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Songs Of The Week 2023: Take 4

Updated: 3 days ago

Neil Morton


These Days: Rachael Price & ymusic

We’ve been singing the praises of Rachael Price for some time now, especially for her performances as the voice of sophisticated Boston band Lake Street Dive. She loves her covers and side projects too, as demonstrated by her gorgeous rendition of Jackson Browne’s These Days, our Song Of The Week at

Browne supposedly wrote the song at the age of 16 in 1964-65 but did not record it until his second album, For Everyman, in 1973, allowing others to steal a march. The German model and singer Nico was the first to release it in 1967 on Chelsea Girl (with Browne playing that distinctive descending pattern on electric guitar) followed by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Johnny Darrell, Gator Creek, Jennifer Warnes, Ian Matthews and, crucially, Gregg Allman.

The songwriter’s definitive version was closer to Allman’s take on his solo Laid Back album released earlier in the same month; indeed Browne credited Allman for the arrangement in his For Everyman sleeve notes.

Perhaps Browne was uncomfortable with how a song about love, loss and regret by one so inexperienced in life might be perceived; more likely, he felt he had not quite refined the lyric. A couple of the looser lines sung by Nico were omitted on the three more concise verses he produced later. Gone was ‘These days I seem to think about/ How all these changes came about my way/ And I wonder if I’d see another highway’ to be replaced by ‘Now if I seem to be afraid/ To live the life I have made in song/ Well it’s just that I’ve been losing so long’. The rambling/gambling rhyme was dispensed with too.

‘I wrote this when I was about 16, although not precisely in this form,’ said Browne when introducing it on his 2005 live album, Solo Acoustic Vol 1. The Californian first cut These Days under the title I’ve Been Out Walking for a 1967 demo tape for Elektra’s Nina Music publishing arm, with whom he was a young staff writer in New York. The song was then given to Nico, the Velvet Underground singer, and it was her recording that was used for the soundtrack for the 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums. Browne had given his endorsement at some point but was still surprised to hear himself playing on the track behind images of Gwyneth Paltrow when he eventually viewed the film.

Browne explained why he changed I’ve stopped my dreaming/ I won’t do too much scheming: ‘Over the rest of my teenage years and into my 20s I developed a kind of optimism, a kind of resoluteness, so I changed it to I’ll keep on moving/ Things are bound to be improving,’ he said. ‘That’s more to me what life is made of, the idea that I’ll get through this, I’ll continue looking.’

Of course the most quoted stanza of These Days and the one admired for its remarkable maturity closes out the song…

These days I sit on corner stones

And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend

Don’t confront me with my failures

I had not forgotten them

Bruce Springsteen, who inducted Browne into the Hall of Fame in 2004, described the first time he heard Browne perform many years earlier. ‘As I listened that night I knew that this guy was simply one of the best. Each song was like a diamond and my first thought was: Damn, he’s good.’ His second thought was he needed to sing fewer words; a game-changer for The Boss.

Browne, the epitome of elegance and economy in his melodies and lyrics, has just released a remastered edition of his eponymous debut album in 1972. He recently covered one of his classics from that record, Doctor My Eyes, for Playing For Change’s Song Around The World initiative; reunited with his old buddies from The Section, drummer Russ Kunkel and bass player Leland Sklar, Browne invited contributions from musicians around the globe via Zoom.

Any reimagining of These Days, and there have been countless, invariably suffers through the absence of David Lindley’s poignantly played slide guitar. But Price is indebted to the subtle chamber music accompaniment provided by ymusic, a New York ensemble lauded for their collaborations with singers around the world and captured by video production company stories on YouTube. It would be doing her supporting cast a disservice not to list the accomplished players here: Ryan Lerman (guitar), Alex Sopp (flute), Hideaki Aomori (clarinet), CJ Camerieri (trumpet), Rob Moose (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola), Gabriel Cabezas (cello).

Whether the music is smouldering or tender and laid-back, Price can be relied upon to be soulful. Lake Street Dive’s blend of soul, rock, pop, country, blues and jazz, founded on Price’s gloriously versatile alto and the songwriting skills of stand-up bassist Bridget Kearney, has produced a number of Song Of The Week picks: Shame Shame Shame and Musta Been Something from 2018’s Free Yourself Up and Nobody’s Stopping You Now and Hypotheticals from 2021’s Obviously. The latter leans on Nashville-based producer Mike Elizondo’s hip-hop recording expertise.

Australian-born, Tennessee-raised Price now lives in Brooklyn with her singer-songwriter husband Taylor Ashton. She met her future bandmates while graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music. Lake Street Dive, named after a street with many dive bars in former member Mike ‘McDuck’ Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis, once declared they ‘wanted to sound like The Beatles and Motown had a party together’ but their genre-hopping sound has always been difficult to classify.

In 2015 Price boarded the Jefferson Airplane 50th anniversary tour with Hot Tuna, singing the Grace Slick parts. Her roots, however, are essentially in jazz and blues, inspired at the age of five when hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing The Lady Is A Tramp. In 2004 she was a semi-finalist and the youngest contestant in the history of the Thelonius Monk Institute vocal competition.

It was no surprise, given her passion for jazz and swing and Tin Pan Alley songs of the 30s and 40s, when she teamed up with her old music student pal, the guitarist, singer and inventive writer Vilray Blair Bolles, for their eponymous album, Rachael & Vilray, in 2019. I Love A Love Song! followed this year (Is A Good Man Real? gives you a good idea of their cabaret style).

Price’s jazz background has furnished her with a sonic palette wider than most of her rock contemporaries. Those side projects, such as her appearances on Chris Thile’s much-missed Live From Here radio show, will no doubt continue and one hopes Lake Street Dive will feed off her stunning voice to attract an even bigger audience. These days she is content to lap up every musical challenge that comes her way.

The House: Michele Stodart

Michele Stodart’s third solo album is an Invitation that cannot be refused. Our Song Of The Week at is The House, a haunting ballad memorable for its metaphors for a life once lived inside.

The Trinidad-born, London-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter dedicates Invitation to the three women in her life – mother, daughter, partner – and to ‘everything we have had to overcome, together and apart’. She widens the dedication to ‘all women finding their voice… trying to believe in themselves, especially when there are undermining words, controlling actions or even violence, weakening you in a way that makes you feel less than you are.

‘We unknowingly give ourselves away when our hearts, minds or bodies are subject to abuse. We can be gradually and subtly chipped away at over time, inevitably shutting down the essence of ourselves. Suddenly we find that our thoughts are no longer our own, that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves belong to someone else.’

Stodart’s hushed, plaintive vocal invites you to share her anguish over the shell of a building that has lost ‘the essence of what made it a home: its warmth, its soul, its heart, its life’.

Now the garden’s overgrown

And the weeds have taken hold of the windows

Where no light now shines through

Still I’m outside looking in

Can’t help from wondering

Will there be no trace left of her

Won’t she be hiding in those walls of yours

Did the music leave the day we closed the doors

There is nothing more…

But the black spot that won’t rub off

And the dampness in the walls they rot

On the fireplace resting photographs no more

And the peeling at the paper

On the surface is where it lingers

Now the house a shell that we once called home

She explains: ‘The house is a metaphor for life and what we want to bring into it, how we want to live our lives. The internal space within you, your head, your body, heart – when it loses its spirit, that lust and love for life. That feeling when you go numb, when dissociated and not there. All that’s left are traces of what’s been left behind. The dust marks under the photograph that no longer exists. The images give a sense of decay and neglect, but there is also hope in change.’

Stodart’s bass playing is exquisite here, accompanied on piano by her brother and Magic Numbers bandmate Romeo, by her own acoustic and electric guitars and the subtle drum brushes of CJ Jones.

We were spoiled for choice when hearing this intimate, deeply personal record with songs that navigate motherhood, relationships, transformation, loss and fresh beginnings: Push & Pull about the bittersweet nature of life on the road; the irresistibly poetic Come Dance With Me; and the beautifully dark Drowning with Stodart’s single electric guitar chords like crashing waves.

These Bones has a blues-jazz vibe that vocally recalls Ricky Lee Jones; Stodart features on guitars and tubular bells and Nick Pini’s fine double bass dovetails dramatically with CJ Jones’ percussion. ‘Musically and visually I wanted to create a feeling of dragging a body (my body perhaps) behind me – like a much-needed rescue, a reclaiming of myself after feeling muted, repeatedly criticised and gradually chipped away at. There is a waking up that happens when you’re no longer stuck inside, but instead suddenly becoming the watcher, realising you have a choice.’

The album’s other contributors to the stripped-back sound are Andy Bruce (piano), Alice Phelps (harp), Will Harvey (violin and viola), Joe Harvey-Whyte (pedal steel) and Dave Izumi Lynch (synths), who co-produced with Stodart; Joni Belaruski’s artwork is stunning and enhances the storylines.

The vivid imagery of The House will still be resonating when we attend the sold-out official album launch at St Pancras Old Church in November. ‘Invitation is about inviting in the darkness, the hard times, the ray of light, sadness, anger, love, loss and grief,’ says Stodart. ‘Listening to the child within, to the wisdom within, and truly connecting to all those unknown feelings that get woken up inside. To practise staying with them, no matter how uncomfortable – to realise they are trying to guide you.

‘I believe that it is in the listening, the learning (and the un-learning) that we can transform, grow, stay conscious and wholeheartedly true, open and honest with ourselves and others. Songwriting has always been my way of trying to do just that.’

Stodart spent her early years immersed in Caribbean music and culture until she and her family fled a military coup attempt and landed in Queens, New York, where she spent much of her childhood. There she pursued her own writing, encouraged by Romeo, and nurtured a love for artists such as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. Anaïs Mitchell, Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell have become more recent favourites.

Alongside her role in Mercury-nominated band The Magic Numbers, she has built an enviable reputation for her solo work and generous collaborations. She was musical director and leader of the all-female house band for this year’s UK Americana Awards, having been named Instrumentalist of the Year in 2022. She has been curator, director and performer in a successful annual series of shows celebrating International Women’s Day at venues such as Bush Hall, Camden’s Green Note and The Sound Lounge in Sutton. In 2019, she appeared in the Danny Boyle-Richard Curtis film Yesterday and on its soundtrack. 

Stodart, a champion of women in music and gender equality in the industry, possesses the producer’s skill set. Her songwriting and versatile musicianship have led to many alliances on stage and in the studio: with Kathryn Williams, Billy Bragg, Judy Collins, Allison Russell, David Ford, Bernard Butler, Natalie Imbruglia, Ren Harvieu, Charlie Dore, David Kitt, Julian Taylor, Hannah White, Rachel Sermanni, Emily Barker, Diana Jones and O’Hooley & Tidow. She is rarely short of invitations – or magic numbers. Our recommendation is on The House.

Jealous Moon: Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz’s musical journey is exploring fresh frontiers: the Texas-born, Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist has embraced a richer, rockier sound while collaborating more with other songwriters. The result will be her seventh album, Polaroid Lovers, whose opening track and advance single, Jealous Moon, is our Song Of The Week at Farewell to the comfort zone, welcome to risk.

Jarosz co-wrote the song with producer Daniel Tashian, of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour fame. ‘It started as a quiet melody on ukulele and nylon string guitar, but when we got to the studio it became something much more powerful. It’s a song about the times when the parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden rise to the surface and we have no choice but to ride the wave. Sometimes that means doing your own thing to figure it out so you can emerge stronger on the other side.

‘It’s not about the end of a relationship, but rather a moment of self-reflection and a promise to keep showing up even when things get tough. Once Daniel played the opening riff on piano I knew it had to open the album. I’m always seeking to push myself into new sonic territory, and this song gave me permission to not hold back.’

Jarosz began work on the sequel to the Grammy-winning 2020 album World On The Ground and 2021’s Blue Heron Suite during a period of change as she moved from her New York City base to Nashville where she lives with bass-playing husband Jeff Picker. Her music also shifted to a more electric-based sound than the acoustic folk and Americana for which she is best known. Her octave mandolin solo is sparkling on Jealous Moon, propelled by Picker’s fretless base and Fred Eltringham’s high-in-the-mix drums. There’s a drive here we haven’t heard before.

On Polaroid Lovers, scheduled for release in January, Jarosz sings about those strangely ephemeral moments that make a profound impression, snapshots that indelibly shape our lives. ‘What I love about a Polaroid is that it’s capturing something so fleeting, but at the same time it makes that moment last forever,’ she says. ‘It made sense as a title for a record where all the songs are snapshots of different love stories, and there’s a feeling of time being expansive despite that impermanence.’

Her voice, whether soft in Jealous Moon’s verses or effortlessly soaring in the chorus, is an alluring instrument…

Standing out in a summer lawn

Queen bee buzzing round my right arm

Wonder how she keeps her kingdom spinning

Talk is cheap, rumours travel

Now I can’t sleep, my heart’s unravelled

Thought I knew the truth now I’m not so sure

Here we are

Under a heartbreak sky

Baby I don’t know why

I flew away too soon

I can’t help tears burning in my eyes

Leave me alone to fly

Under a jealous moon

For the first time in her career Jarosz opened herself up to collaborators through writing sessions with Tashian, Ruston Kelly and Natalie Hemby. The fuller studio sound was achieved thanks to the stellar players she was able to enlist: Tashian on piano and a roomful of other instruments, guitarist Rob McNelley, Tom Bukovac on guitar and organ, Justin Schipper on pedal steel and the rhythm section of Picker and Eltringham. In the Jealous Moon video Seth Taylor appears on guitar.

‘Historically I’ve been somewhat closed off to co-writing, but in the past couple of years I’ve felt curious to get out of my comfort zone,’ Jarosz says. ‘For a long time it was important to me to write for myself, so that I wouldn’t get lost in those rooms full of amazing writers. But now that I’m more confident in my musical identity, I know I can collaborate but still stay true to my own voice.’

Jarosz, now 32, released her debut album at the age of 18 and immediately earned her the first of 10 Grammy nominations; she has collected four awards now. She began playing mandolin at the age of 10 and soon after learned guitar and banjo. In 2018, she joined Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and Aoife O’Donovan to form the supergroup I’m With Her who were named duo/group of the year at the Americana Awards and won a Grammy for Call My Name as best American roots song.

The gifted Jarosz has been a regular contributor to Songs Of The Week: her delectable duet with the late David Crosby on a cover of Joni Mitchell’s For Free; her harmonies and octave mandolin magic on Caitlin Canty’s Quiet Flame; Johnny and Orange And Blue from her World On The Ground album and Green Lights from Undercurrent; Build Me Up From Bones, a 2013 title track; and Little Lies with the beguiling I’m With Her. A follow-up to See You Around from the trio would be a fine thing.

On Polaroid Lovers’ 11 tracks Jarosz flicks through a musical photo album, reflecting on old loves and youthful dreams. ‘It was a big step for me to reach out to Daniel, but it showed me how important it is to keep taking thoughtful chances,’ she says. ‘This whole album reminded me that I never want to play it safe – if anything, I want there to always be that element of being a little scared, because that means I’m taking a risk.

‘That’s what’s so wonderful about art: if you’re lucky, you never reach the finish line. You just keep searching and chiselling away at the stone, and putting everything you can into making something that tells the truth but hopefully leaves space for others to find meaning too.’ New directions, new landmarks, new reasons to keep listening.

Love Wore A Halo (Back Before The War): Emmylou Harris

September looks like being Nanci Griffith Appreciation Month. The Texas-born, Nashville-based songwriter, whose life was cut short at 68 two years ago, is the subject of a tribute album, and one of its 14 tracks by the good and the great of country folk is our Song Of The Week at, Love Wore A Halo (Back Before The War) by Griffith’s cherished friend, Emmylou Harris.

The track appears on a collection paying homage to Griffith’s treasured songbook, entitled More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith, with contributions from Brandy Clark, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Iris DeMent, Shawn Colvin, Steve Earle, Sarah Jarosz, Todd Snider, Ida Mae, War & Treaty and Aaron Lee Tasjan with Patty Griffin.

Harris’s jaunty treatment of Love Wore A Halo, which first appeared on her soulmate’s 1988 album Little Love Affairs, has a Cajun lilt. Harris, an esteemed interpreter, and producer Buddy Miller recruited a stellar group of musicians for the recording, including guitarist Jedd Hughes, multi-instrumentalists Sam Bush and Michael Webb, Dennis Crouch on bass and drummer Fred Eltringham.

Griffith’s memory is further honoured with the boxed set Working In Corners, which reprises those early, long-out-of-print albums: her 1978 debut There’s A Light Beyond These Woods, the 1982 release Poet in My Window, 1984’s Once In A Very Blue Moon, and The Last Of The True Believers in 1986.

Furthermore, the annual Americanafest in Nashville later this month will feature a dedication to Griffith, whose best-loved songs include From A Distance (she was the first to record the Julie Gold ballad though Bette Midler enjoyed the mega hit), Love At The Five & Dime, Once In A Very Blue Moon and Lone Star State Of Mind. Her 1994 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, named after Truman Capote’s debut novel and comprising 17 versions of songs by her folk forebears and contemporaries, including Malvina Reynolds, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album. Emmylou made a guest appearance.

Griffith, who managed to straddle the genres of folk and country with two different vocal styles depending on the tempo, dubbed her music ‘folkabilly’. Her parents had moved to Austin during her childhood before divorcing in 1960; it was there she first performed at the age of 12. Her specialty was the homespun, vignettes of life, love and loss in small-town America, bolstered by the Blue Moon Orchestra who accompanied her for a decade. Love Wore A Halo is a typical example of her finely observed storytelling wit…

He owned a hotel on the Jersey shore

She made her living seeing the sailors door to door

He was a small Hawaiian with a crooked smile

But he made her eyes light up like the heavens on the Fourth of July

She ran the numbers, they say she ran them clean

Those porcelain hands keep a ledger even in her sleeves

While he worked the See-Bees in the Philippines

They say she made more money than you and I will ever see

No wonder they struck a chord with the like-minded Prine whose version of Love At The Five & Dime was the first single released from the forthcoming tribute record. Prine recorded the tender duet with Kelsey Waldon shortly before his passing in 2020. The song tracks a couple’s romance from its teenage origins through to their twilight…

Rita was sixteen years, hazel eyes and chestnut hair

She made the Woolworth counter shine

And Eddie was a sweet romancer, and a darn good dancer

And they’d waltz the aisles of the five and dime…

Eddie travelled with the barroom bands

’Til arthritis took his hands

Now he sells insurance on the side

Rita’s got a house to keep

Dimestore novels and a love so sweet

They dance to the radio late at night

So much of her work, particularly the Southern story-songs influenced by a performance by the laconic Texas troubadour Van Zandt in her formative years, were gratefully covered by others: Love At The Five & Dime and Listen To The Radio by Kathy Mattea; Outbound Plane by Suzy Bogguss; Gulf Coast Highway by Emmylou and Willie Nelson; and Trouble In The Fields and the superb It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go (‘If we poison our children with hatred/ Then the hard life is all that they’ll know’) by a host of artists. Van Zandt’s Tecumseh Valley was an early favourite; its sharply drawn narrative would become a trademark of her own work.

It is heartening to hear Emmylou’s voice again too. The 76-year-old’s last studio album Hard Bargain, her 26th, was released in 2011, although there have been live recordings, compilation cameos and outstanding collaborations with Rodney Crowell (Old Yellow Moon and The Traveling Kind). In 2021 she and Luke Bulla guested on Prayer, a single by the country-folk gospel singer Barbara Cowart. Love Wore A Halo: so does Emmylou and so did Nanci.

The Greater Wings: Julie Byrne

Julie Byrne can be addressing a crowded room but so intimate is her style you feel as though she is singing only to you. When that husky whisper of a voice is navigating personal trauma the listener is made to feel almost like an eavesdropper, an intruder in the dust of a once perfect life. Our Song Of The Week at is The Greater Wings, the opening track of her third and latest album.

When her closest friend and partner in music, Eric Littmann, died suddenly in June 2021 during the making of the album, it was no surprise she decided to shelve the project for six months. Post-lockdown she had left her Los Angeles base for Chicago, joining the musician in his home studio to work on the follow-up to 2017’s breakthrough album he also produced, Not Even Happiness. While there was some progress before her collaborator’s passing, the rest of the record was completed in the grip of grief.

The poignancy of her lyrics is powerful but not suffocating as she responded to loss by honouring Littmann’s memory and clinging to hope among family and friends. ‘Distant galaxies move/ I’m not here for nothing.’

Byrne’s beautifully delicate guitar is enhanced by Jake Falby’s lush string arrangements, the subtlety of Marilu Donovan’s harp and Littmann’s shimmering keyboards and synths; replacement producer Alex Somer captures every breath of Byrne’s clear and nuanced delivery to ethereal effect. There are no drums or percussion to disturb the hypnotic quietude.

Some lyrics were altered amid the heartbreak but only one track fully emerged after the tragedy, the closing Death Is The Diamond, a tribute to Littmann with just piano and vocal. ‘Does my voice echo forward?’ she asks. And we cannot resist going backwards, returning to the hush of the title track and its aching poetry.

I feel it, the tilt of the planet, panorama of the valley

Measure me by what I’ve risked

For these are not ordinary moments

But the circle that I traced in the palm of my hand

You’re always in the band

Forever Underground

Name my grief to let it sing

To carry you up on the greater wings

Forever Underground was the final record released by Phantom Posse, the instrumental ensemble launched by Littmann in 2012. Forever enshrined in song. ‘Eric was a truly brilliant person, he had so much faith in me and what we had set out to do together. That never wavered. It wasn’t even his vision or technical skill or artistry that made the collaboration so rich and singular, it was his love and care.’ At his memorial Byrne covered one of his favourite songs, Jackson Browne’s These Days, the first time she had performed since the start of the pandemic.

‘Grieving, in my experience, isn’t just sorrow,’ the indie folk songwriter told the Guardian. ‘I’ve heard it described as a motivational state, a state of yearning. The record does contain grief but it’s so much more about life and memorial, what it really means to count on someone. There’s a lot of unending love there that was clear before and it’s perhaps even more clear now.

‘I don’t really make a habit of regret. I’m so grateful that I got to spend so much of his last year doing what we love side by side… I lost part of myself. I’m still living to remap that part of me that is so accustomed to being able to reach him that it almost felt like a phantom limb.’

The 32-year-old Buffalo native’s fingerstyle picking was learned and adapted from her father, a sound she grew up with until multiple sclerosis deprived him of that pleasure. She still plays her dad’s guitar. She left her home town at the age of 18 and adopted a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, moving to Chicago and New Orleans.

Byrne and Littmann met in 2014 and later settled in New York, where he encouraged her to study environmental sciences and work as a seasonal ranger for the parks department. Her love of the natural world permeates Not Even Happiness. It is touching to revisit her NPR Tiny Desk gig in 2018 when Littmann and Donovan joined her for three songs after a solo rendition of that album’s opener Sleepwalker, including a composition she wrote for him, Follow My Voice.

With Littmann she was able to take risks and experiment with cascades of dreamy textures which elevate the new album, especially on celestial ballad Moonless (‘I’d been learning you by heart’), the first song she composed on piano, the glorious Hope’s Return and the gorgeous Summer Glass (‘You are the family that I chose’). Taylor Swift counts among her admirers.

It feels cold and heartless to suggest that the worst of times inspire the most artistic moments but in music the finest songs are frequently the desolate ones. ‘I drank the air to be nearer to you.’


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