Nov 2018 at Bowery Electric, NYC (photo © 2021, Jason Gross)
An Introduction or Refresher Course in Nine Songs
By Kurt Wildermuth
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the pop-rock-folk-country artist Syd Straw is a gifted singer. By "universally," I mean within the small but beautiful world of people who've heard her sing, whether live, on her own recordings, or on her guest appearances. You small but beautiful people love, for example, Victoria Williams's Happy Come Home (1987), Loudon Wainwright's History (1992), and Rickie Lee Jones's The Evening of My Best Day (2003), right? If you know those lovely, finely crafted, adventurous, and heartfelt albums--and if not, why not?--then you've encountered Syd Straw as backup singer.
But maybe it's been a while since you've given those discs a spin. Maybe your copies of Straw's own albums have gathered dust or found good homes with people who still own physical media. Maybe you've lost track of those Straw-enhanced electronic files you downloaded. So it's time for a reminder of why all the cool kids have Syd Straw tattoos on their faces. Let's run through some choice selections to get a sense of her vocal abilities and, not so incidentally, her songwriting and record-making prowess. As we'll see, Straw has pipes, but she doesn't have a signature approach. She sings in service of the song.
"Buenos Aires" on the Golden Palominos' Visions of Excess (1985)
As her Wikipedia page and the biographical sketches scattered around the web will tell you, Straw's big break was singing backup for the pop-rocker Pat Benatar (best known for "Hit Me with Your Best Shot"). Hipsters and indie-rock fans then became aware of Straw as one vocalist amid the crew on this, the Golden Palominos' second album.
Golden Palominos wasn't a band. It was a rubric for collections of musicians whose unifying member and eventual guiding force was the Downtown Manhattan (and Ohio transplant) drummer Anton Fier, who'd played with those faux jazzers the Lounge Lizards, the avant-garage of Pere Ubu and those crazy rhythmists the Feelies. On this album, Fier, guitarist Jody Harris, and bassist Bill Laswell teamed up with heavy hitters. Like the Lounge Lizards and the Feelies, these are household names in any house worth living in: Michael Stipe, John Lydon, Richard Thompson, Jack Bruce, Chris Stamey, Bernie Worrell, Carla Bley, Arto Lindsay, Henry Kaiser, Nicky Skopelitis... and Syd Straw.
Straw comes from out of nowhere yet holds her own. Her highlight on the album is this track, which she wrote with Fier and Skopelitis. Amidst Fier's quasi-tribal drumming--similar to the pattern you might remember from Time Zone's contemporaneous but timeless "World Destruction" (where Lydon meets rap legend Afrika Bambaattaa- check it out at Laswell's Bandcamp page)--guitars and keyboards weave through the interstices, but mainly Straw and backup vocalist Bley harmonize angelically, ethereally, if not wordlessly. Exactly what they're singing and what it's about can be elusive: "She got a letter postmarked Argentina . . . She lost her wallet, but she never lost her nerve... Call me a fool, you can call me insane."
Music, lyrics, and singing create a sonic scene, and we might consider this blending of voices a template for Straw duets to come.
"Blue Shadows on the Trail" on the compilation Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988)
Speaking of angelic and ethereal, but in contrast to the funky avant-gardism of "Buenos Aires," here Straw sweetly, unironically delivers a cowboy's hymn to nighttime in the West, originally recorded in 1947 by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers for an animated movie.
The mastermind behind the Stay Awake compilation was Hal Willner, who in 2020 became a COVID-19 victim, but in the meantime, created a lifetime's worth of mayhem by producing records and tributes such as this. For his homage to the magic and creepiness of Disney, Willner brought together tracks by Ringo Starr, Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O'Connor, Betty Carter, Tom Waits... and Syd Straw.
Amidst the inspired hodgepodge of idiosyncratic renditions, Straw's straightforwardness stands out. Acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and harmonica evoke wide-open spaces, which Straw's voice glides through: "Move along, blue shadows, move along / Soon the dawn will come, and you'll be on your way." In fact, Straw moves along, out of the way of the song, achieving a transparency of personality so she is simply the vehicle by which the thing expresses itself.
If you sample only one Syd Straw track, make it this gem. If you're not won over, I'll eat my cowboy hat.
"Heart of Darkness" on Straw's Surprise (1989)
On a debut album full of well-written songs played by musicians' musicians, including members of the extended Golden Palominos family, Straw consistently sounds like she has everything to prove. This track illustrates how she commands her instrument.
On the album opener, pop-rocker Peter Holsapple's "Think Too Hard," Straw raucously announce herself the mistress of ceremonies. Then "Heart of Darkness," a Straw original, slows the tempo and cools the temperature. After the spacious music ruminates, it builds in intensity once the drums kick in, and Straw's voice floats through the atmosphere as she delivers lines about seeing through a person's negative aspects, facing truth, making things better. "If you will not help yourself / You could be hurting someone else."
In a live-TV appearance from 1989, which features the Blasters' Dave Alvin on guitar and adds quite a bit of intensity to the studio version, Straw dedicates this song to anyone who has been depressed. Check it out above.
"Rebel Rebel" on Rickie Lee Jones's Traffic from Paradise (1993)
Traffic from Paradise is a very strange album, meticulously crafted yet so loose and wispy that at times you're not sure if you're listening to music or sound effects. If you catch the production's drift, you keep going back to see just what you've heard and figure out what Jones is getting at. Like ambient music, this record demands close attention or none. A perfect example is this version of David Bowie's riff-rock anthem.
The song didn't need to be covered, but Jones doesn't do Bowie karaoke. Instead, she comes across as a coffee-shop chanteuse jamming with friends on a radio favorite. Guest guitarist Brian Setzer (of Stray Cats fame) plays around with the riff. Background singer Syd Straw's soulful accompaniment to Jones is so prominent that this could have been called a duet. Whether Jones's version adds to the original is your call, but this bare-bones-to-no-bones rendition would surely be lacking without Straw's growliness. See the YouTube video above of Jones, Setzer, and Straw performing this version on Jay Leno's show way back when.
"For Shame of Doing Wrong" on the compilation Beat the Retreat: Songs of Richard Thompson (1994)
On her Surprise album, Straw covered nineteenth-century songsmith Stephen Foster's infinitely tear-jerking "Hard Times." She far outdid her harmonizer, X's John Doe, who can croon his way around a ballad but in that case, sounded like he was actually weeping. Here, Straw blows away her co-vocalist, the Lemonheads' Evan Dando. Or perhaps Dando, knowing he doesn't have a chance, lays back and lets his heartfelt but characterless delivery serve as a foil for Straw's impassioned reading.
Not that Straw displays herself, necessarily. As on "Blue Shadows on the Trail," she achieves a transparency of expression, so her notes create a window through which you see the song. For a perfect example, focus on the line "I wish I was a fool for you," where her repetitions and variations are like a hammer hitting a nail straight in.
This song had been nailed by its composer, Richard Thompson, and his then-wife, Linda, in 1975. Two years later, the peerless folk-rocker Sandy Denny, Thompson's former bandmate in Fairport Convention, brought the house down with her Celtic-psychedelic version. Combining power and slackness to dramatic effect, Straw and Dando's duet proves as arresting as those versions. Someone I know, a connoisseur of singers, became a Syd Straw fan upon walking into a room where this song was playing.
"CBGB's" on Straw's War and Peace (1996)
This charmer never gets old. Suppose you loved a movie when you were a teenager, you quoted it all the time, then you forgot about it for decades, until you caught it on TV and were transported back into its small world and realized how formative this worldview was for you. This song, its words and its music, feels like that.
The opening guitar chords leave ambiguous just what kind of rock you're about to hear, then a drum roll ushers in the garage band. Actually, it's the roots-rock band the Skeletons, who accompany Straw throughout this nearly perfect CD. The singer, with just the right amount of echo on her honeyed voice to give it a "live room" feel, begins the conversation: "Hey, remember me? We met ten years ago, at CBGB's, on New Year's Eve."
In this one-sided conversation, the singer recalls the couple's brief fling and asks the same questions of him that she asks of herself, about how life works and the turns their lives took. While the music suggests lighthearted fun, Straw's lyrics feel grown-up in the best sense, giving us pictures without telling us what to think.
Of the nine tracks I discuss in this piece, this one most gives the impression of conveying Straw's personality, even if the scenario isn't strictly autobiographical. I have no idea whether it is, but I suspect no one but Straw would tell this story in just this way. Her patented wryness infuses the singer's brief detour into the details of her own life: "I was married for a while / It ended in tragedy / . . . Oh well, enough about me." The laugh and the emotional punch come moments after. Lyrics just don't get more unpretentiously literary in their telling specificity, and they're seldom delivered so perfectly.
You love the woman, but you don't hate the man. If you live long enough, you'll have exchanges this multilayered about things that happened.
"Love Sounds Like Rain" on The Health & Happiness Show's Sad & Sexy (1999)
As I noted in a recent Perfect Sound Forever tribute to this defunct New Jersey band, "Love Sounds Like Rain" is a highlight of their final recording and maybe their pop-rock pinnacle. In fact, while working on that piece, I discovered Straw was the guest vocalist here, and that revelation sent me back through her musical history. Of the many elements contributing to the relaxed majesty of this song, Straw's backup vocals might be the special ingredient. She harmonizes with lead singer James Mastro in much the same way she harmonizes with Rickie Lee Jones on "Rebel Rebel," culminating in the infectious "do do do do / oh ho" interjections within the chorus. They're like the chunks of chewy goodness in an already delicious pint of Ben & Jerry's.
"Pink Velour" on Straw's Pink Velour (2008)
The title track from Straw's most recent (!) solo release finds her stretching the boundaries of what a song can be, perhaps drawing inspiration from Patti Smith's freeform flights. Guitar strums accompany a brief intro in which the singer explains that "I went home again / Just to prove that you could." Then a rhythm develops, with a chiming that rises and occasionally descends, as for over seven minutes, the singer takes us on a dry-eyed journey of associations, moving west, from rain turning to snow to being her father's girl to riding down the highway in a Volkswagen (bug? bus?), acknowledging "I've always loved you all this time," asking "I wonder if you can feel it," and ending with the repeated "I always check the weather / Where you are."
It's a deeply personal essay in verse, like "Heart of Darkness" X-rayed. In an interview at her website, Straw names this as "maybe" her favorite song she has written: "I think it's my most close to the bone ever. . . . It's my family story in one song."
"Shoulder to Cry On" on Jimmer & Syd's Shoulder to Cry On (2018)
In another in her string of subdued yet emotionally charged duets, Straw collaborates on an "alternative-folky" song written by Jimmer Podrasky of the Rave-Ups. As on so many other musical vignettes over the decades, Straw fits her voice to the setting, which is acoustic and percussionless. Two former lovers ended up as friends, and one confesses, "I listen to your panicked voice ringing down the line / And it makes my poor heart feel it's ten beats out of time." The simplicity, affectlessness, of the delivery invites you in and adds depth to the plain-spoken lyrics.
Like War and Peace, and Pink Velour, this collection is available at Bandcamp. You heard it here first. You heard about it, rather. Now maybe the time has come to hear it.
Dear reader, your move.
Also see Kurt Wildermuth's website
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