On this week's Monday Mixtape, Marco Cartolano talks about some of his favorite singer-songwriters. You can find this playlist of Spotify here.
[Phil Ochs – “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”]
Hello everybody, and welcome to Monday Mixtape. Get ready to visit your favorite overpriced coffee shop, because we’re looking at singer-songwriters on this episode. From sensitive souls that were gone too soon to dedicated chroniclers of the human experience, singer-songwriters write intimate tracks that stir up emotion. Let’s go back to the ‘60s with a famous protest anthem: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs is told from the perspective of a weary soldier that has somehow fought in every American war since 1812. He was witness to countless atrocities, and now he’ll stand defiant by refusing to march. It was made when the Vietnam War was at its height, and it became Ochs’ most famous song. The simple verses are filled with history, and Ochs’ defiant tone in the chorus captures the anger of the time.
[Tracy Chapman – “Fast Car”]
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman fits the mold of a stereotypical singer-songwriter track. It consists of simple acoustic instrumentation, has a sad story, and is very serious. But it’s become such a staple because it’s a beautiful song about the desire to escape and how our dreams don’t pan out. Chapman is in a dead-end town with an alcoholic father, but she is working to get out. She is planning on going to the city with her lover to make a living. Things don’t work out. and her partner turns out to be a deadbeat. The image of the two driving in his car served as a symbol of hope in the beginning, but it becomes one of dashed dreams by the end. It’s a heavy song, but it’s filled with genuine emotion.
[Nick Drake – “Pink Moon”]
Singer-songwriters can also be cryptic. They can fill their songs with imagery that only entirely makes sense to them. The late Nick Drake filled his songs with nature symbolism. An introverted man with severe depression, Drake never explained the meaning of his songs. On “Pink Moon,” Drake sparingly describes the coming of a pink moon. While pink moons usually denote a coming insanity, it’s never clear what Drake ultimately means. The song’s charm comes from the intricate playing, the minimal piano line, and Drake’s semi-coherent singing. Drake only released three albums before he died, but he is revered by music fans for his unique voice and mysterious lyrics.
[Kate Bush – “Cloudbusting”]
One of the more instrumentally-ornate singer-songwriters, Kate Bush rose in the music industry after Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour discovered her. Bush was known for her unique voice and for tackling more literary subject matter. “Cloudbusting” is based off of the memoir of Peter Reich, the son of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Wilhelm Reich is an interesting dude who believed that orgasms released a biological energy. Law enforcement didn’t like him for peddling free love and pseudoscience, so they arrested him. He may have been a quack, but he was a very good father. The close father-son relationship moved Bush so much that she wrote a song about it. It’s a very touching portrait of a son dealing with his inability to save his father and how he remembers his father whenever it rains. Musically, it’s accompanied by hypnotic strings and majestic backing vocals. You’re probably wondering what “cloudbusting” is – it’s a rainmaking technique Reich came up with where he would point a machine at the clouds. I told you he was a quack.
[Elliott Smith – “Needle in the Hay”]
One of the patron saints of teenage angst in the ‘90s, Elliott Smith wrote sad songs about depressing topics. Troubled by addiction and parental abuse, Smith tried to work out his demons through his music. “Needle in the Hay” describes a heroin addict that is dealing with the side effects of his...bad habit. He’s ragged and in need of a fix. While Smith said his lyrics about drug use were more metaphorical than literal, the song still sounds bleak. It’s a slowed down acoustic number, but the chorus still has a poppy sensibility.
[Mountain Goats – “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”]
Music nerds love the Mountain Goats. Fans obsess over their lyrical examinations of desperate people. For a long time, the sole member was singer-songwriter John Darnielle. Darnielle used a boombox to record many of his early lo-fi albums. While they were rough around the edges, his songs were noted for their sharp narratives. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is a perfect example of his early lo-fi sound. Darnielle tells the story of a group of teenagers who start a death metal band in their small town. Eventually, the town steps in to tear them apart. What makes this song great is the little details in the lyrics, like their inability to choose a band name, and it’s clear message. Darnielle sings, “If you punish a person for dreaming his dream don't expect him to thank or forgive you.” Darnielle is so good at telling these short stories that you empathize with characters that shout, “Hail Satan.”
[Joni Mitchell – “A Case of You”]
Finally, let’s talk about the queen of singer-songwriters. Joni Mitchell became a legend because she never let anyone box her in. Her first husband was a pompous folk musician who hated how wise her lyrics were, and Mitchell had to dump that idiot to give a solo career a shot. Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue is famous for its raw emotional honesty. “A Case of You” reflects on a relationship with a difficult man. He tries to be deep, but Mitchell can see through him, and she acknowledges that he’s an asshole. However, she feels like he’s a part of her now and he still influences her music. What sets this song apart from others with similar themes is that Mitchell gives as much as she takes. She asserts control over him, and she mocks him by saying that she can drink a case of him and not be affected. This song is allegedly about Leonard Cohen, another Canadian singer-songwriter, and he does not come out looking good. Mitchell’s famously odd guitar chords and her emotive voice also help to sell the track.
[Reprise – “A Case of You”]
And that’s all for Monday Mixtape. This week’s playlist will be available on Spotify at mondaymixtape. Make sure to subscribe to Monday Mixtape on Apple Podcasts so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. I hope this playlist proves there’s more to singer-songwriters than John Mayer. This has been Marco Cartolano for NBN Audio.