Best tunes of 2010: #27 Karen Elson “The ghost who walks”

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The next stop on this Best tunes of 2010 list is the title track off Karen Elson’s debut solo album, “The ghost who walks”. This title, apparently, is a nod to one of the nicer nicknames bestowed upon her in school for “being tall, pale and a little bit haunted”.

Karen Elson was born and grew up in Manchester, England, where she was “discovered” at the age of 16 and began working as a model. She met Jack White in 2005 while filming the video for The White Stripes’ “Blue orchid” and they married shortly afterwards. They had two children together and divorced after eight years in 2013. She continues to model but claims that music is her first love, having released two solo albums now, having co-founded and performed with the New York-based cabaret troupe, The Citizens band, and having collaborated with a number of prominent musicians over the years.

A more cynical writer than I might point to her connection with Jack White as the reason this debut album was ever released. He did produce it and release it on his own label, Third Man Records. However, they have both maintained that she had written the majority of the album in secret, keeping it from him until she thought it almost ready to start recording. Still, his musical touch is pressed firmly on the album’s sound and sensibility and one only has to listen to and compare it with Elson’s sophomore solo release, “Double roses” (released last month), for confirmation.

I’ll be honest. I first came across this album because of the Jack White connection. (I was quite enamoured with The White Stripes for a number of years but more on that another time, I’m sure). However, I stuck with it after the first listen, and this on the strength of the songwriting and of Karen Elson’s vocals.

“The ghost who walks” as an album is quite lovely, if not dark and perhaps macabre, and its title track is emblematic of the entire work. It feels like a cabaret number. Listening to the song (not the video, that’s a whole other story), one can almost picture the waif-like redhead in a black cocktail dress and in a murky spotlight, surrounded by cigar and cigarette smoke. She herself sports a lit cigarette in a holder, clasped in a slender, gloved hand, while her other hand rests on cocked hip, standing and singing alone. Her backing band are in the shadows, neckties loosened, hair dishevelled, crashing cymbals and guitars and keys, each climbing and falling, vying for supremacy. For all this, it’s a mellow and morbid number. A song for well after last call, when the last of the party animals have gone home and only the diehards remain.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #28 The New Pornographers “Sweet talk, sweet talk”

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It feels like I just finished writing about The New Pornographers. However, that post is so two weeks ago now and is for a list of tracks from a completely different decade. And I can say with certainty this will not be the last time this Vancouver-based indie rock collective will be mentioned within these pages so let’s get talking about “Sweet talk, sweet talk”, song number twenty-eight in my Best tunes of 2010 list.

“Together”, the band’s fifth long player, was released at the beginning of May but The New Pornographers didn’t get around to releasing a video for “Sweet talk, sweet talk” until the following December. It was produced in conjunction with Oxfam America in support of efforts to raise funds for the cleanup in the wake of the BP oil spill. All three principal vocalists in the song, Carl Newman, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder appear at the beginning of the video, saying a few words about the impacts this catastrophe had on the people of Louisiana, still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina five years earlier, and trying to keep a seven month old issue (that seemed to have been dropped by the fickle media) in the public’s consciousness. The video shows footage from the devastated coastline, the affected wildlife and the real people whose livelihoods were laid to waste by the tragedy. It is interesting going back to watch it seven years removed from the incident and being reminded of something that seemed so front and centre, something we watched day in and day out in the news and that today, some of us might have forgotten had ever happened.

The track itself is brilliant number, staccato rhythm, vocals, and melodies that call to mind the interminable ticking of a clock and of course, the passing of time. Then, the handclaps kick in to add effervescence to an already upbeat feeling and the harmonizing and trading vocals of the three principals show how beautiful synergy can be. This and the big sound and irresistible hooks are the hallmarks of The New Pornographers’ music. “Sweet talk, sweet talk” truly is a sweet tune, no more talk necessary.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #29 Shout Out Louds “1999”

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Next up for this best of 2010 list is “1999”, a track off Shout Out Louds’ third album, “Work”.

Formed in 2001 in Stockholm, Sweden, Shout Out Louds are a five-piece indie pop band centred around childhood friends Adam Olenius, Ted Malmros, and Carl Von Arbin. They have released four albums to date, the first two to critical and commercial acclaim and the latter two getting a bit of a cold shoulder by the critics. Much of this aversion was due to their eschewing the doom and gloom on 2007’s “Our ill wills” for a return to a more light and sunshiny pop on “Work”. Personally, I’ve been a fan of both sounds and don’t mind at all the lighter fare, especially since I find that Shout Out Louds, like many of their countrymen, do it so well.

These guys will forever remind me of an ex-coworker who introduced me to their music perhaps a year or so before “Work” was released. I haven’t seen him or talked him in a few years but I think if we ever met in the street, we’d fall into an easy conversation, like no time had passed. We were about the same age, had similar tastes in music, and we even shared given names. He was a super nice guy but I always felt a bit bad for him because he was the administrative assistant in our work section, a job he never really got the hang of and I think it stressed him out quite a bit. Every morning he would come in with an extra-large Tim Horton’s quadruple-quadruple. For those of you reading this from outside of Canada and unfamiliar with our staple coffee shop’s lingo, that was a gigantic coffee with four creams and four sugars in it. Needless to say, he was pretty jittery for the whole day.

But hey, back to our song: “1999.” It’s the opening number on “Work” and gets things rolling with pep and a jump in its step (kind of like an XL quadruple-quadruple might). Wonky piano tinkling underpins a driving drum beat and leads to some dancing chords and some otherworldly guitar effects just off in the distance. And through it all, vocalist Adam Olenius rolls out the spirited lyrics with plenty of backing supports that feel pulled from the golden 50s. Indeed, its all very nostalgic in sound and tone. Interesting, though, that Olenius here is singing wistfully about a time that was only a year removed from 2000.

“I do remember, like a punch in the face. I never felt so alive since 1999.”

It’s a great summer song and could easily be adapted to apply to a sunny and warm spring day also… and it looks like we’re about due for a few of those so turn it up.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.