The harmony and melody remain
I’ve been feeling mellow and deep in thought in recent weeks. For me, that’s the perfect time to turn to quieter musical vibes with wistful lyrics that tug at the heartstrings.
Typically, my “lost classics” entries on this blog are uptempo rockers, but this time around, I’m presenting “The harmony and melody remain,” a dozen meditative tracks that offer delicate song melodies to go with more intimate, more personal lyrics.
As always, there’s a Spotify playlist at the end which allows you to listen as you read.
“The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” Judy Collins, 1975
Jimmy Webb is widely recognized as one of the more sublime songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s, whose tunes won scads of awards and became some of the most popular tunes of his era: “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park,” “Galveston,” “All I Know,” “Scissors Cut,” “Mr. Shuck ‘n Jive.” Artists like Glen Campbell, Art Garfunkel, The 5th Dimension and others loved singing Webb’s lovely melodies and emotional lyrics. A personal favorite is Judy Collins’ stunning rendition of “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” Webb’s heartbreaking metaphor to lost love.
“Give Me Some Time,” Dan Fogelberg, 1977
I was a big fan of Fogelberg’s 1974 LP “Souvenirs,” which featured Joe Walsh as producer and lead guitarist, turning Fogelberg’s thoughtful folk rock songs like “Part of the Plan,” “Illinois” and “There’s a Place in the World For a Gambler” into shimmering tracks. 1975’s “Captured Angel” was a bit of a misfire, but Fogelberg came back in 1977 with “Nether Lands,” a strong collection of songs that deftly alternated between ballads and rockers. Among the prettiest is “Give Me Some Time,” in which the narrator implores his new romantic interest to slow down and allow him sufficient room to get over his previous relationship, “to talk myself into believing that she and I are through, then maybe I’ll fall for you…”
“Games of Magic,” Bread, 1972
Every one of Bread’s hit singles was written and sung by David Gates, a fact that grated on the group’s other singer-songwriter, James Griffin. Typically, Griffin’s tunes had more muscular arrangements, particularly when juxtaposed with the wispy ballads Gates wrote. The record label was happy to let Griffin fill out album sides with his songs, but they insisted on sticking with the winning formula of Gates’s songs and vocals for the singles. Too bad; some of Griffin’s tunes would have made fine singles, especially “Games of Magic,” an engaging track from the band’s biggest LP, 1972’s “Baby I’m-A Want You.”
“Here Today,” Paul McCartney, 1982
Six months after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, McCartney took on the challenge of writing a tribute to his fallen comrade for his 1982 LP “Tug of War,” made problematic because of the estrangement they had gone through following The Beatles’ breakup. The lyrics take the form of a hypothetical conversation between the two, in which they confess that, despite a fruitful songwriting partnership, maybe they didn’t really know each other all that well. It’s deeply moving, and McCartney has said he usually gets emotional when he sings it in concert. “John was a great mate and a very important man in my life, and I miss him, y’know?”
“And So It Goes,” Billy Joel, 1989
Most of Joel’s songs are well-crafted pop-rock tunes with catchy hooks and clever lyrics that had him appearing regularly in the Top Ten over his 20-plus year career as a recording artist. If I had to pick Joel’s most exquisite melody, it would be this magnificent ballad from his 1989 LP “Storm Front.” With a hymn-like structure carried by Joel’s piano and tender vocal treatment, Joel tells the story of his doomed relationship with model Elle MacPherson from six years earlier. He wrote it and made a demo in 1983 but never committed it to an official release until 1989. It was released as a single but peaked at #37, perhaps because it didn’t have the good-natured vitality people had come to expect from his hits.
“Martha,” Tom Waits, 1973
With his muttered vocals and boozy vignettes, Waits established himself immediately with his 1973 debut LP “Closing Time,” a riveting cycle of melancholy songs that redefine wee-hours loneliness. “Ol’ 55” became a hit when The Eagles sugar-coated it with harmonies and pedal steel, but the real gems here are the ones that Waits delivers alone on piano or guitar — “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You,” “Grapefruit Moon,” “Lonely” and the title track. Most impressive is “Martha,” an achingly sad song about reaching out in a long-distance call to a long-ago love. You’ll need a hug after hearing this one.
“Pink Moon,” Nick Drake, 1972
Drake was a gifted, tortured soul who suffered periodically from a depression that eventually consumed him at only 26. He wrote introspective songs and delivered them in a painfully shy manner. Drake released three LPs in his short life, none of which sold well until decades later. His final one was “Pink Moon” in 1972, highlighted by his smoky voice that recalls a jazzier Donovan. The title track became a surprise hit in 1999 when it was used in an artful Volkswagen commercial, piquing the interest of art/folk music fans in the UK and the US alike.
“18th Avenue,” Cat Stevens, 1972
By the time he released his 1972 chart-topping album “Catch Bull at Four,” Stevens had broadened his approach to involve orchestration and more diverse instruments and arrangements. These songs are more keyboard-oriented than the delicate guitar songs that dominated “Tea For The Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat.” In particular, the striking piano and synthesizer he used in “18th Avenue” brings drama and tension to the fraught lyrics (note the parenthetical title “Kansas City Nightmare”). The narrator seems anxious to evade “the path dark and borderless” and grab a plane out of town “just in time.”
“Finally Found a Friend,” Grayson Hugh, 1988
Possessed of one of the most soulful voices I’ve ever heard, Hugh came to our attention in 1988 with his remarkable “Blind to Reason” LP and its sly hit “Talk It Over.” I could’ve sworn Hugh was black, based on the way he wraps his voice around his R&B melodies. This album and its well-regarded follow-up “Road to Freedom” (1992) should’ve made Hugh a star, but it never happened. I implore you to check out his music, especially tracks like “Romantic Heart,” “Tears of Love,” “Empty as the Wind” and the gratitude-soaked “Finally Found a Friend.” You won’t be disappointed.
“And I Go,” Steve Winwood, 1982
Beginning at age 15 in The Spencer Davis Group, then in Traffic and Blind Faith, and a lucrative solo career in the ’80s and beyond, Winwood has been one of the most talented singers England ever produced. He also wrote dozens of iconic songs like “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Back in the High Life Again.” Curiously, his 1982 album “Talking Back to the Night” remains one of his most underrated works, with contagious numbers like “Big Girls Walk Away” and the title song screaming for more airplay. On the quieter side, “And I Go” shows Winwood’s abilities at crafting a slower tempo track.
“Pieces of April,” Three Dog Night, 1972
Three Dog Night was known for selecting great songs by then-unknown songwriters and giving them the exposure they needed. “Pieces of April,” written by Dave Loggins of “Please Come to Boston” fame, became the vocal group’s 14th Top 20 single in less than four years. It appeared on their highest-charting LP, 1972’s “Seven Separate Fools,” and was the only single the group released that featured just one of the three singers (in this case, Chuck Negron) without their trademark harmonies and sharing of lead vocals. Loggins (Kenny’s second cousin) later recorded his own rendition, but it’s tough to top this lovely version.
“Blessed,” Lazarus, 1971
Thanks to Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, this trio from West Texas secured a record contract on the strength of Bill Hughes’ gorgeous melodies and spiritual lyrics. My guitar compatriot Ben and I together learned a few of the songs, most notably “Blessed,” which became something of a signature song at our occasional performances. The upbeat tempo and hopeful lyrics remind listeners that when things seem difficult or desperate, that’s the time to “turn it over” to a Higher Power. Lazarus lasted long enough for a second LP (“A Fool’s Paradise”) in 1973 before Hughes went his own way and began a solo career that included writing for TV and film.