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 1990: #27 DNA featuring Suzanne Vega “Tom’s diner”

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Da da da da da da-da da, da da da da da da-da da.

That’s right. Next up on this Best of 1990 list is a great ear worm that was a joint effort between songstress Suzanne Vega and British electronic producer duo, DNA: “Tom’s diner”.

I say “joint effort” because although Suzanne Vega originally wrote the song, it wasn’t until Nick Batt and Neal Slateford put their shoulder to the track that it became a worldwide sensation. Indeed, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this one wasn’t the original version. Vega had written the song as a vocal only, a capella track in 1981 and it appeared on her sophomore album, 1987’s “Solitude standing”. Her’s is a beautiful, thoughtful, and quite awkward sounding piece and that now infamous “da da da” bit only appears at the end of the song. If you’ve never heard it before, take the time and do so now. We’ll wait.

This bare bones version leaves only the words dangling before you. It’s like a stream of conscious paean to the mundane. The singer hanging out on a rainy day, perhaps wrestling with writer’s block, and jotting down the thoughts that occur to her and the little things that happen to her as she is sitting with a coffee in Tom’s Restaurant in New York City (which some of you might recognize from television).

The version by DNA took the original a capella track, layered it with synths and a sampled dance beat and looped the outro, over and over again, throughout the song. They originally released it as a bootleg without her permission but when Suzanne Vega heard it, she liked it so much that she bought the rights and re-released it, along with the music video you can watch below (complete with dancers). It brought Suzanne Vega her first dance hit, introduced her to a whole new audience, and perhaps turned her ear to a completely different world of music. Check out some of her more industrial sounding work on 1992’s “99.9F°” if you’re not sure what I mean.

Although DNA worked magic with “Tom’s diner” and had some success with remixing other songs later on, a quick peek at Wikipedia reveals that neither Batt nor Slateford is still making music. Vega, on the other hand, is still quite active, her most recent album coming in 2016.

If this song isn’t stuck in your head yet, play the video below again and I promise you’ll be stuck with it all day. You’re welcome.

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

Best tunes of 1990: #28 The Wonder Stuff “Circlesquare”

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Song number twenty-eight on this young list is a non-album single from Stourbridge, England’s finest, The Wonder Stuff.

These guys were one of my favourite bands through the 1990s, having picked up on them almost by accident in the very early days of my music explorations. I found their debut album, “Eight legged groove machine”, in my friend Elliott’s cassette tape collection one day and borrowed it, liking the look of the cover and the sound of the names of both the band and the album. I listened to it constantly thereafter, loving the angst-ridden pop sensibility and the sneering attitude of the frontman, Miles Hunt. They sounded unlike anything I was hearing on Canadian radio at the time and though they did eventually become a big deal in England, they never really made it here in North America. Very few people that I knew ever heard of them so it was like having a favourite band all to myself.

The band formed in 1986 and originally comprised of Hunt (vocals, guitar), Malc Treece (guitar), Martin Gilks (drums), and Rob “The bass thing” Jones (on bass, of course). They released a string of four albums between 1986 and 1994, adding and losing members along the way, before ultimately falling to pieces just prior to completing the tour cycle for their fourth album. The band reunited in 2000 for a one-off show that turned into a handful of sold out gigs in England that year. Four years later, Miles Hunt announced he would be soldiering on under The Wonder Stuff moniker with only Malc Treece from the original lineup and a couple of new members. They have since released four albums of new material and continue to play live.

I never actually heard the song “Circlesquare” until a couple of years after it was released, and even then, it was a stripped-down acoustic version of the song that was included as a B-side on the “Welcome to the cheap seats” double EP. It wasn’t until after they broke up and released their career spanning retrospective, “If the Beatles had read Hunter”, that I got my first glimpse at the original.

“Circlesquare” is classic Hunt. Jaded and self-deprecating even way back then, even at a time when life must’ve been good for the band. “I’ve been a long term disappointment to myself, but it hits like a hammer when I’m that to someone else.” Hunt wails away on his acoustic while Treece, his partner in guitar crime, cranks up the machine gun effects pedals, Gilks gets funky with drums and Martin Bell (aka Fiddly) fills every vacant cranny with his fiddle flourishes. It’s an almost perfect snapshot of the band in flux, having been recorded after “The bass thing” left the band and Martin Bell became an official member and just before new bassist Paul Clifford joined. It’s a blend of their electric and electrifying, high energy pop off their aforementioned debut and the acerbic, fiddle crazy folk rock of their most popular album, 1991’s “Never loved Elvis”.

If you’ve never experienced The Wonder Stuff before, you could do worse than start here.

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