to him.’ His exquisite sparring duet with Tedeschi is sung like a lovers’ exchange.

The decision to structure I Am The Moon in four episodes came the band thought of records they loved. Trucks singled out Axis: Bold as Love, the 1967 LP by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘It’s 36 minutes long. That’s the way to digest a record.’

Mini-albums three and four, The Fall and Farewell, follow soon, and like the first two are preceded by a film première available on the band’s YouTube Channel. Rolling Stone described I Am The Moon as ‘one long unrequited love song’. Like Layla and its Domino effect, it is heavenly...

Out here hanging on a string

Holding so tight, I feel everything

Out here with the clouds rolling by

I see your face as I wonder at the sky

All I know

Don’t let go

Hold that line

Out here in the desert on the wind

I hear the voice of a lover and a friend

Hanging on while it’s slipping away

Like the twilight at the end of the day

You’re not alone

Don’t let go

Hold that line

More about Layla by Ian Tasker here


When The Light Is Dying: Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley’s mesmeric When The Light Is Dying, in which she namechecks one of her heroes Leonard Cohen, is our Song Of The Week at The Kentucky songwriter’s captivating contralto has never sounded wiser.

The standout track appears on her seventh studio album The Spur, written at her farm during the eerie quiet of the pandemic and recorded two months before the birth of her daughter. It is a landmark moment in her career, shared with musical partner and husband Nathan Salsburg who provides the gorgeous acoustic guitar hook here.

The song was inspired by Shelley listening to Cohen’s haunting final album You Want It Darker on repeat while crossing the endless Kansas plains in the back of a tour van. As her surname suggests, the lyric is especially poetic in describing a world where natural beauty conflicts with humanity’s sinister side.

I traced the black outline of every stubborn human thing

Alone on the horizon. You want it darker, Leonard sings

Well, the light is dying, darling, come inside...

Sad is the beginning if the end is all it brings

But still the world keeps turning between the wood, the rocks, the springs

A sense of renewal permeates the album (cue Why Not Live Here and Completely) but Shelley’s surface domestic contentment is tempered by trepidation over what kind of world her daughter will inherit. Perhaps Kentucky is too conservative to be her home state for too long. She explains in her eloquent liner notes: ‘I was tired from touring, remembering the long drives across the midwestern plains at dusk, against the pale yellow sky seeing the black outline of the horizon with the occasional silhouette of a little farmstead, a corn crib or windmill, beyond, a breaking society, beyond, the aches of a world in pain.

‘A powerful tugging between apparently opposite things, hopelessness and resilience, isolation and togetherness, all at once. A deep connection to our homeplace, to staying, a complex reckoning with family, with the past, with the rubble, with the wind taken out of everyone’s sails, with new life and constant death.

‘I started reaching out. I wanted these people I admire to be close to me in the game, in the tangle of my emotions, in my unaddressed fears… Together we shook these things out of the rug, our shared anxieties, our guilt, our joy, discomfort and heartbreak… Dying breath, wind-breath, singing breath shared beyond the language song, strings and brass, heartbeats and drums, wooden and stone breath, water and light, non-human breath, written breath, the little breaths of a newborn thing.’

Forever Blues (with its echoes of another idol, Nick Drake), the memorable title track, showcasing her fine steel resonator guitar, and the lovely Amberlit Morning (with Bill Callahan lending lyricism and baritone harmonies) capture those sentiments wonderfully. But When The Light Is Dying, like Leonard’s sad swansong, is in play-again mode here. Lia Kohl’s staccato cello stabs and Anna Jacobson’s brass embellishments, arranged by Chicago-based producer and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington, combine elegantly with Salsburg’s hypnotic prompts.

Shelley’s gift for melding the ancient and modern in her melodies retains its lustre. From her breakthrough 2015 album Over And Even to her previous release in 2019 Like The River Loves The Sea, which incorporated string musicians from Iceland, she has maintained a stripped-down, intimate sound with added textures subtly layered.

‘I always want there to be a landscape in my music,’ the guitarist-pianist, now 36, told Uncut magazine. ‘It’s not overly done but I want to be haunted by some weird thing. I think of it as a tiny orchestra, the ghost of Frank Sinatra’s studio band. A little swell.’ Take a bow, Joan of art.


Miles Between: Darden Smith

Texan troubadour Darden Smith’s mantra is: Write songs, tell stories, move people. All boxes ticked. Our Song Of The Week at is Miles Between, the haunting opening track of his latest album, Western Skies. We shall be moved.

The Austin-based songwriter, who at 60 may at last gain the wider recognition his 15 previous albums in a 35-year career should have guaranteed, shares the finesse and sophistication of Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bruce Hornsby and Marc Cohn: common denominator a richly engaging voice and a penchant for affecting songs.

Miles Between, co-written by country artist Jack Ingram, is a standout track inspired by a desert road trip through Texas to southern Arizona undertaken during the pandemic as part of Smith’s Songwriting With Soldiers charity he founded in 2012. The song is as cinematic as the landscape he crisscrossed with an old Polaroid camera to draw inspiration from its wasteland wonders. Song ideas, poetry and lyrics were dictated into his phone for later attention.

Smith describes the album as ‘a love song to the mythology of West Texas. Not the cowboy and Indian version but the one that exists only in my mind’. This multi-media project includes a book of photographs, essays and lyrics although the album can be bought and enjoyed separately. Rodney Crowell in the foreword to the book pays tribute to ‘narrative gems hidden in plain sight’.

Smith’s philosophical musings on mortality, relationships, loss and longing permeate the whole album. Miles Between has a world-weary theme but one never tires of listening to it. Ricky Ray Jackson’s pedal steel dovetails sumptuously with the electric guitar of Bob Dylan’s regular sideman Charlie Sexton after Smith sets the mood on piano and Nashville singer-songwriter James House provides backing vocals.

Lately I’ve been wishing that the earth was flat

Walk out to the edge let that be that...

There’s miles between

All I see inside my dream and reality

There’s too much noise I lose my voice

Make me want to walk out into the desert at night and scream

I’m lost in the miles between

‘Jack’s the real deal,’ Smith says of his collaborator. ‘The day we wrote this song, I was trying to think about his life and write the song from his perspective, but it wound up being as much about me as him. Sometimes that’s the way it is with songs. And though I didn’t know it at the time, it was really the beginning of Western Skies.’

As the video illustrates, there’s beauty in the bleakness, in the vastness of time and space. Smith told Americana UK: ‘About 20 years ago I did a radio documentary for BBC Radio 4 and it was on Texas songwriters and landscape. It was fascinating how many songwriters talked about the horizon line and its importance, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lyle Lovett, they all talked about the value of this horizon line in opening up your mind. It was really fascinating.’

The melodious title track, Running Out Of Time, Not Tomorrow Yet and the lovely Los Angeles run Miles Between close. There’s a hint of Hall & Oates about Turn The Other Cheek and a Nick Cave ambience in I Don’t Want To Dream Anymore, which would have suited the Peaky Blinders soundtrack. Dark and brooding.

Smith has just completed a short tour of the UK where audiences couldn’t fail to be impressed with his insightful compositions. ‘Still I keep talking, hoping that you're listening,’ Smith sings before the closing bars of Miles Between as if bemoaning his lack of mainstream acceptance. Rest assured: more and more of us are listening.


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