“Archie, Marry Me” – Alvvays

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Cape Breton Island is in the northeast of Nova Scotia. Waves of Scottish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries created a distinct regional form of Gaelic music on the island that still thrives today, in part due to the Rankins.

The Rankins come from Cape Breton’s small coastal community of Mabou. Five Rankin siblings achieved massive success recording as The Rankin Family in the ‘90s, leading what became a global wave of interest in traditional Celtic folk music. Their second LP Fare Thee Well Love was a legitimate phenomenon, certified 5x Platinum and winning the Rankin Family Juno Awards over Canadian icons like Celine Dion, Neil Young and The Tragically Hip.

While the whole family was musically gifted (there were actually 12 Rankin children total), John Morris Rankin stood out as an icon in traditional Celtic fiddling. In a 1972 documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, a young John Morris helped draw attention to what was seen as a dying art before the mass resurgence that would make the Rankin Family stars years later. 

In 1999, the Rankin Family announced they were going on hiatus. Just a few months later, John Morris’s truck swerved off a cliff into the Gulf of St. Lawrence while he was driving his teenage son to a hockey game, and he died at the age of 40.

Molly Rankin is the lead singer and guitarist of indie pop band Alvvays, and the daughter of John Morris Rankin. Only 12 when her father died, Molly told The Guardian: “At the time of his passing I was really growing as a fiddle player, and afterwards there was this sign of life through me and through my playing that everyone noticed… But it was also a lot for me. I felt like I wasn’t at the stage where I had my own style; I was just trying to retrace his steps, and that became fairly exhausting.” 

Eventually, Molly and fellow Cape Bretoner Kerri MacLellan would join with three other young musicians from similarly remote Prince Edward Island and form Alvvays. Molly doesn’t play fiddle in Alvvays, but she does write traditional Scottish music in a sense, if Teenage Fanclub is your idea of traditional. 

While Alvvays’s shiny indie pop is sonically comparable to other current acts like Best Coast and Cults, Alvvays have quickly proven to be their generation’s preeminent Big Star legacy torchbearers with tracks like “Archie, Marry Me.” This is the kind of song I wish I could write, seemingly so simple and yet achieving that rarest form of power pop perfection. 

Though Alvvays is obviously not a folk act, there’s an undeniable Celtic quality to Rankin’s crystalline soprano that lends a certain magic to their sound. Beyond that, I believe the jangle pop I’ve always been drawn to originated in the unmistakably American marriage of blues and Celtic folk. Look up the 1937 Lead Belly song “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” which was his take on an Irish lament for a dead cow. It’s basically R.E.M., half a century earlier.

So maybe Molly Rankin just fronts a particularly great indie pop band. Or, maybe what she’s doing is closer in spirit to her father’s legacy than it would appear at first. I personally think she’s helping to keep an important branch of that musical legacy alive.

“Jubilee Street” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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No one has aged more in the 2010s than Nick Cave. At the start of the decade, Cave had rediscovered high-energy post-punk with his Grinderman side project; his goth rock classic “Red Right Hand” was resonating with a new audience as the theme song for Peaky Blinders; and he’d written the screenplay for the Tom Hardy/Shia LaBeouf drama Lawless, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. 

Then in 2015, Cave’s teenage son fell from a cliff and died. Rather than do press for his 2016 LP Skeleton Tree, Cave agreed to participate in a documentary, One More Time with Feeling, which shows his family’s grief in agonizing detail. In 2018, longtime Bad Seeds pianist Conway Savage succumbed to cancer. And this year, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 17th studio album, Ghosteen, was released. It’s a thoroughly somber plunge into trauma and the impotence of loss – beautiful, but devastating.

Even a listener who’s not familiar with Nick Cave’s personal tragedies will recognize a major stylistic shift in his lyrics between his 2013 album Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree. The former looks outward at the sorts of local characters and stories that have long been Cave’s trademark, while the latter turns sharply inward and uses stream of consciousness to depict emotional ephemera. It’s hard to guess where Cave will go after Ghosteen, but a return to more narrative song structures feels unlikely.

If that is the case, “Jubilee Street” may represent the final version of Nick Cave in classic storyteller mode. Cave’s Jubilee Street is a red light district that’s been taken over by Russians, and a former madame has turned to shaking down our narrator (“The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page”). The song builds slowly over a repetitive, four-chord progression, eventually swelling into the sort of high gothic drama no one can sell like The Bad Seeds. 

I’m a fan of both Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, and a selection from either would better represent Nick Cave’s artistic journey in this decade. But as much as it now feels like it’s from another era, “Jubilee Street” is just too good to ignore.

“Oh, Death” – Game Theory

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I wasn’t familiar with Scott Miller’s music during his lifetime. The first time I visited his website, this note from webmaster Sue Trowbridge appeared at the top of the homepage: “I wish it weren’t true, but as much as it pains me to write these words, Scott passed away on April 15, 2013. He was a wonderful, loyal friend as well as a brilliant musician, and I will miss him for the rest of my life. Scott had been planning to start recording a new Game Theory album, Supercalifragile, this summer, and was looking forward to getting back into the studio and reuniting with some of his former collaborators.”

Trowbridge briefly made the entire then-out-of-print Game Theory catalog available to download, and this is how I first listened to Miller’s music. At that point Game Theory hadn’t been a band in almost 25 years. They were a critically lauded Bay Area power pop group with a small but dedicated fan base in the ‘80s, and for whatever reason they never achieved wider fame. In the ‘90s, Miller opted to reboot under a new name, The Loud Family. That group somehow managed to get even less attention, and by the ‘00s Miller decided to call it a career.

In both Game Theory and The Loud Family, Miller made some of the smartest pop music of his or any generation. It’s possible a new record under the Game Theory name could have brought fresh attention to his criminally overlooked oeuvre. Sadly, he committed suicide at the age of 53, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. Work on his Supercalifragile LP had not begun.

Miller may not have had many fans, but the fans he did have include some notable figures in indie pop. Initially an album of covers was considered, but Miller’s widow and The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow decided to attempt something much bolder: making Supercalifragile a reality, using every recorded fragment, lyric and melody scrap available. 

The Kickstarter-funded project was completed in 2017, so amazingly, Supercalifragile now exists. Recorded Miller vocals are present on several songs, while others were completed and recorded entirely by other artists for this album. The Miller-sung tracks vary in quality, with some sounding surprisingly polished and others clearly not ready to be heard. The songs without Miller vocals are uniformly brilliant though, the result of talented songwriters working to complete Miller’s work out of pure love and respect. 

Ken Stringfellow, Will Sheff and Matt LeMay particularly excel on three tracks, “Kristine,” “Valerie Tomorrow” and “Always Julianne,” songs Miller wrote for his wife and two daughters, respectively. But the most powerful may be “Oh, Death,” co-written and performed by Ted Leo. 

“Oh, Death” begins with a verse about a frightening medical episode involving Miller’s wife, and ends with what I assume is a Leo-penned verse that acts as a meta-assessment of this project in the wake of Miller’s own tragic end. I asked Ted on Twitter how much material he’d had to work with on this song. He responded: “Scott left a voicemail of the chorus melody and some lyric fragments. It all sang to me, though.”

The album barely got any attention, but it’s a Game Theory record, so of course it didn’t. Regardless, that we have Supercalifragile at all is an incredible testament to the love for Scott Miller that endures in the pop community he inspired.

“Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten

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Sharon Van Etten used to be one of those artists I could count on to have two or three great songs per album. Full LP doses were always a little too much for my taste – folky, lovely, but samey.

I’d still get excited about the prospect of new SVE music, because those two or three great songs were consistently spectacular. Consider “One Day” and “Peace Signs” from 2010’s Epic; “Give Out” and “Leonard” from 2012’s Tramp; “Tarifa” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” from 2014’s Are We There. Her cutting lyrics, fiery vocal harmonies and instincts for painting vivid emotional pictures through simple acoustic chord progressions are magical when everything clicks.

Van Etten went mostly quiet for five years after Are We There (a surprise, since “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” had given her the biggest audience of her career). She gave birth to a son, she pursued a psychology degree, and she popped up in a recurring role on Netflix’s The OA. But no new music, until a single and video for a song called “Comeback Kid” were released in support of a 2019 LP, Remind Me Tomorrow

“Comeback Kid” is not folky-lovely-samey. For the first time, she ditched her maudlin folk vibe for synths, heavier drums, and full-on rock star delivery. The whole album was likewise a revelation – not just in terms of energy and variety of arrangements, but also stunning consistency in songwriting. All ten tracks are fantastic. 

To put that another way: in my Spotify 2019 Wrapped report, nine of my ten most listened to tracks this year were Sharon Van Etten. I never expected this.

Aside from the songs being great, I find hearing Sharon’s voice in a new, more alt-rock context kind of addictive. Where she sounds mournful in a folk setting, it’s now clear she has a much broader palette available. The best point of comparison I can think of is Thom Yorke, in that they share an uninhibited, almost operatic vocal gear where they’ll attack a certain note like they’re taking a flamethrower to a mosquito.

The consensus highlight on Remind Me Tomorrow is “Seventeen.” I think they’re all highlights, but I’m not going to argue with that pick. Kyla and I saw Sharon at the Beacon Theatre toward the beginning of her tour, and after playing “Seventeen” and seeing the crowd’s reaction, she had to take a moment to compose herself. “I think that may be the first time people have stood up for my music,” she said, to more applause. “I’m still growing.”

“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” – Scott Walker

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Merry Christmas! 

Gather the family around and listen to the late, great Scott Walker regale us with a tale as old as time. Yes, it’s the story of Zercon, the Moorish dwarf who served as jester to Attila the Hun, and who became so desperate to transcend his brutal, soul-crushing circumstances that he literally elevated himself into the cosmos and became a brown dwarf star (cruel ironies abound in the Walkerverse), freezing and “drop[ping] into the darkness.”

That is really what this song is about. It’s over 20 minutes long.

Scott Walker actually did include a Christmas song at the end of 2012’s Bish Bosch, his final solo LP. That would be “The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died (An Xmas Song),” which is about the Christmas Day execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu (the refrain is “nobody waited for ‘fire’,” repeated over funereal sleigh bells). I considered writing about that one instead of “Zercon,” but decided it would be too much of a downer.

Anyway, if this gets even one person to listen to “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” on Christmas Day, this has all been worth it. Scott Walker was a true genius, and we’ll never see his like again.