Best tunes of 2000: #5 Richard Ashcroft “A song for the lovers”

For the first two thirds of 2000, I shared a two-bedroom apartment in the St. Clair and Bathurst area of Toronto with my good friend Ryan and my cat Lucy. Ryan and I met while at York University and whiled away many an evening over beers, discussing music. After I graduated, I moved to the apartment and he moved in after my previous roommate moved out with her boyfriend after one year. Ryan and I got along pretty well as roommates. When we weren’t working or spending time with our respective significant others, we’d hang out, going out to catch films, catching a concert or a quick streetcar down to the Dance Cave on a Saturday night, or just staying in and spinning tunes.

I remember when Richard Ashcroft’s first solo record, “Alone with everybody”, was released because Ryan and I both came home with a CD copy of it the day it came out. We had both been fans of The Verve’s final record, “Urban hymns”, and though were sad at the band’s passing, had reason to be optimistic for his solo work, given the debut’s advance single, “A song for the lovers”. I may be completely reinventing the evening in my mind now but I feel like we ordered takeout (probably Pizza Gigi), grabbed some beers, and gave the album a listen or two. There was likely a sense of disappointment after the first spin that it wasn’t a masterpiece. On the second, we began to identify the obvious high points and after the third, realized that though Ashcroft is a mad genius, he needs a sounding board. There are some incredible tunes on Ashcroft’s debut, lush and beautiful, yes, but he also had a tendency to get bloated and over-extravagant without Nick McCabe reining him in.

“A song for the lovers” is one the great tracks on “Alone with everybody” and telling that it was one of a handful of tracks on the album that he originally wrote for “Urban hymns”. It is not a pure love song like “Lucky man” but a love song nonetheless, very likely inspired by his muse wife Kate Radley. It starts with the riff of a string orchestra and a plaintive horn response and then instantly deepens with layers and layers of sound. The song is pure Ashcroft in its construction. There’s almost too much going on with the different guitar effects, the aforementioned horns and strings, and bongos but everything is okay once he starts singing. That voice of his is inimitable.

“I spend the night
Yeah looking for my inside in a hotel room
Waiting for you”

It sounds he must’ve found his insides somewhere and poured them all into this tune, not just the lyrics but every facet of the song. And that’s what is great about Richard Ashcroft. You may not like every tune but you really have to be impressed by his passion.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #14 The Charlatans “The only one I know”

I received a mixed tape from a friend back in high school, a tape that I mentioned ad nauseum in my old blog, Music Insanity, but one that bears mentioning again in these pages, because it introduced me to a number of bands back in the day, including one that would become one of my all-time favourites: The Charlatans. Known as The Charlatans UK here in North America, the group formed in 1989, “survived” the deaths of two band members and several changes in sound over the years, and have released 13 albums, including this year’s, “Different days”. Not bad for a band that was once referred to as the “also-rans” of Manchester (and later on, the “Britpop survivors”).

Indeed, at the time of “Some friendly”‘s release, the band were lumped in with the likes of Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, despite not being from the greater Manchester area at all. It was obviously more to do with their debut album’s musical proximity than the band’s geography. The album was heavy on the danceable bass and beats, acid house psychedelia, Tim Burgess’s lethargic vocals, and of course, Rob Collin’s monstrous organ work. The aforementioned mixed tape sampled heavily from “Some friendly” but surprisingly, nowhere in its contents was the album’s first single, “The only one I know”, so I didn’t hear it until I got my hands on the cassette tape. And oh, when I did, there was plenty of rewinding and replaying required.

At the time, I saw it as completely new and inventive but I would learn much later that the song borrowed lyrics from The Byrds and an organ riff from Deep Purple. “The only one I know” went on to be The Charlatans’ first top ten single in the UK and hit number 5 on the US Modern Rock charts. Today, it remains one of the band’s best-known songs.

It certainly displays the early incarnation of the band firing on all five proverbial cylinders. The screaming high end on guitars and Martin Blunt’s thumping bass line, simply provide an extra large canvas for Rob Collins to paint his whirling Hammond splatters. And then… and then, there’s Jon Brookes’ mad shuffling drum beat that almost begs you to take up the maracas, à la Bez, and dance like a looney fool. Even today, I feel out of breath just listening to it and remembering all the times, all the drunken nights, I danced to this particular track, mouthing along to what I imagined were the lyrics to “The only one I know”.

Such a great song.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.

100 best covers: #96 Barenaked Ladies “Lovers in a dangerous time”

Pay no mind to the above photo. Barenaked Ladies were cool in 1991… Well, okay, we thought they were at the time anyway.

The duo of Ed Robertson and Steven Page formed In 1988, adding band camp friends, brothers Andy and Jim McCreegan, two years later. Tyler Stewart joined the same year to temporarily fill Andy’s spot while the drummer went to Europe and then, stayed on upon his return. The band made a name for themselves with their hilarious, energetic, and often improvisational live shows, a fame that only grew with their DIY videos that they made using a video booth in downtown Toronto called “Speaker’s corner”, and that became a notoriety when they were banned from playing the city’s live New Year’s Eve show because of their “provocative” name. Then, their self-produced and self-released five song demo tape, the now famous “Yellow tape”, became the first ever indie release to reach platinum level sales in Canada. Needless to say, that attracted all the right attention. They released their debut album, “Gordon” in 1992, another classic. Six years later, BNL hit it big in the US with the single, “One week” and the rest is history.

But just as they were getting started, even before “Gordon”, they recorded this cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a dangerous time” for a tribute called “Kick at the darkness”, from a line taken from this very song. Bruce Cockburn is a Canadian icon, a prolific singer/songwriter, whose lyrics are part poetry, part social activism. Inspired by watching teenagers kissing and the thoughts that invoked, “Lovers in a dangerous time” is one of his more popular songs and one of the few I would recognize as his if you played it for me.

Going back to listen to Cockburn’s original before writing this post, I realized how dated it sounds. It is still a great song and the way Cockburn sings it is just right but it really does sound so 1980s. I almost think I like Barenaked Ladies’ cover more than the original, blasphemous though that statement might be. It’s no surprise they chose to cover one of his more popular songs, a bigger one being that they played it straight, something rare for them in those days. The cover is really quite lovely with Robertson’s and Page’s now familiar vocal harmonies, the acoustic guitars, and Creegan’s cello providing the backbone.

Make sure you check the video below of band playing in the back of a pickup, touring the streets of their hometown of Scarborough. It smacks a little of the Monkees but with a Canadian touch.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.