Sunday, September 13, 2015

Smooth as Whispercats I

"Copper and Snow"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous— that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

There was a roughly 5-year period— say, from the release of “Oh Girl” by Boy Meets Girl in 1985 until the release of “Driving” by Everything but the Girl in 1990— when alternative music was ... well, not dominated, really, but at least vigorously populated ... by an odd type of soft-focus pop that owed a large debt to smooth jazz.  To call it actual “smooth jazz” would be a misnomer, but then again many would argue that to call smooth jazz actual “jazz” is also a misnomer.  It’s hard to say exactly where this came from.  It’s certainly true that rock saxophone was undergoing a serious change, from the peppier fills such as Andy Hamilton’s on “Rio” by Duran Duran in 1982 to the more introspective lines such as those played by Michael Brecker in “Your Latest Trick” by Dire Straits in 1985.1  But it’s not like smooth jazz was ever mega-popular, worthy of being emulated due to its legion of adoring fans.

And yet ... alternative grew a strong smooth jazz component in that 5-year period.  There was Sting’s breakout solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, the astonishing success of Double’s “Captain of Her Heart,” which hit #16 in the US and rose all the way to #8 in the UK (which is pretty strong for a supposedly alternative track), and a seemingly endless procession of purveyors of the style: Boy Meets Girl, Scarlett & Black, Johnny Hates Jazz, the Go-Betweens, Everything but the Girl, Level 42, the Cutting Crew, Swing Out Sister, the Blow Monkeys, Hipsway, and Aztec Camera, and that’s not even including those who merely dabbled in the form, such as ABC and the aforementioned Dire Straits.2

Some of the folks I list above are identified as “sophisti-pop” by Wikipedia or AllMusic.  Honestly, I tend to think of sophisti-pop as being represented by the Style Council, or Spandau Ballet— neither of which I particularly care for— and indeed both those bands are listed on the Wikipedia page I just linked to.  But it also lists several bands that I don’t feel fit the smooth-jazz-inflected mold at all, such as Scritti Politti, whose strong reggae tinge makes me want to link them to the Escape Club; ABC, who is pure synth-pop; and the Blue Nile, who lean far more towards lounge than jazz.3  That page also leaves out what I consider to be two big names from my list: Boy Meets Girl and Everything But the Girl.  Still, there’s no denying that sophisti-pop is strongly tied to the particular sound I’m highlighting in this mix.

Some of these bands were essentially one-hit wonders: for instance, “You Don’t Know” by Scarlett & Black is a great song that we hear towards the end of this volume, but Scarlett and Black is a fairly crappy album overall.  Likewise, the insanely good “Captain of Her Heart,” which opens this volume, is a marvel; Blue, on the other hand, is barely adequate.  But then again, some of these albums are just amazing, such as Turn Back the Clock by Johnny Hates Jazz, in which nearly every song is a winner.  In fact, it was relistening to “Shattered Dreams”— which I’ve chosen for the closer here— at some point a few years ago which inspired me to start developing my own mix of these smooth-jazz-inspired tracks.  These songs are all on the slower side— sort of soft-focus, as I said up above— but not really downbeat.  They’re often romantic, but not generally sappy.4  They’re ... well, they’re smooth, and they do often whisper their messages in your ear.  Where the “cats” bit comes from I can’t rightly say, unless I was perhaps subconsciously inspired by “The Love Cats.”

That little 5-year stint from the late eighties is certainly well-represented here: besides the 3 tracks already mentioned, we have “Moon Over Bourbon Street” by Sting, my favorite Level 42 tune “Lessons in Love,” the best ever Go-Betweens track “Love Goes On!”, the Cutting Crew’s mostly unknown “Any Colour,” Aztec Camera’s “Stray,” from the album of the same name, and of course the big hit (for an alternative track, anyway) “Oh Girl” by Boy Meets Girl.  Great tunes all, but we’ll need to expand beyond that narrow timeslice to make a truly interesting mix.

The easiest direction to expand in is Norah Jones.  Despite being Ravi Shankar’s daughter,5 Jones is primarily known for a jazzy, soulful style that certainly blends beautifully into this mix.  I was mightily impressed with Come Away with Me, and we see two tracks off it here, and we can expect to hear more from Norah on future volumes.  Her voice is angelic, and fits perfectly here.

And let’s not forget Everything But the Girl, who give us “Missing,” kicking off our center stretch.  EBtG didn’t fade away like most of their smooth-jazz-inflected compatriots, and this track is from 1994, when they were still keeping it smooth.  And this is truly one of the great tracks of this subgenre: probably the second best EBtG track ever, in fact.6

And, as always, I like to see the good peeps over at Magnatune represented.  In this case, we’ll hear a vocal track from cellist Jami Sieber, off her 1998 album Second Sight, and then one from really obscure band7 the West Exit, from their really quite good debut, Nocturne.  Sieber’s track here is atypical of her normal work, which is often a bit darker.  Whereas the West Exit was made for this mix, straight up.  “Calico” is the soundtrack for being on a balcony at night, overlooking a city where the lights from traffic become pastel smears of color, and a gentle breeze blows by ...

Note that we close with our mix starter, “Shattered Dreams.”  It was the big hit by Johnny Hates Jazz, who are often thought of as one-hit-wonders for this very song (if they’re thought of at all).  It’s a fantastic track and a great closer, but we’ll be seeing more from these English gents in future volumes.

Smooth as Whispercats I
    [Copper and Snow]

        “The Captain of Her Heart” by Double, off Blue
        “Moon Over Bourbon Street” by Sting, off The Dream of the Blue Turtles
        “Don't Know Why” by Norah Jones, off Come Away with Me
        “Tree of Love” by Jami Sieber, off Second Sight
        “The Key” by Kristin Hersh, off Strings [EP]
        “Stray” by Aztec Camera, off Stray
        “How You Kill Me” by KT Tunstall, off Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon
        “Missing” by Everything but the Girl, off Amplified Heart
        “Barely Breathing” by Duncan Sheik, off Duncan Sheik
        “Lessons in Love” by Level 42, off Running in the Family
        “Love Goes On!” by Go-Betweens, off 16 Lovers Lane
        “Any Colour” by Cutting Crew, off Broadcast
        “Come Away with Me” by Norah Jones, off Come Away with Me
        “Violet” by Seal, off Seal
        “Calico” by The West Exit, off Nocturne
        “You Don't Know” by Scarlett & Black, off Scarlett and Black
        “Oh Girl” by Boy Meets Girl, off Boy Meets Girl
        “Shattered Dreams” by Johnny Hates Jazz, off Turn Back the Clock
Total:  18 tracks,  79:33

In terms of the less likely candidates that fill out this volume, we have the lovely tune “The Key” by Kristin Hersh.  Although Hersh is most well-known for being one of the driving forces behind Throwing Muses, she’s done some impressive solo work as well, and “The Key” (off her EP Strings) is my favorite.  It also provides the volume name: as I’m sure you know, copper and snow make a dusky blue boy.

Bookcasing “Missing” we have a pretty track from KT Tunstall (although not off Tiger Suit, which is usually my go-to source for Tunstall tunes), and the moderately popular “Barely Breathing,” the song that made Duncan Sheik a one-hit-wonder.  The former is a quiet, unassuming tune that you’ve likely never heard.  The latter is a breathy, smooth pop gem that you may have heard so much you got sick of it.  But give it another chance: it’s really quite lovely.

And, finally, I broke one of my own rules by including the 8-minute “Violet,” by Seal.  Rarely do I use such a long track, except perhaps on the instrumental mixes.  Also, I’m not actually a huge Seal fan.  But I own Seal, because it contains the awesome “Crazy,” and there are a few other tracks I also like, including this one.  It features some loungy piano work, some intriguing samples, and some mellow yet otherworldly synth programming.  It’s long, but it’s breezy and cool and very smooth, and that’s what this mix is all about.

Next time, we’ll get real.  Or, rather ... surreal.

1 In fact, we’ll see “Your Latest Trick” on volume II.

2 And, yes, between this volume and the next, we’ll hear from all of those folks.

3 Which is to say, we’ll see the Blue Nile on Moonside by Riverlight before we see them here.

4 “Sappy” being in the eye of the beholder, of course.  Your mileage may vary.

5 I know, right?

6 You can bet we’ll be hearing the first best next volume.

7 Recall my definition of “really obscure band.”

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