How much Leonard Cohen have I been listening to recently? So much, that I seem to have fairly well spanned his career, starting with Songs of Love and Hate (1970) and ending with his latest album, Old Ideas. My mother says that Songs of Love and Hate is “just groaning”, but for me this is an album so miserable that it manages to cross the line into cathartic and even strangely uplifting. 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony has a bitter, accusatory edge in songs like ‘Is this what you wanted?’ and ‘A Singer Must Die’, but there’s also the exhilarating repetitiveness of ‘Lover, Lover, Lover’ and the poignant ‘Who by Fire?’ The most famous song on the album is ‘Chelsea Hotel’ which Cohen wrote about his brief affair with Janis Joplin. He later said he regretted writing the song, but I find it quite touching, especially the line “We may be ugly, but we have the music”. I actually have a T-shirt with the album cover on it, which I’m not allowed to wear very often because it’s a bit rude. Recent Songs (1979) is a jazzier, more chilled out and funky affair. I think these songs actually come across better on the live recording of the 1979 tour. Still, the album contains one of my favourite Cohen songs, the deeply unfeminist but gorgeous, ‘The Traitor’. I haven’t really got to know the new album yet, but on one listen I found it melodic and melancholic, with Cohen’s worn-out voice making it all the more moving somehow.
Speaking of beautiful, melodic and melancholic, I am seriously getting into Nina Nastasia now. I picked up her album The Blackened Air (2002) last month and ended up listening to it intensely for a couple of days. It’s cold, elusive, creepy and compelling. Also in strange and riveting, I’ve been listening to Cat Power’s 2003 album You are Free, which is possibly the most accessible album from before she went all Soul, but it’s still pretty elusive.
Nick Cave got his usual outing, this time with B-Sides & Rarities: Volume II which has a lot of folky, murder-balladry content and is mostly great, except for the even longer and more boring version of the already long and boring song, ‘O’ Malley’s Bar’. I also listened to my absolute favourite Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live album, Live at the Albert Hall. The live version of ‘The Ship Song’ just gives me chills every time. There was more lovelorn Cave with No More Shall We Part (2001). I’m not sure how I’d feel if my spouse made an album like this to celebrate our marriage (“I married my wife on the day of the eclipse/our friends rewarded her courage with gifts”). Fans of his earlier recordings tend not to like his later stuff, but I’m pretty happy with any Nick Cave and this one has the bonus of the McGarrigle sisters singing back-up.
In folk and Americana, I got out Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ (1963) and realised that I haven’t listened to any Dylan in ages. This is just so absolutely the album of its historical moment. The American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) instalment in JohnnyCash’s incredible American recordings series contains more great songs and is possibly the most affecting in the series with ‘Hurt’, ‘I Hung My Head’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ all able to reduce me to tears. I can’t even listen to ‘We’ll Meet Again’ knowing that he died the following year. New in Americana, I got Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s latest Wolfroy Goes to Town. I haven’t got to know it yet, but its sound is sparse, delicate and understated.
Neko Case’s second album Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) is a dark collection of ballads – if you like this one, check out Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter as well. Emmylou Harris’s big comeback albumWrecking Ball (1995) is possibly my favourite of all her albums, although it vies with Red Dirt Girl for that honour. Wrecking Ball is a really mature woman’s album. I’m going to wax all second wave for a moment here and say that it’s the sound of a woman coming into her power.
I don’t tend to listen to much jazz, but my partner just introduced me to Lizz’s Wright’s fantastic album Dreaming Wide Awake (2005). She has an incredibly expressive voice and although a lot of the songs are covers, she makes them all her own.
Speaking of woman-power, P J Harvey’s debut album Dry (1992) got an outing. Harvey has said that she put everything she had into this album because she didn’t know if she’d ever get the chance to make another one and it certainly sounds like it. She went on to do more sophisticated things, but I’m not sure any of her other albums have quite the visceral, emotional punch of Dry.
There was more visceral emotion from Throwing Muses Anthology (not the special edition sadly), which is an excellent collection and I’d recommended it to anyone new to The Muses. The revelation for me was ‘Vicky’s Box’, a song I’d never heard before. There’s nothing like Kristin Hersh screaming ‘Welcome Home’ in your ears as you walk to work to get the day off to a good start. Hersh’s solo album Strange Angels (1998) is one that I don’t listen to very much, but when I do, I remember how much I like the songs, especially ‘Gazebo Tree’, ‘Home’, ‘Like you’, ‘Shake’ and ‘Heaven’.
I also listened to two albums from Kristin Hersh’s stepsister, and former Throwing Muse, Tanya Donelly – her shiny solo debut Lovesongs for Underdogs (1997), and Beautysleep (2002) which shows motherhood really bringing out Donelly’s creative powers. What I like about Donelly’s work is the dark undertone beneath all the shiny, melodic, poppiness. Tanya Donelly was also briefly in The Breeders and although I can’t distinguish one song from another on their 2008 album Mountain Battles I still really, really like it.
Sleater Kinney has long been one of my favourite feminist rock outfits, but I only recently started listening to All Hands on the Bad One (2000) properly and it’s fast moving up the charts. It’s upbeat with brilliant guitar and drum-work and ranty feminist lyrics. There was more feminist music when my partner got Ani DiFranco’s latest Which Side Are You On? This is her seventeenth studio album and she’s back to politics and protest songs.
Tracks – with links to You Tube videos
Emmylou Harris, A Deeper Well and also an excellent cover from The Wailin’ Jennys
Lizz Wright, Old Man – great cover of a Neil Young song
Tanya Donelly, The Night You Saved my Life (live)
Nina Nastasia, Ocean
Throwing Muses, Vicky’s Box
Kristin Hersh, Gazebo Tree (live)
Ani DiFranco, Which Side are you On?
Martha Wainwright covering The Traitor by Leonard Cohen
PJ Harvey, Sheela-na-gig (live)
Sleater Kinney, You’re no rock n’ roll fun
Cat Power, He War
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Ship Song (live)
Johnny Cash, I Hung my Head
Leonard Cohen, Going Home