Some musical journeys in the worlds of white people….
by Gordon Campbell
While listening a few weeks ago to the new album by the 21 year old New York musician Frankie Cosmos, the crystalline lightness of her music made me think of a whole lot of other music by white people. It made me wonder about the essence of it. Thus, this column. Ultimately, it is far easier to generalize about r& b music, or black gospel, or Caribbean, or African music….than about the experiences that white, often middle class white musicians share in common, emotionally and aesthetically. Yet you do know it when you hear it. White-outs of course, have been known to trigger hallucinations, due to something called the Ganzfeld effect.
So, be careful with this stuff.
1. Nigel Westlake : “Missa Solis : Requiem for Eli “ :
Arthur Russell : “Eli”
White boy in blue sings a compelling, unearthly version of a white man’s blues. From 2011, this is an excerpt from a performance by the Sydney Symphony ( and the young soloist Neil Baker) of the Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s Missa Solis — Requiem for Eli, inspired by the death of the composer’s son. No disrespect intended by this juxtaposition, but Arthur Russell ‘s live performance of “ Eli” was a highlight of the Wild Combination documentary about Russell’s tumultuous life and premature death. And yes, “Eli” is a song about a dog.
2. Frankie Cosmos : “Young”
Given her spare, conversational style of delivery, Frankie Cosmos aka Greta Kline can sound coolly and deliberately naïve, which rescues her from the wilful eccentricities of say, Kimya Dawson. There’s nothing ‘quirky’ about her. Kline’s new single “ Young” fizzingly communicates the elation of hey, being young…. while as others have pointed out, she smartly deals at the same time with how the world conceptualises terms like “fun” “young” and “alive”.
3. Bjork : “Hyperballad”
It probably seems a tad obvious to treat “Hyperballad” as Bjork’s signature tune….but even now, 20 years on, the intensity of her singing, and poignantly deadpan humour of the lyrics can still be unsettling.
We live on a mountain
Right at the top
There’s a beautiful view
From the top of the mountain
Every morning I walk towards the edge
And throw little things off
Like: Car parts, bottles and cutlery
Or whatever I find lying around
It’s become a habit
A way to start the day
I go through all this
Before you wake up
So I can feel happier
To be safe up here with you
It’s early morning
No one is awake
I’m back at my cliff
Still throwing things off
I listen to the sounds they make
On their way down
I follow with my eyes ’til they crash
Imagine what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks
When it lands, will my eyes
Be closed or open?
And then there’s that memorable Michael Gondry video for “Bachelorette”
4. Robyn : “Cry When You Get Older”
“Dancing on My Own”
“Hang With Me”
From Iceland’s spirit child, to Sweden’s dancehall diva. Online there’s a great version by Robyn of ‘Hyperballad’ where she’s singing it to an audience that includes Bjork in the front row. Hey no pressure, but somehow she pulls it off. Any number of great Robyn live performances exist online, but these two nare killers. From the Pitchfork festival, her version of “Cry When You Older” pumps new life into a song that had previously felt a little too stiff, in its studio incarnation. Robyn can also do up close and personal. Here, she sacrifices the pulsebeats of the original, and does a stripped down, solo-with-piano version of “ Dancing On My Own” – possibly the saddest dance hit of all time.
5. Stanley Brothers : “Rank Strangers”
Jess Morris : “Goodbye Old Paint”
Only in heaven, it seems, will people crease to be rank strangers. Yikes. The original Starday single by the Stanley Brothers was so crystalline in its lonesomeness that it gave you chills, but this live performance is also pretty great. As a child of eight in 1882, Jess Morris learned “Goodbye Old Paint” from a black ex-slave turned cowboy in Texas. This fantastic version that Morris recorded for Alan Lomax in 1942 is as rugged, jagged and beautiful as a mountain range.
6. Carl Orff “Gassenhauer”
Brian Eno “Deep Blue Day”
The German composer Carl Orff wrote a lot of simple captivating percussion pieces for children. If you’ve ever seen Terrence Malick’s great debut film Badlands, you’ll recognise “Gassenhauer” immediately. Onscreen, Malick used this piece brilliantly to communicate the layers of enchantment that get bestowed on events by the mere passage of time. “Gassenhauer” falls somewhere in between the children’s music and the spooky, intoxicating high drama of the “Carmina Burana” for which Orff is best remembered today.
Broan Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” is also now inextricably linked now to a film – Trainspotting, in his case – but it began life as a kind of ambient ode to the Apollo space priogramme. Reportedly, the country music underpinnings – that’s the Canadian music producer Daniel Lanois on slide guitar – are a kind of tribute/evocation of the kind of music that Eno used to hear as a child while listening to US armed forces radio, on his radio at home in Woodbridge, Suffolk.
7. Young Marble Giants “N.I.T.A.”
The Cure “ Pirate Ships”
Nature intended the abstract? Surely, XX must have heard YMG’s massively influential Colossal Youth album somewhere along the line before recording their gazillion-selling debut album in 2009. I like how the lyrics to “N.I.T.A.” are so resolutely British : “For you and me /no rain outside but tears in my eyes/out on the rooftop for a surprise/call you at teatime/in off the street/sit down at table/Mummy is neat…” Such nice little robots.
Lullaby time, now. This is not exactly Peter Pan, but on “Pirate Ships” Robert Smith managed to come up with a lovely, haunted cover version of the old Wendy Waldman song from the 1970s.
8. Barbara Pittman “I Need a Man”
Ronnie Dawson : “Action Packed”
Like rock’n’roll itself, rockabilly was a mix of country music and r &b, but with the blackness accidentally leached out. What was left was the frenetic, almost hysterical sound of white folks goin’ wild. Barbara Pittman’s “ I Need a Man” hammers down the highway between salivating need and desperation. Ronnie Dawson on the other hand, sounded only about 14 years old on ‘Action Packed’ – which makes all of his fervent’ “gotta have the beat for the feet” urgency seem sweetly aspirational.
9. Fleetwoods : “Mr Blue” and “Come Softly To Me”
Two very white girls and one very white boy with a flat-top haircut. Doing harmonies so pure they made your teeth ache. Here’s an a capella version of their 1959 hit “ Mr Blue” Going back a bit further, here also is a live – and bizarrely David Lynchian – performance from the Dick Clark show of their debut hit “ “Come Softly To Me” …a song that always felt a bit like being beaten to death with a fluffy pillow. Dong dong, dong bu dong, bu dooby doo, dong dong….
10. Animal Collective : “ Banshee Beat” “Purple Bottle”
Hard to believe that ten years have passed since the Feels album brought Animal Collective’s electronic campfire experiments to a wide audience. Listening to it now, Kria Brekken’s contributions seem far more apparent, than they were back then. “Banshee Beat” has lost none of its simmering strangeness. From roughly the same period, here’s a re-run of the notorious live version of the ecstatic “ “Purple Bottle” by David Portner and Kria Brekken. The shift to the “Crush ! High !” peak of this song was always worth waiting for…Over the course of the subsequent ten years, AC became stars with the Meriwether Post Pavilion album, Kria/David got divorced, and the band plays on. A new AC album was finished in August, and is due out early next year.
11. Lewis : “I Thought The World Of You” and “Love Showered Me”
The Muzak backgrounds and the hesitant, featherlight vocals mean that Lewis always seems to be fading into the wallpaper. These tracks were from an album called L’Amour and the story of how it was recorded in 1983 – and re-discovered 25 years later – is as peculiar as the music itself. Here’s how Pitchfork told the story:
In 1983, a guy named Randall Wulff showed up at Music Lab studio in Los Angeles with a white Mercedes convertible, a beautiful girlfriend, perfect hair, and a handful of ethereal synth-pop-folk tunes. Wulff then hired photographer Ed Colver, best known for documenting the West Coast punk scene, to shoot the starkly monochromatic album cover. By the time Colver realized the check had bounced, Wulff had disappeared. There were rumours that he had gone to Las Vegas or possibly Hawaii, but most likely he had returned to Alberta, Canada, where nearly twenty-five years later a vinyl collector named Jon Murphy came across a copy of L’Amour at a flea market. Full of gently dissolving melodies and gossamer synths (credited to a guy named Philip Lees, also a mystery), the album has become crate-digger lore, as much for the backstory as for the music itself.
12. Mormon Tabernacle Choir : “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
And finally the big mamajama of the choral world. This version of the old Civil War song was a US Top 40 hit in 1959. If ever the missionaries got off their bicycles, I’d like to imagine them motoring down the street with this blasting from the speakers….It provides a very big, and extremely white finale.