Playlist 277 - July 30 2013 - Love Songs

As a way of signing off before the station's summer break at the end of last month, I decided to bust out some proper romantic music. For no particular reason, but I must say Valentine's Day does give me the pip - why should card companies dictate when we listen to songs about love.

Plus I think pop music is the perfect vehicle for conveying the dizzy, transforming effects of being in love. So I’ve taken some of my favourite examples from across the decades, going through all kinds of genres including country, dream pop, soul, wall of sound – love songs work in all kinds of contexts.

And by the way, the love songs in this list run the gamut from unrequited, to celebration of familial ties, to wide-eyed optimism, to hymns of praise to a loved one, to jilted interrogations, and of course amour physique (Serge & Jane).

Some of these tunes you'll probably know well but I think it's always worthwhile to take another listen to songs this good - dig a bit deeper, let the longing, the yearning, the melancholy, the philosophical meditation, the ambiguity, the sheer living seep through.

We start with something groovy and gorgeous from two farming brothers from Washington state in the US Pacific Northwest.

Love Songs Special feat. The Ronettes,Gene Clark,Serge & Jane,Go Betweens,Zombies,Sapphires++ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

1. Donnie & Joe Emerson – Baby

The word swoon was invented for something like this, an ageless tune from a lost treasure of an album reissued recently on the great Light in the Attic label. Bedroom pop which conveys all the deep, deep feelings cooked up in that particular room. Donnie’s voice is also a dream.

2. The Ronettes – Be my baby

Difficult to add much to the huge canon of writing on this song. Whatever you think of Phil Spector as a human being, his ability to translate human emotions (seemingly beyond his own personal grasp) into musical arrangements was second to none. That iconic heart-thudding bass drum, the galloping castanets, the piercing voice-on-your-shoulder backing vocals, the swirling wall of sound. And Ronnie’s brilliantly believable singing performance. Pop perfection.

3. The Andrews Sisters – I can dream can’t I

A genius, fluttering melody with a fantastic orchestral arrangement by Gordon Jenkins. Not many post-war number 1s (1949) are this gorgeous or enduring.

4. Penny & the Quarters – You and me (from the soundtrack of the film Blue Valentine)

Given a platform eventually through its inclusion in the classy Blue Valentine – in fact, the song was made to form a major part of the plot, which says a lot about its quality. The background to the discovery of the recording is absolutely charming, but it’s the sheer innocence of the song and the simplicity of the arrangement that gets me every time.

5. Lucinda Williams – Right in time

We may well be talking about longing a lot in this post. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard female longing and desire given better expression than in this jewel from Williams’ 1998 masterpiece Car wheels on a gravel road. When she not so much sings as dredges these lines from her deepest being, if you’re anything like me you’ll need a cold shower.

I take off my watch and my earrings
My bracelets and everything
Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling
Oh my baby

Think about you and that long ride
I bite my nails, I get weak inside
Reach over and turn off the light
Oh my baby

6. Gene Clark – Through the morning, through the night

Gene Clark cuts something of a tragic figure in pop music history. Of his many great songs with The Byrds and afterwards, the poetic tenor of this one, and its languid, broken-down majesty, make it the perfect candidate for his epitaph.

7. Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – 69 Année Erotique

Of course I could have picked ‘Je t’aime’ for this playlist – a song I love and which effortlessly transcends all the cliché attached to it. But this one gives it a good run and in a way consummates better Serge’s relationship with Jane Birkin, his muse (where JB was only second in line to sing on ‘Je t’aime’, after Brigitte Bardot). The pleasures in it are so numerous – that upfront, hip-swinging bassline; his breathy spoken lines, her naive sung ones; the giddy flurry of strings in the chorus; the delicate xylophone in the second verse. It’s one of those rare pieces of music that makes you feel like you’re taking part in it.

8. The Go Betweens – Bachelor kisses

I could have happily included any number of Go Betweens songs in this list. They had so many unusual, bittersweet love songs that could cut your heart in two – ‘Dive for your memory’, ‘Karen’, ‘Right here’, ‘Bye bye pride’, ‘Part company’, ‘Streets of your town’, even ‘Cattle and Cane’. But I’ve always had a soft spot for this song, a single from 1984’s Spring Hill Fair album. For a band with a reputation as the perennial left-field underachievers, this is such classic, aching songwriting that it makes a mockery of most other so-called mainstream bands’ attempts. The late, great Grant McLennan wrote this about it for the liner notes of the band’s 1978-1990 Best of compilation.

We came back from Christmas in New York having lost our record company [Rough Trade] somewhere along the way. I wrote this in immigration having been refused entry to the United Kingdom. The first person who heard the song was my sister. She said that Marianne Faithfull should sing it.

Oh yeah, and check out that absolutely inspired bass run in the chorus.

9. Camera Obscura – Hey Lloyd, I’m ready to be heartbroken

It would have been all too easy to write a song with that refrain and make it sound half-arsed and stupid. The genius here is wrapping it in a propulsive, self-motivating sub-Northern Soul backbeat, complete with synth strings and THAT trumpet part. There’s an argument that Camera Obscura have taken on the Go Betweens baton – wry, literate, poignant. This song brings a tear to my eye every time.

10. Frank Wilson – Do I love you (Indeed I do)

Speaking of Northern Soul, there’s something about the cut-price, DIY aesthetic of it that I love. Soul music is responsible for many great innovations in pop music – a tambourine on the snare drum, pairing brass with rock n roll, massed backing vocals – and they are all brought to bear brilliantly on this tune. The version in the playlist is the original Motown recording from 1965. At the risk of committing sacrilege, I actually prefer the later version from 1979. It’s more urgent (faster too), less polished and with lashings of reverb to bring the killer backing vocals more to the fore. See what you think yourself.

11. Franki Valli & The Four Seasons – You’re a song (that I can’t sing)

A song I came across a couple of years ago through another classic Light in the Attic release, a compilation of the short-lived Motown offshoot label Mowest. I became quite obsessed with it at the time and listening back now it’s not surprising.

From that post, these lines sum up my feelings best.

It's an acoustic guitar and strings ballad, with a big, itchy bassline. It has a male harmony chorus line that predicts Philly soul, in all its orchestrated glory. And it has Frankie Valli's vulnerable falsetto, playing the part of wounded underdog to perfection.

You're a song that I can't sing
You're a word that I can't say
You're a game that I can't play

It also has flutes and a "Wand'rin Star" harmonica. And the most winning chorus I've heard in years, incorporating a perfectly ingenious keychange. It seems to have found a point where doo wop, soul and male crooning can live in perfect harmony.

12. The Sapphires – Who do you love

I love the unique late night atmosphere of this song. And the fact that the main melody carries the joy and rush of being in love, while the fear and dread running underneath creep up on you. Plus the fantastic sleepy slurred delivery of Carol Jackson’s lead vocal.

13. Doris Day – Secret love (from the soundtrack of Calamity Jane)

Only one of the purest voices in pop music could have managed to rescue this lead song from its part in a cod musical western. I understand that I’ll lose some people at this point, but I urge you to forget everything you know and try to imagine hearing it for the first time. And when she belts out

Now I shout it from the highest hills

join me in feeling the joy.

14. The Turtles – Happy together

I had this song playing at my wedding. The simplicity and directness of the lyric are obviously great but the layers and details of the arrangement are the key in this case – that Eastern-sounding, winding clarinet line, those high note piano interjections, the irresistible ba-ba-ba vocal parts, and culminating in the song’s crowning glory, that trumpet line. You can take it as the epitome of mainstream, you can equally take it as psych pop. I use the tagline “glorious and uplifting pop music” for the show; this song is like the definition of that.

15. Curtis Mayfield – Miss Black America

Curtis Mayfield is a God obviously and his 1970 debut solo album Curtis wasn’t called “the Sgt Pepper’s of 70’s soul” for nothing. Hard to choose but I’d say my favourite part of this song is the left ear-right ear panning of the duetting strings and brass. Yeah boi.

16. The Zombies – This will be our year

Another superb band obviously but maybe one of their lesser-known songs. It’s all about the sublime Beatle-ish piano figure and Colin Bluntstone’s unforgettable breathy vocal.

17. The Carpenters – We’ve only just begun

The timeless, longing (that word again) voice of Karen Carpenter, another fantastic interpreter of love songs – let’s say, of needing something you can’t have, giving a voice to loss. The timbre of her voice really is a thing to behold – you feel like you could swim in it. To be honest, she could be reciting the phonebook, it wouldn’t matter that much to me. Her opening lines on this song, just with piano before the band kicks in, well I could listen to them over and over again.
(I also have a serious soft spot for the backing singer with the lisp.)

18. The Beach Boys – All I wanna do

To finish, there had to be something by Brian Wilson, the king of vocal arrangements. The way each vocal twist and turn ratchets up the emotion in this song is quite incredible. Wilson’s desire to create spiritual, cosmic music is well known. In this case, he succeeded in applying those methods to physical bonds. The deep fuzz bass that kicks in midway through is enough to suggest baser carnal desires surging up underneath the platonic, angelic harmonies. However you read it, one of the highpoints of popular music, ever.


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