Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #19: First Aid Kit

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have been performing as First Aid Kit since 2007, when the precocious pair earned web acclaim for their self-made MySpace videos and for their “Tangerine” demo tape, which became an unexpected radio hit in their home country. They’ve released four albums, four extended plays, and dozens of singles since that time, to wide-spread international acclaim. Since their early folk duo days, Klara and Johanna have expanded their live band into a rock-solid and sympathetic quintet, with Klara generally on guitar and Johanna playing bass. Marcia and I caught them in Vancouver, British Columbia, while playing hooky from a work trip in October 2018, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve seen in recent years, with brilliant songs arranged for a tremendous band, and the sisters’ sublime vocals serving as the icing on the beautiful, tasty cake they set before us. Just so. Just perfect.

When I First Heard Them: During the summer of 2014, soon after the release of their third LP, Stay Gold, which immediately became a resonant and resilient family favorite. Try as I may, I cannot actually recall what it was that drew me to acquire that record. “Teenage Swedish sisters singing country-pop music” is not a descriptor that would generally fit in with my broader musical interests and draw me to quickly hit the “purchase” button on whatever music site I was using at the time. Especially given the role that Bright Eyes and Fleet Foxes (neither of whom I care for) played in First Aid Kit’s creative development, as inspirations and as the sources of songs that the sisters covered, to great acclaim. So, they were a counter-intuitive choice for me at the time, made for reasons now mysterious, and perhaps even mysterious then. I did go back and acquire their earlier releases, and have everything they’ve done since my introduction to their work as well. I don’t know why I picked up on them, at bottom line, but I am very, very glad that I did.

Why I Love Them: I’ve been writing and posting (in both traditional print and modern digital media) “Best Albums of the Year” reports since 1992, giving me 29 years worth of critical choices available for perusal in this and other spaces. During that nearly three decade period, I have only awarded three artists “Album of the Year” honors more than once: David Bowie, Björk, and First Aid Kit. That puts them in fine company, for sure. I recognized the Söderberg sisters as having released the best of the best records in 2014 (for Stay Gold) and 2018 (for Ruins). We still play both of those records, and the various singles and EPs that they’ve released since 2014, regularly around our household, happily, eagerly, enjoyably. In a recent series of comment conversations with my friend Roger Green, we noted that as “gentlemen of a certain age” (ahem), we tend to write about beloved musicians who are either as old or older than we are, or who are already dead. Folks our age don’t generally glom on strongly to artists who are significantly younger as influential or important cultural references. But First Aid Kit certainly stand as important singers, songwriters and performers of great accomplishment and acclaim in my personal pantheon, even though Klara is but 30 years old this year, and Johanna is only 27. I consider their youthful attainments to be of near Beatle-esque stature, with their body of work being unique, distinct, mature, and accomplished in ways that many artists never achieve, after decades upon decades of hard work. First Aid Kit’s sisterly harmonies are warm and wonderful, without doubt, and their instrumental arrangements are always pristine and perfect, but it’s really their songwriting skills that set them apart from 99.999% of their age-appropriate peers. It blows my mind, regularly and repeatedly, to consider how perfectly they capture and present universal lyrical stories for their listeners, and how adept and astute they are in structuring their works. I would cite “Cedar Road” (which appears high on my personal favorites list below) as a particularly sublime bit of song craft, and if asked to teach a songwriting class, I’d feature it prominently; it begins with a fairly standard verse/chorus structure, but it shifts gears late in its run into a magnificent, swelling musical outro and coda structure that completely changes the ways in which you hear their words, and which deeply enhances the emotional impact of the song, even if you don’t actively realize how effectively the sisters are using the art of songwriting to actively attune your response to their music. Klara and Johanna are young geniuses, when all is said and done, and I certainly look forward to their continued work, eagerly. I guess that’s the benefit of deeply appreciating a musical group of such precocity: from an actuarial standpoint, they’re certainly likely to be making and issuing brilliant songs for as long as I’m around to listen to them.

#10. “Emmylou” from The Lion’s Roar (2012)

#9. “It’s A Shame” from Ruins (2018)

#8. “Ugly” from Tender Offerings EP (2018)

#7. “Waitress Song” from Stay Gold (2014)

#6. “Ruins” from Ruins (2018)

#5. “Come Give Me Love” from “Come Give Me Love” single (2020)

#4. “Nothing Has To Be True” from Ruins (2018)

#3. “The Bell” from Stay Gold (2014)

#2. “I’ve Wanted You” from Tender Offerings EP (2018)

#1. “Cedar Lane” from Stay Gold (2014)

Want To Come Home: Bunny Wailer (1947-2021)

I rarely post here more than once per day, but having shared one of my periodic lists of things with which I am well pleased this morning, I now find myself feeling a bit less than pleased to learn that Neville O’Riley Livingston, better known and loved as Bunny Wailer, has flown on to his great reward today.

Bunny was the last surviving member of the Wailers, and the only one of the original three who was granted the gift of a reasonably full life; Bob Marley was taken from us in 1981 by cancer, and Peter Tosh was gunned down in 1987 during a botched robbery. Those early and tragic deaths likely contributed to the Marley and Tosh legends, though they were both already heroic while they walked among us, with Marley standing as the great ambassador for Jamaican music to secular audiences in Europe and the Americas, and Tosh signed to the Rolling Stones’ boutique label, where he played a key role in the cross-pollination of rock and reggae, and also shone as a vibrant prophet to and celebrant of the global membership of the African diaspora.

Bunny and Marley had known each other since their early chilhoods, and were essentially step-brothers for some years, as Bunny’s father and Bob’s mother lived together and bore a baby sister to them both. The pair formed a group called The Wailing Wailers around 1963 with another friend from their Trenchtown neighborhood, Winston Hubert McIntosh, better known as Peter Tosh. The trio, with various other supporting players and singers (and without Marley for much of 1966, when he moved to Delaware, seeking work), had significant chart success in Jamaica, working in sequence with the greatest of the island’s legendary producers: Leslie Kong, Coxsone Dodd, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. The Wailers were eventually signed and marketed to a global audiences on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label; Bunny, Tosh and Marley recorded two studio albums together on Island, the classics Catch A Fire and Burnin’, both released in 1973.

Tosh and Bunny then departed the group soon after Burnin’ was issued, when it became clear that Blackwell saw the Wailers as little more than a backing band for Marley, and when the group’s international touring schedule and demands became incompatible with Bunny’s spiritual beliefs and practices. His first solo album, Blackheart Man (1976), is one of the finest reggae records ever released, and the early singles he issued on his own Solomonic Label are also crucial, killer jams (though harder to find, alas). He continued to record and perform until 2018, when a stroke took his beautiful, heart-lifting voice from him. For most of his post-Wailers career, his work was entirely based in and focused on Jamaica, and he stood as a brilliant creative, cultural and spiritual leader on his home island. Role models matter, and I respect his deep sense of place, and his commitment to that place’s people, and culture, and future.

From a global commercial standpoint, Bob Marley was clearly the most successful and well-known Wailer, with Peter Tosh standing in a solid second place position, and Bunny mostly being played in the media like the forgotten third wheel, even for all the years that he was the only one of the trio still living and working. In my own household, though, the order of listening precedence is reversed: we spin Bunny the most, by a long shot, Tosh less, but still regularly, and Marley very, very rarely, if ever. While it’s not Bob’s fault, the ubiquity of his 1984 Legend compilation is such that it’s really hard for me to listen to any of those songs anymore, nor the post-Bunny-and-Tosh albums that whelped them, having heard his music beaten to death for so many years by crappy bar bands and overly-earnest acoustic guitar slingers, on commercial radio, on television commercials, in movies, and anywhere else where a company or corporation or performer wants to communicate multi-cultural cache in the laziest and most obvious fashion possible.

I’m sure Bunny Wailer was not saint in his personal life (who of us are, really, when all’s said and done?), but he certainly hewed to his faith more deeply than many other artists who use public statements of belief as commercial springboards, then abandon them when they become inconvenient. I always admire folks who make life decisions based on their deeply-held principles, and not on commercial expediency. While Bunny may not have been as prolific or as pointedly political a songwriter as his fellow Wailers, his best works are sublime in their messages, in their arrangements, and (most of all) in the pure, sweet, heart-tugging magic of his beautiful, wonderful voice.

Plus, in his latter days, he looked like this:

He had royal style and bearing and presence, befitting his well-deserved stature as cultural royalty on and beyond his home island. The music he helped pioneer has long since become a global phenomenon, influencing countless scenes and styles and genres, but few of his followers were as worthy of adulation as he was, and even fewer created art that will influence current and future generations as deeply as his did, even if most of us didn’t know it at the time, or attributed it to others.

A terrible loss, at bottom line. He was only 73 years old, too young to be taken away, all things considered. I close with one of my favorites of his many great songs, something of a signature tune for him, culled from that first 1976 solo album (though he had originally recorded it much earlier with the Wailers). The lyrics seem most fitting today, so I re-print them in case you care to sing along. As you should. As I am.

There’s a land that I have heard about
So far across the sea
To have you all, my dreamland
Would be like heaven to me

We’ll get our breakfast from the tree
We’ll get our honey from the bees
We’ll take a ride on the waterfalls
And all the glories, we’ll have them all

And we’ll live together on that dreamland
And have so much fun
Oh, what a time that will be
Oh yes, we’ll wait, wait, wait and see
We’ll count the stars up in the sky . . .

. . . And surely we’ll never die

With Which I Am Well Pleased VII (And Seven Is)

In which we, once again, return to a list of 15 things in various categories that have delivered me the bounteous joy in recent weeks. Here’s hoping some of them might do it for you, too . . . or that you’ll share recommendations in the comments of things that you think I might need to see, hear, watch, eat, read, or do!

FILMS

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

MISCELLANEOUS

 

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #18: Elvis Presley

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who He Was: Again, as was the case with earlier superstar entries in this series like David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Diamond, I suspect that if you’re culturally literate enough to read my website, then you know who Elvis Presley was. Hell, even if you’re completely culturally illiterate and have lived in a remote Unabomber cabin in the mountains of Montana for the past 50 years having had no contact with the outside world, ever, then I still suspect that you know who Elvis Presley was.

When I First Heard Him: Infancy, obviously, just given his cultural ubiquity, and my age. His music would have been everywhere when I was a babe, but my first active, conscious appreciation of his oeuvre would have come in something of a counter-intuitive fashion, in Albemarle, North Carolina, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. My grandfather (who, after three heart attacks, was infirm throughout my sentient time with him, spending most of his days with feet propped up in an easy chair, when he wasn’t sneaking sniffs of whiskey and floating in an alcohol-mellowed haze in his bedroom, which we were forbidden to enter, ever) had Elvis’ three brilliant gospel albums on eight track tapes, and he played them incessantly at his house in the Piedmont parts of Deep Cackalacky, when he wasn’t watching Hee Haw. (Which I used to watch with him, and which I loved, despite myself, then and now). I know and adore Elvis’ gospel albums deeply and dearly from that early inundation, and I still spin them regularly. The King was a pop culture phenomenon, of course, but he was also a deeply religious man (in his own time, and in his own ways), and he certainly loved to sing great gospel music, which I always adore. You can’t find a lot of places online in these too-cool-for-school modern times where the King’s love for Jesus is openly acknowledged and celebrated, but my wise friend in virtual space, Thoughts on the Dead,  gets it like few others do. If you do a search on his site for “Elvis + Jesus,” you get 60 (!) pages of results. I think you should read them all, and then hit the Donate Button while you’re there, before it hits you first.

Why I Love Him: Well, it’s his voice, of course, first and foremost. Elvis could sing like nobody’s business, and when you strip away all of the hype and histrionics associated with his face and body and weight and loves and cheesy films and moves onstage, you’re still left with one of the greatest vocalists of the past century, hands down. I remember when he died, clearly and distinctly, in large part because he was scheduled to perform at Nassau Coliseum the week after his passing, so my (then) neighborhood at nearby Mitchel Field was hyper-aware of his pending arrival on our doorsteps. I was at an awkward age with edgy post-punk-inspired tastes at that point, so I am sure I would have fallen into the de rigueur “Fat Elvis” ha-ha-ha type response to his passing, which is what would have been expected in the social circles within which I moved at the time. But compared to my Long Island peers in those days, as a native Southerner raised in a praise-oriented church-music tradition, I probably did have a different experience of Elvis’ work and catalog when he died than did most folks around me, so I was most likely being disingenuous about the real, personal impact that the King’s leaving this and every other building actually had on me. For the record, I apologize for that insincere callousness, all these years on. His loss was just devastating and sad, personally and culturally. While Elvis’ posthumous musical impact has come to carry ever-deeper critical cachet with regard to his early rock and roll records, I still find his gospel works to represent his greatest achievements. I also like a lot of cuts from his (deeply uncool) Hollywood film scores, and from his latter-day recordings with his incredibly tight Las Vegas show band, and (later yet) from the various ensembles and studio endeavors he and his management cribbed together in his final days, hunting for those ever-more-elusive late-career hits, wherever they might be found. There was nobody like him, at bottom line. He was, and remains, worthy of veneration accordingly. Can I get a witness? Amen!

#10. “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” from Blue Hawaii (1961)

#9. “Milky White Way,” from His Hand In Mine (1960)

#8. “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” from Good Times (1973)

#7. “Marie’s The Name (His Latest Flame),” from “Marie’s The Name” single (1961); later reissued on Something for Everybody (1961)

#6. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” from Good Times (1973)

#5. “Promised Land,” from Promised Land (1975)

#4. “Suspicious Minds,” from “Suspicious Mind” single (1969); also appeared live on From Memphis to Vegas / From Vegas to Memphis (1969)

#3. “You’ll Be Gone,” B-side of “Do The Clam” single (1965); later reissued on Girl Happy (1965)

#2. “Run On,” from How Great Thou Art (1967)

#1. “I, John,” from He Touched Me (1972)

Heaven is the Dust Beneath My Shoes

Bear with me, this post rambles. Literally and figuratively . . .

Marcia and I arrived in Arizona to begin our retirement era (we’re still in the go-go phase) just over four months ago. Since that time, we have generally hiked at least five miles every day, beneficiaries of both a benevolent climate and a more-than-ample local trail system. Our daily walks are, for me, personal highlights: we amble, we ramble, we walk, we talk, and we share a deep appreciation for the history of the region we’ve chosen as our current home, loving both its geological and human-historical scaled facets.

On a geological front, we routinely see from our home and hike through a region that’s about 320 million years old, formed deep in the heart of the Carboniferous Era, when much of the modern world’s climate-altering coal and oil beds were laid down. It looks like this, and it’s all around us:

The most marvelous thing about this region, though, is somewhat defined by the fact that you can travel a very short distance (in modern, human scales) and move from ancient landscapes to ones that are in their geological infancy. Case in point: the Sunset Crater region, about a 90-minute drive from our house, and where the youngest prominent landscape features are less than 1,000 years old. That area looks like this:

As interesting as the geological aspects of our new home turf may be, the human-scaled history of our home region is equally fascinating. Near the aforementioned Sunset Crater region, one can visit the Wupatki National Monument, where the ruins of Native American civilizations may be walked and considered, close to the homelands of the modern Navajo and Hopi people. Wupatki is an extraordinary site, featuring vistas like these:

The first photo above shows what was once a three-story urban edifice. The second shows a ceremonial ball court, something of an historical anomaly hereabouts, as such sites are generally associated with Central American or Hohokam sites well south of Wupatki. These particular human relics date from around 1,000 AD, and the local civilizations of that era came and went as the neighboring volcanic eruptions allowed, blessed in some ways by cinders that held moisture in the arid soil, and cursed in other ways by the sulfurous vapors that would have shrouded the area in its most tumultuous geological eras.

The net effect of being regularly, easily confronted with such examples of geological and human history is that we routinely find ourselves discussing time and its scales. I considered some facets of the ways in which we small humans exist and thrive (or not) within the vast time sphere of the world and universe surrounding us when I wrote my Credidero series in 2019, most especially in my articles about Eternity and Mortality. Being confronted daily with deep geological history, and with evidence of the transient nature of human history, often leads to small conversations about big topics, oftentimes while we are out walking the trails and paths that present such evidence of pasts short and long to our senses and our minds. It creates an interesting blend of physical activity (e.g. we have to climb this 1,000-foot face to get a great view of some ancient rocks) and mental activity (e.g. considering why those particular rocks are still standing all these millennia on, when those around them have long since washed away), and that holistic sense of full, deep experience greatly adds to the joys associated with walking and talking around our current home.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article called Red Is The Color, where I posted the following photo, of my green hiking shoes:

Those green shoes are coated with our region’s signature red dust. The big local rocks decay into red powder over time, and that hard evidence of deep time and deep history sticks to us as we trek through it, on our boots, on our skin, in our hair, in our house. In that prior article, I made reference to a favorite song called “Red” by a favorite artist named Jarboe, though it has occurred to me since that post that I probably could have even better captured the spirit of what I wanted to communicate through another of her songs, called “Panasonic in Red Dirt,” which sounds like this:

I love the red dirt around us. On one plane, it reminds me of the red clay of my father’s native Piedmont region in North Carolina, evoking many fond childhood memories. On another plane, it’s both humbling and heroic to walk through visible dust relics of the magnificent ancient rocks around us, making new memories today. There are many things that I adore about our new home, but I have to say that our daily walks may be the best of the best things hereabouts, for reasons obvious and intangible, good for the body, good for the mind, good for the soul.

I recently spun another favorite song by another favorite band called NoMeansNo, and the lyrics of its final chorus perfectly expressed the way I feel about our daily rambles hereabouts, why they make me feel so very, very good, and how they fit within the belief structure I explored and elucidated in my Credidero series. Here are the most relevant lyrics:

Heaven’s not a kingdom
Not a land on which to roam
Heaven’s not a palace
Where God sits upon a throne
Heaven has no treasure
There is nothing there to lose
Heaven has no choices
There is nothing there to choose
Heaven’s not in heaven
Heaven’s in the dust beneath my shoes

 

Yes, that. Exactly. Getting dusty while walking makes me feel good, in just about every way that I am programmed for pleasure. If that’s not heaven, then I don’t know what might be. With that, I’m off to ramble here (literally, not figuratively), but I leave a copy of that brilliant NoMeansNo song for you to spin below, and I thank them for giving me the title of this particular post, and for so brilliantly laying out the sentiments I wished to express here today, and to live and experience in the days that remain before me:

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #17: Fleetwood Mac

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: As was the case with earlier superstar entries in this series like David Bowie and Neil Diamond, I suspect that if you’re culturally literate enough to read my website, then you know who Fleetwood Mac are. That said, your knowledge of the group may be limited to the line-up that recorded 1977’s Rumours, which has long sat in the list of top ten best-selling albums ever. But the Mac issued a lot of music before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in 1975 to cement that commercial and critical juggernaut, and they’re still a going concern in 2021 (as much as any group can be during our Anno Virum) with Neil Finn (of Split Enz and Crowded House) and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) replacing Buckingham in 2018 after the latest of many personnel dramas in their history. At bottom line, the answer to the question “Who Are Fleetwood Mac?” comes down to this: they’re an incredible rhythm section (John McVie on bass and Mick Fleetwood on drums) with stellar skills at picking singers and songwriters to man the front-lines they make possible. John and Mick have been working together since around the time I was born, first with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then with their own band (formed in 1967 with guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer), and they are a tight and mighty machine at this point, bless their hearts and hands.

When I First Heard Them: 1975ish, after the release of the eponymous album that first featured Buckingham and Nicks, and scored big charting singles with “Over My Head,” “Rhiannon,” and “Say You Love Me.” They were a group the whole family liked, which was nice. At some point after that, but before Rumours, record labels decided to capitalize on the new Mac’s American success and acclaim by re-releasing a lot of pre-Buckingham/Nicks records, and I received a copy of their 1971 album Future Games as a birthday present in 1976 during that period. I was already an inveterate  liner-note reader, so was surprised and/or confused to see that two guys named Bob Welch and Danny Kirwan were playing and singing where Buckingham and Nicks were on the group’s then-latest album, alongside the stalwart rhythm section and keyboardist-singer-songwriter Christine McVie, then wife of John (though not for much longer). It was different from the then-current hits, yes, but I adored and still adore Future Games, and if only allowed to take one Mac album to the proverbial desert island, that would be the one I’d pack. When Rumours came out the next year, the Mac became ubiquitous, and I was at the Uniondale Public Library on Long Island around the time and saw a new book exploring their history. I borrowed it, found their evolution and family tree utterly fascinating, and acquired all of their studio albums in the years ahead, then have stayed abreast of their ongoing work ever since. Marcia and I have seen the Mac three times (the full “classic” five-piece twice, and once when Christine McVie was on sabbatical), and we’ve also seen Buckingham solo (amazing!) and the Buckingham-McVie duo tour (not quite as amazing, but still delightful). I hope that, in the COVID after-times, we’re able to catch the current incarnation of the group, and would be happy to have a new studio album from them to boot, since it’s been a long time since the Mac have produced one of those.

Why I Love Them: If you’re willing to take a long view of their career and catalog, being a Fleetwood Mac fan is a smorgasbord of riches, because it means you get to be a fan of several great, different-sounding line-ups, united only by Mick Fleetwood and John McVie anchoring whatever the various and hugely talented singers, guitarists and keyboardists are doing in the visual and audio foreground. While I would not likely include either McVie nor Fleetwood if asked to name my 10 favorite bassists or 10 favorite drummers ever, I would certainly cite them if asked to name my favorite rhythm sections, where their work together is definitely greater than the sum of its individual parts. As noted above, the Mac rhythm section’s greatest strength may be in identifying and recruiting brilliant singer-songwriters, and giving them the space and time to shine, each playing to their own individual and collective strengths. Wikipedia says that the Mac have had 19 different line-ups over the years, but I tend to think of them in four blocks: Peter Green Era (1967-1970), Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch Era (1970-1974), Buckingham/Nicks Era (1974-1987), and Everything After Era, Including Reunions (1987-Now). As noted above, the group’s greatest commercial success came in the Buckingham/Nicks Era, while the blues-oriented Peter Green Era probably wins the most critical kudos, and the Post-1987 Era has mostly been defined by sold out nostalgia reunions dotted with the emergence of ephemeral alternative versions of the band. That leaves the unique Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch Era as the least well known in the narrative, though it is the one that I actually listen to the most these days, happily. Kirwin, Welch and Green are all dead, now, alas, and I must note that I do have a strong beef with the Mac over their treatment of Welch when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. See this article for more on that tragic travesty. But Green, Welch and Kirwan left behind truly great work that shines on beyond their too-short times as members of the Mac, and they feature as prominently in my personal Top Ten list below as do their later, better-known successors.

#10. “Hypnotized” from Mystery to Me (1973)

#9. “Second Hand News” from Rumours (1977)

#8. “Coming Your Way” from Then Play On (1969)

#7. “Earl Grey” from Kiln House (1970)

#6. “Sands of Time” from Future Games (1971)

#5. “Sunny Side of Heaven” from Bare Trees (1972)

#4. “Never Going Back Again” from Rumours (1977)

#3. “Albatross” from “Albatross” single (1968); later reissued on The Pious Bird of Good Omen (1969)

#2. “Dust” from Bare Trees (1972)

#1. “Woman of 1000 Years” from Future Games (1971)