Photo: The Associates
1. Martha – Tom Waits
I’d never really listened to anything by Tom Waits before I heard Martha. It was played on BBC Radio 2 one Sunday evening – probably by Johnnie Walker on his Sounds Of The Seventies segment – and it immediately caught me out. With its gorgeously slow honky piano and sad, sad strings, Martha’s lyric is the transcript of a long-distance telephone call placed years too late; laden with enormous regret and impossible hope. It’s a simple tune, but its conflicted narrator is anything but, as bitterly defeatist as he is strangely hopeful (“now we are mature” he promises with an unconvincingly adult plea). He is, on neither count however, as heart swelling as in his capacity for honesty. Waits’ troubled perspective on the long-dead romance recalls moments of real beauty, juxtaposed with fact-of-the-matter, conversational play (“don’t worry ‘bout the cost” he opines, with reference to the expense of the song’s vehicular phone-call). Musically, Martha is underpinned by a gracious melody – one that is unostentatiously catchy, and as sweet as it is teary, recalling the genius melodic miserable feel of songs like The Beatles’ Yesterday (famously composed in F major). At in its sudden, but ornate conclusion, Martha is very quickly a ghost of the time you’ve spent in its company. If you’re anything like me though, you’re immediately compelled to revisit it, only to crumble at its melancholy again, and again, and again.
2. Those First Impressions – The Associates
Billy McKenzie was a tragic figure. With the Associates (pictured), his awkward indie-pop came way before its time; his vocal theatricality was radio-unfriendly; his confused sexuality was crippling. Unlike Morrissey, bolstered by the excellent worship of a cult-following, McKenzie (allegedly the subject of William, It Was Really Nothing) fought obscurity his whole life, from small-town Auchterhouse origins to reprisals of commercial failure around the time of his suicide in 1997, aged just 39. Those First Impressions is one of few Associates singles to have achieved a UK singles chart placing. With darting, trebly bass-guitar, flourishes of Aztec Camera-style jangle-pop guitar and gorgeous falsetto throughout, it’s the kind of record that begs to remain underground at the same time as drawing almost exclusively from the massively revered. Lyrically, it’s about underachieving in love, which seems clichéd – and it is, but the song seems to know it (“with nothing new to say / it only tires me / but when you fire me / I want for nothing in this world”). For those interested, the 12” extended version of the track (still not digitised despite a rigorous Associates reissues campaign) is fantastic. Drawing the track out so as to examine its composite parts, it’s a near-perfect showcase in the now-lost art-form of the 12” dance mix.
3. All I Think about Now – Pixies
Pixies’ comeback hasn’t been altogether successful. Sure, their live return in 2004 saw them practically invent the reunion circuit and, equally, the sell-out success of those shows over almost 10 years seemed to have licked many old wounds clean. However, when Kim Deal finally left the lineup prior to the recording of Indie Cindy in 2013, there seemed to be something sour in the air again. Apparently, years of Black Francis’ leadership had taken their toll: Deal was infamously denied opportunities to write, sing and record, with Francis holding the reins on virtually every facet of the band’s creative controls. Without her, Indie Cindy went on to flop, and whilst 2016’s Head Carrier hasn’t exactly raised the bar, it does have two absolute bangers on it, one of which is this unusually candid number. All I Think About Now was written by accident; new bassist Paz Lenchantin misheard a demo penned by Francis and Joey Santiago, the result yielding a tune that Francis hoped to include on the new album. Lenchantin presented the band with an ultimatum; that its inclusion depended on Francis writing a lyric – Francis’ response was to have Lenchantin sing it. The lyric, like Martha’s, reads as written dialogue – a letter, one that apologises for the past. Behind the Where Is My Mind? guitars and the annoyingly saccharin production then, there’s a gorgeous sentiment on this song; never did the healing of friendship sound so genuine.