Tag Archives: What You Won’t Do For Love

The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson
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She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

Hall-Oates

Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis

That’s Why I’m Here

No, not the James Taylor song. Writing about music fulfills some kind of need in me, I suppose, or I wouldn’t be here. And I know that writing about something helps me to figure out what I think about the subject I’m discussing. It might just be because the fact of wanting to write a post about a particular record forces me to listen in an active, engaged and critical way so I don’t embarrass myself, but I think there’s something about the process itself that takes me further into the topic than I ever get from just sitting and listening, however intently.

So that’s some of why I’m here. But I do have a more altruistic reason, or at least a reason that’s outward-looking. There are so many large-scale websites devoted to the discussion and reviewing of music: Pitchfork, obviously, but also Drowned in Sound, Popmatters, AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Quietus, the online presences of Rolling Stone and Spin, the digital editions of the print newspapers (some of which devote more effort and resources to arts reviews than others, but they’re all there), the websites of magazines like Mojo, Uncut, NME, and on and on. But none of them provide the sort of criticism that I particularly want to read. I go on the AV Club website for film and TV reviews – I never read their record reviews.

The sort of criticism I like to read goes deeper than the writing you find in these places: sometimes it may focus on the culture music exists in, lives in and feeds off; other times it may be take the form of a close response to the musical matter and be aware of how small musical events change the way the listener hears the piece; it might get technical about production (recording techniques, mic placement, equalisation, panning, compression, time-domain effects); it might be a stream of random associations and allusions and images that the music calls to mind. I try and do all of these things, depending on my response to the song at hand. Sometimes I throw out all of that and just pass on cool ways to tune a guitar, mic a drum kit or double-track heavy guitars. I don’t premeditate that much. Not having a website structure to fill (at least for now) allows me to post at my own pace and discuss whatever I want. There’s supposed to be a utility to it though. In my own head, I’m providing a service here, passing on knowledge and weird little insights that you’re not going to get from the bigger music sites and aggregators simply because they have these rigid structures that don’t really allow for randomness. They chase novelty because they need traffic, and they can only concern themselves with older music or films or TV when they’re celebrating some kind of landmark anniversary.

These self-defined structures don’t completely throttle worthwhile criticism. There’s a tremendous skill involved in being able to listen to a new record over the course of a week, absorb it, internalise it, sort through it and its implications and its associations and come up with a short review by the end of the week that will plug a 200-word hole in some website’s music-review section. It’s incredibly hard to do it with such a short turnaround and say anything worth the time it takes to read it. Inevitably, few writers can pull it off. Most are just plugging the holes in the structure, they’re not engaging in the practice of criticism. But there are writers who consistently manage to say something engaging and insightful and knowledgeable about new music, even while their editors are barking at them about deadlines.

So it’s been a conscious choice to avoid the new, the current, the novel. It’s covered as well as it can be in so many other places, and avoiding chasing after the new stuff allows me the time to really hear something before forming an opinion. It allows me not to have to pick a side instantly. There’s no such thing as objectivity when forming a response to music. Here I don’t pretend otherwise, but I try to be honest, I try to be fair and I made a decision to write about things I like, things I could perhaps turn other folks on to.

A couple of days ago, I posted about different artists’ covers of What You Won’t Do for Love, which is one of my favourite songs. And I felt a little bad about it afterwards, as I broke my own rule of being positive to do it. What I really wanted to do was indulge in another post celebrating the greatness of Bobby Caldwell’s original, but this time round I did that by snarking at some other artists who didn’t measure up. There’s endless material for snark if all you want to do is point and laugh at bad cover versions. I’ll name no names and point no fingers. A well-written slam might be funny, and provide pleasure to the reader, but only at the cost of the creator.

Now, artists who do bad work should be kept honest by bad reviews, but it helps if those reviews are constructive. Otherwise you’re not being a critic; you’re just throwing tomatoes at some poor musician in the stocks. And I wasn’t being constructive enough the other day, so I’m going to cut that shit out now.  I’m here (in the more general sense of the term) because I’m a lucky, lucky man. I have no right to be. And after an event like I had, it’s only natural to have your perspective changed a bit. But after a while, the routine of everyday life – of having to earn money, fulfill obligations to family, friends, employers and so on – can easily make the world seem like a grind again. Not uncaring or cruel necessarily, but like a big grey machine that I’m just a small part of. And it makes me start thinking like I did back before I got ill. In this little corner of the internet, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about detailed celebrations of the awesome.

And so I apologise for my lapse into snark the other day. It won’t happen again. And let me just say, to make things up to Go West (who came in for a good amount of the snark), that I enjoy Call Me as much as any one else who’s ever ridden through sunny Vice City on a big-ass motorbike while wearing a pastel suit and blasting Flash FM.

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Tommy Vercetti is an innocent man.

A necessary duty – I listen to all the various covers of What You Won’t Do for Love so you don’t have to

What You Won’t Do for Love, then. I’ve written about it before, as long-time readers may know. A perusal of the search terms that have led some folks here in the last couple of months suggests that a lot of people know the song, but don’t know who sang it, Boz Scaggs sometimes being assumed to be the artist responsible. I can understand why: apart from the obvious stylistic similarity, Caldwell even sounds like Boz vocally on some of his songs (My Flame, for instance). But as far as I know, Scaggs never has recorded What You Won’t Do for Love. It’d be like Neil Young recording Horse With No Name, or Dylan doing Eve of Destruction (except What You Won’t Do for Love is perfect, glorious and unassailable, while Eve of Destruction is miserable, wretched and laughable).

Loads of artists have taken it on, though. So here’s a run-through of some of the more notable versions. I may do a second post with more of these. I’m including full covers only, by the way. No samples.

1) Jessie Ware

The most recent take I know of is a Jessie Ware bonus track. A floaty version. I miss the bedrock of a groove on this version and the chirping synths, blipping and beeping all over the stereo field, are distracting. Her inclusion of a very South London delivery of ‘can’t let go’ (with a long ‘a’) in the middle of a vocal on which she otherwise affects an American accent is likewise apt to take me out of the song. There was an idea worth pursuing in this arrangement, she’s not a bad singer, and a less chill-out-in-the-juice-bar remix might improve things, but a thumbs-down from me for this.

2) Alexander O’Neal

This should have been a no-brainer slam dunk of a record. A great soul song and a great soul voice. But unfortunately this song isn’t really suited to the production its given here, which takes a weird 1988-in-2008 kind of approach. Alex slinks over the top of it, but the track is leaden and uninspiring.

3) Natalie Cole and Peabo Bryson

The right kind of backing track on this one, but the groove is a little on the slow side, making the song drag unnecessarily, and the arrangement is a touch too Jazz FM. Worthy, tasteful, very well sung (the harmonies are great) but a little dull.

4) Michael Bolton

Of course Bolton’s had a go at it! Singing, as always, like he’s in a rare form of dire physical pain that prevents clear enunciation, this is still restrained by his standards: the drums sound like they were recorded in a room rather than a cavern and the guitar solo isn’t too garish. Nevertheless, for this most subtle and understatedly adult of love songs, Bolton’s approach is ham-handed and free of nuance

However, if you’re of the mind, Timeless: The Classics Vol. 2 also contains his takes on My Girl, Tired of Being Alone, Sexual Healing, Let’s Stay Together, Ain’t No Sunshine, Whiter Shade of Pale and, um, Like a Rolling Stone, by his old buddy and sometime songwriting partner (yes, really) Bob Dylan. Those of you who want to hear Mike deliver his own idiosyncratic brand of casual ultraviolence on unsuspecting pop-music standards now know where to go.

5) Go West

I have rather more fondness for this than it deserves, since it was the first version I heard (back in the mid-nineties) when it was a reasonably big hit in the UK. Listening now after a good few years, it sounds very, very cheap. Brass section from a keyboard, drums from a box, Peter Cox’s vocal sung as if he was tensing his entire body and clenching his jaw too. But it’s endearing in a way Bolton’s version isn’t, possibly because of that very British make-do-and-mend spirit, in comparison to the high-budget glossiness of Bolton’s effort.

So there is no substitute for Caldwell’s original…

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His ship’s not sinking, he’s the king of wishful thinking, he’s Peter Cox