SwissToni’s Shuffleathon: the long overdue write-up.

A couple of months ago, my fellow Nottingham rock-and-rolling blogger SwissToni hosted something called the Shuffleathon, in which the participants swapped mix CDs with each other on a randomly assigned one-on-one basis, pledging to post reviews of the CDs they received.

To my eternal shame, it has taken me all of these two (or is it nearer to three?) months to get around to posting my review of Katyola’s splendid compilation, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffleathon. There are no excuses for such tardiness – especially when said CD has afforded me so much listening pleasure.

Eyes down, and here we go.

1. John Saw That Number – Neko Case

Being a US citizen an’ all, Katyola decided to give her compilation a loosely American theme, with occasional international diversions along the way. We start with an artiste who has barely registered on my radar up until now, for no particular reason that I can think of. Neko starts the track a cappella, before the band kicks in with a kind of twangy gospel-country-rockabilly-blues rumble. Despite a passing – and undoubtedly accidental – melodic similarity to “Happy Hour” by The Housemartins, it’s all very atmospheric and fetching in a down-home rootsy way, but also suffused with certain indie/arthouse overtones that bring to mind a mid-period David Lynch soundtrack.

2. The Sharpest Thorn – Allen Toussaint & Elvis Costello

OK, I’ll fess up: when first perusing the artists listed on this CD, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with excitement. Not because there’s anyone on here whom I actively dislike – but more because many of them are people I used to listen to a lot, before reaching either saturation point, or else a stage where they ceased to interest me. Elvis Costello is a prime example of this. Used to adore him; doggedly followed him through several pleasant but hardly thrilling later albums (or should we say “projects”, for the studious dilettantism became increasingly part of the problem); and finally, with the grisly exercise in tune-free MOR balladry that was North, lost patience with him altogether.

But this, I have to say, is a cute song, winningly performed – and made all the more so by the presence of New Orleans stalwart Allen Toussaint, who help to inflect the music with a gospelly, stately vibe. (And ah, I see how this follows on from its biblically-tinged predecessor – from John the Baptist to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Nice work there, compiler.)

3. Three Days – k.d. lang

Whereas k.d. lang is an artist whom I tired of in the mid-1990s, before coming back round to her a good few years ago – especially with that rather wonderful covers album from 2004, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, and most especially with her spine-tingling cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. This gently frisky track is old-school lang, from before her 1992 breakthrough, back when Patsy Cline was still a primary influence. The title of its parent album says it all, really: Absolute Torch and Twang. Yee, and indeed, hah.

4. Black Wave/Bad Vibrations – Arcade Fire

I struggle with the Arcade Fire, you know. Yes, they’re universally critically acclaimed, and Very Important, and Worthy Of Serious Investigation – but there’s something about the reverence which surrounds them, and the way that they play up to it, that turns me right off. Besides – and it’s the same with Springsteen, and the same with U2 – I just don’t do Bombastic. There are several tracks on Neon Bible which I can just about get with – but I’m sorry, this isn’t one of them. “There’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea” is one of the key lines, and as such it’s a perfect example of the sort of Bigness of emotion that washes right over me.

5. David – Nellie McKay

Now, you could have skipped straight from the country-and-western friskiness of “Three Days” to the vaudevillian friskiness of Nellie McKay, and I’d have been a much happier camper. I like the way that McKay deliberately plays up to her inner precocious stage-school brat, knowing perfectly well that many will find it obnoxious, and not giving a f**k – and if you can cross that line, then you’ll soon realise that there’s a lot more to her than that. I have been given to believe that this is a song about wanting to be noticed by music mogul David Geffen, and you can almost see Nellie screwing up her eyes and stamping her little feet in impatient frustration. I happen to find that cute.

6. Mesmerizing – Liz Phair

My overriding stumbling block with this one – the first time I have knowingly heard the big-over-there, don’t-mean-diddly-squat-over-here Ms. Phair – is that it could never have existed without Nirvana, and my personal tolerance for Nirvana derivatives happens to be set to low. That said, I like the controlled understatement, and there are some nice twangy, bluesy guitar licks placed over the top of the track, which come in halfway through and never go away again. As it’s the only song on this CD which I initially found actively unpleasant, I have tried particularly hard to form an accommodation with it – and d’you what, after nearly three months of living with it, I think I’ve just about got there.

7. Dance Me To the End of Love – Madeleine Peyroux

Leonard Cohen’s unimpeachable original is one of my favourite songs of all time, almost (but crucially, not quite) to the extent that I’ve sometimes thought I’d like to have it played at my funeral. (But then again, I’m not much into the idea of trying to dictate a posthumous playlist. How people might wish to remember me is their business, not mine.)

Madeleine Peyroux’s languid supper-club version, with vocal stylings that owe an unambiguous debt to Billie Holiday, takes some getting used to – but it’s an interesting and valid re-interpretation, which gives quite a different weight to Cohen’s lyrics, and that’s the whole point of a good cover version, isn’t it? The line “show me slowly what I only know the limits of” bends itself particularly well to Peyroux’s smouldering style.

8. The Israelites – Desmond Dekker

An undeniable classic, but somewhat out of context in this American-themed compilation, surely? Katyola has her reasons, though: “Island rhythm is so important in today’s music, and this song pre-dates Bob Marley and other reggae influences that appear in American hip-hop and pop.” Well, it’s all a question of perspective, of course. I just wish that it hadn’t been used in that TV advert for Maxell tapes back in the late 1980s, as I still find it impossible to un-hear lines such as “Darling cheese-head, I was yards too greasy”. My problem! Not yours!

9. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart – Wilco

Some of those Arcade Fire issues apply also to Wilco, a band whom I can admire from afar, without actually enjoying – and oh, did I ever struggle to make myself enjoy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album from whence this is be-took!

Five years on, and approached with fresh ears, I finally find myself teetering on the brink of the enjoyment which had eluded me for so long. The mopey vocals do nothing for me, but there are some truly gorgeous textures in the arrangement, in which I can happily languish while stubbornly tuning out the actual song. Perhaps this is the ultimate slow grower… and perhaps I should therefore get around to revisiting its parent album. Yes, perhaps.

10. If You Could Read My Mind – Johnny Cash

An excellent follow-on from the Wilco track in terms of mood, which scores points before it has even started: love the song, love the singer. This is Cash from right at the end of his life (as taken from the posthumously released American V: A Hundred Highways) and so the vocals are a wheezy, croaky death-rattle – so much so, that I had to pause and question the track’s true artistic worth, as there’s an awful danger in romanticising the “Ah bless, he’s DYING, and it’s all about DEATH, and isn’t that PROFOUND” aspect, to the extent of giving the old boy a free pass.

So I paused, and I questioned – and came to the conclusion that there is still genuine artistry and creative energy on display here. Cash knows what he’s doing, and his interpretation is sublime, and moving for all the right reasons.

11. Deportee – Woody Guthrie

Believe it or not, this is the first time that I’ve sat down and listened to Woody Guthrie in earnest. (And I call myself an expert? Pah!) American folk is a foreign country to me, and so this is the hardest song on the CD to assess. It’s a protest song about illegal immigration and casual labour – and hence completely up-to-the-minute in its themes (on both sides of the Atlantic, of course), and hence a shrewd choice for this CD.

12. Wave of Mutilation – The Pixies

A dramatic shift in mood, as we lurch into the CD’s most raucous track by some distance. I love The Pixies – hell, who doesn’t love The Pixies? – but equally, I have always been unable to explain why I love them. They kick the proverbial “ass”, this much we know – but in such an elusive way, with a mysteriousness at the core which resists all attempts at unravelling. I couldn’t tell you what any of their songs are about, and I’ve never been minded to do much in the way of research, as it all seems a bit beside the point. Shall we leave it there? Yes, I rather think we should.

13. The Sailor In Love With the Sea – The 6ths and Gary Numan

From the sole rock offering to the sole electronic offering, as Gary Numan “icily” (as we critics are contractually obliged to say) intones a song of homoerotic desire (well, Hello Sailor!) over “burbling” synths. (Sorry, but that’s what they do. They burble. No other word for it.) The 6ths are a side project of Stephen Merritt, better known for his work as the Magnetic Fields – another act which I admire, but have tried in vain to love. Unlike Wilco, I’m afraid that this isn’t the song to convert me. It’s sweet, but it’s slight.

14. I’ve Seen It All – Björk and Thom Yorke

Remember what I was saying about artists that I’ve fallen out of love with, about 1500 words ago? Well, here are two cases in point – although in the case of Yorke, the process is on the cusp of reversing itself, Radiohead’s In Rainbows showing distinct signs being an example of our old friend, the Stunning Return To Form. This is from the soundtrack of Dancer In The Dark, a film which I have never dared to see, not being terribly good at dealing with “harrowing”. Stylistically, it’s a good deal more Björk than Yorke, with its dramatic orchestral flourishes and muddy, shuffling beats. The voices work well together, but ultimately this leaves me cold.

15. Daydreamin’ – Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott

Oh, I know that sample! It has been used a few times before, but the best known version is on I-Monster’s “Daydream In Blue”, whose chorus is lifted here in full. (“Daydream, I fell asleep beneath the flowers, for a couple of hours, on a beautiful day.” Yeah, you know the one.) The dramatic orchestral flourishes follow on well from the Björk/Yorke track, meaning that this lone hip-hop track blends in neatly, rather than sticking out like a sore thumb – plus it’s another boy/girl duet, of course. Lyrically, we’re in “socially conscious” territory, as Lupe ably disses bling-and-crack culture, but it’s the low-key winding-down section at the end which grabs me the most.

And that’s your lot. Massive apologies to Katyola (whose own tasting notes can be found here) for delaying the review for so long, but this has been a toughie to write up, as it has dragged me right outside my comfort zone. Which can only be a good thing, as I’ve derived a lot of pleasure and value from the experience. Hooray for musical diversity!

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