The 2009 Believer Music Issue CD

compiled by Daniel Handler

CD enclosed with the July/August 2009 print issue

  1. Sam Phillips, “What It All Means”
  2. 2. Robert Scott, “From the Diary of an Early Settler”
  3. Mike Scott, “A Wild Holy Band”
  4. Lloyd Cole, “Coattails”
  5. Phil Wilson, “Found a Friend”
  6. Stuart Moxham, “Warning Signs 2”
  7. Dave Wakeling, “Never Die”
  8. Lisa Germano, “It’s a Rainbow (Blame Me)”
  9. Mark Robinson (Cotton Candy), “Fantastic & Spectacular”
  10. Beth Sorrentino, “Such a Beautiful Day”
  11. David Sylvian, “Jacqueline”
  12. Stephen Duffy (The Lilac Time), “Memory and Desire”
  13. Mary Margaret O’Hara, “40 Stories”
  14. Wreckless Eric, “(Swimming Against) The Tide of Reason”
  15. Extremely Secret Bonus Track: Haunted Love, “San Dominico”

Click here to buy just the 2009 Believer Music Issue CD.

Back in April, we asked some of our all-time favorite songwriters, including a few who haven’t been recording new material lately, to send us acoustic versions of new songs. Surprisingly, they did so. We’re thrilled to be able to present a brilliant collection of new work from these masters of the form, available here and only here.


After releasing five albums in the ’80s as Leslie Phillips, the songwriter changed her name to Sam and collaborated with producers such as T-Bone Burnett and Van Dyke Parks. Her most recent album is Don’t Do Anything (Nonesuch, 2008). Q: You agreed to be interviewed because you said you’d “take any excuse to avoid writing songs today.” Is procrastination a problem? A: I’m slow but I don’t procrastinate. I’m usually a hard worker, but I’m not one of those effortless songwriters. The thing is that it’s so beautiful here today. This is the problem with living in Los Angeles—usually it’s lousy and perfect, but occasionally the song drifts over to San Diego or something and then I can’t write. Q: The song drifts over? A: Smog, I said. Q: Oh! Sorry. So many songwriters have no respect for drums, but you seem to love them. A: I love drums! I really want to make a vocal and drum record, a record with nothing else on it, but I don’t know if anybody would want to listen to it. I could listen to drummers for days, maybe because I started as a dancer and developed my ear that way. I secretly want to be a drummer, I guess. On my last record I made a loop that almost blew up the mastering speakers. The bass drum sound was so loud they sent me home to remix. I was very, very proud of that.


New Zealand’s three best bands are the Clean, the Chills, and the Bats. Robert Scott is in the Clean and the Bats. The Clean started out sounding like a surf band under water, equal parts jitter and drone, and they threw in a new element each time they reconvened, a little country accent, a gurgly synth styling, the songs always odd and mysterious. The Bats are usually a little more melancholy, but warm and true like a good campfire, and the songs good and sticky like the marshmallows that drop into it. Also worth mentioning are Scott’s band the Magick Heads, if only because their best album has a photograph of them playing cricket at night on the beach, and his solo album The Creeping Unknown, which is full of foggy instrumentals perfect for the late afternoon. Robert Scott is New Zealand in a nutshell, because he doesn’t seem that foreign but there’s still something that slips away from you when you listen, something local you’ll just never get. Unless you live in Christchurch.


Mike Scott formed the Waterboys in 1981, and with that band subsequently released ten full-length records. Their most recent album is Kiss the Wind (2008). From his home in Scotland, Scott reports: “I wrote this song in my bedroom in Scotland at six in the morning, just up, in a songwriting mood, trawling through old notebooks and journals from the late 1990s looking for any ideas that might be lying there forgotten. To my surprise, I found the entire first verse intact on the page of a journal. I must have written it some years before, and had only the dimmest memory of it. The verse suggested more words, a lyrical theme, and in my head I heard a tune. The song followed.”


Q: Torquil Campbell, of the Canadian band Stars, can you say something about Lloyd Cole? A: Lloyd Cole? Lloyd fucking Cole? Motherfucking Lloyd Cole? Who needs to know, what could you possibly tell anyone? Just tell them, fucking Lloyd Cole is the fucking best songwriter and when you’re listening to something that is not Lloyd Cole you should be fucking sorry about it, and apologize, not to Lloyd Cole, whom you’re not fit to apologize to, but to the fucking world of music for not listening to the motherfucking king, Lloyd Cole. Tell them the stars in the sky—no, wait, just tell them to buy all his records. Love Story is fucking awesome. Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, side two of that one especially. All of them! People who say that Rattlesnakes is still his best album need to listen to Antidepressant a bunch more times. Stay home and listen to them all day, tell them that, and your life will—you will love one another listening to Lloyd Cole, so it shall be written, so it shall be done, and put something in about my album, too.


Phil Wilson formed the June Brides in London in 1982. Their last album appeared in 1986. The exhaustive double-CD anthology, Every Conversation: The Story of the June Brides and Phil Wilson, was released in 2005. Q: Do you remember where you were when you wrote this song? The first germ of this song? A: I was in my cellar, playing guitar. Our house was built in the late eighteenth century. It’s small but beautiful. And it happens to have a cellar, which is the perfect den for me. It’s where I listen to, play, and record music. Like nearly every song I’ve ever written, this one just came out of the ether. I play the guitar until some chord-and-rhythm combination takes my fancy, and play those chords until the melody and first few lines come from my subconscious. Only after those first few lines do I know what a song might be about! And I just take it from there. Q: Where do you record? Describe the room for us. A: We recorded this one in what is basically a garage. Imagine spider heaven and you’ll get a good feel for the vibe of the place. At least we only have to record there—Andy Fonda, our drummer, lives there. Q: Is there a story behind this song? A: Well, after I’d got the first couple of lines I realized it was about me! I then spent some time thinking about what I’d want to say to me, and trying to put that into some sort of concise form. It’s mostly about trying to convince myself that people are not as scary as I often think they are, and that I need to have at least a very modest amount of faith in myself. Q: There was a period of many years when you didn’t record music. Were you still making up songs in your head? And what brought you to begin recording again? A: I spent twenty years not writing anything down. Sure, I’d make up tunes, but I never kept a record of any of them. You see, I felt that it was hugely unlikely that anyone would be interested in recording me again, so there would be little point in writing songs that no one was going to hear. So I let them all go. As for starting again after twenty years, I’d gotten to the point where I thought I should have a last crack at it… any longer and I would be way too old (rather than currently just being a bit too old!). The deaths of friends/contemporaries hit me hard, and made me realize how precious the time we have is, and that it’s important to try and do something meaningful and/or enjoyable with that time. Q: How would you describe the differences between how you write now and how you wrote with the June Brides? A: There really is no difference in what I am trying to do.… The only difference is that it is so much harder to do now than it was then. The songs can still come from the ether to me, but there just aren’t as many of them as there used to be.


Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants is one of those classic albums that is actually every bit as good as the cultish devotees say it is. Quietly impressive and rigorously entertaining, it’s a keen little Venn diagram of cool jazz, stripped-down folk, and blippy technopop, and when you put it on nowadays it’s like listening to the Velvet Underground—in each song you can hear three or four bands who ran with it. The album is anchored by Stuart Moxham, whose songwriting is like his guitar playing: nimble, shimmery, modest, with not a note out of place. As with Flaubert, there’s lots of good work here besides the one acknowledged masterpiece; recently he collaborated with Louis Phillippe, another well-styled popster, to make The Huddle House, a snappy and nifty gem. Think about this: Stuart Moxham’s genius is the one thing on which Stephin Merritt and Courtney Love agree.


Dave Wakeling formed the English Beat in 1979; when they broke up, in 1983, he formed the supergroup General Public. He is currently recording two new albums, and is touring the US this summer. Of the song on the Believer compilation, he writes, “I wrote it three years ago whilst in Papua New Guinea, where I was taking a brief break from the twenty-first-century Western world. I was accompanying a TV-documentary friend of mine who was filming how clans of various tribes related to each other.

“A killing took place; a woman claimed she was ambushed and had stabbed her attacker to death. The dead man’s clan demanded reparations, traditionally made in cowrie shells. The woman’s clan representative also worked for the government, who, trying to modernize things, demanded only money be used, no cowrie shells. A tribal war was averted by a compromise; equal parts cowrie shells and money, and the exchanging of songs.

“This song was the offering from the woman’s clan, and it seemed to do the trick, although I don’t think hardly anyone understood the words.… The sentiment seemed to rise above translation, like smoke rising over the forest canopy, as it soothed the troubled tribes.”


Lisa Germano has released seven full-length albums, most recently In the Maybe World (Young God, 2006). She joined John Mellencamp’s band in 1985, and has since toured or recorded with artists including Johnny Marr, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and U2. “I remember when I wrote this,” she said of the song included here. “I was dealing with people judging me and felt pissed off. And I gave up and just said ‘blame me’—put your shit here and I’ll take it. Generalize a person’s problems and put them in a box so you can call it something and fuck you for not seeing me. That’s what the song is about.

“I write about real stuff that haunts me, to try to get over it—as I’ve done on all my records. And as always I would never put them into the world unless I cry a lot and see that I’m not the only one who feels this way, trying to reach anyone else who might feel this too. And get some help knowing they aren’t alone.”


Mark Robinson founded Unrest as a high-school freshman in 1983. He started Teenbeat Records three years later. Unrest put out eight full-length albums, and Robinson has released a handful of solo albums, including several under the name Cotton Candy. Q: All your albums have at least one drony, loopy instrumental admidst all the fine-honed pop songs. What’s the deal with that? A: I never really thought about it. I like… gosh, I don’t want to use this word, but I like jamming. I like repetitive things as well. I don’t know. I listened to all the Factory Records stuff when I was in high school, so it’s probably that. Q: Do you have a favorite Factory Records song? A: “Girls Don’t Count” by Section 25. That’s a good one. Q: Factory Records has a really strong design identity. You’re also a graphic designer for your own label. Do you find similarities in your approach to songwriting and design? A: They’re both what people would call minimal, I guess. I like things that are bare-bones. If I’m designing something, I can edit it to death, whereas a song seems to be set in stone more from the start, so if I don’t like it I throw it out, particularly if it sounds too much like something I’ve done before. Then I scrap it. I write specifically for a project I think of, so when I was in Unrest I wrote for Unrest, and when I was in Flin Flon, I wrote for that. But it just happens, on both accounts. It’s something I just do. Songs and design are as fluid as talking, except I’m not very good at talking.


Suddenly, Tammy! got one of those 1990s music industry raw deals: a great indie record, a fantastic major label debut that nobody knew about, and then a second album still lost in limbo. (Somebody, please send it to me.) Their major-label debut, (We Get There When We Do.), is a great sandwich: tasty, satisfying, surprising, great for consuming on a sunny porch or while lying down on the sofa with your shoes off. The surprising part is: no guitar. Just Sorrentino’s voice and piano, her brother on drums, and their high-school buddy on bass. (The bassist also played in the Lilys, whose greatest album is The 3 Way, although Eccsame the Photon Band is a perfectly defensible choice.) Sorrentino’s songs spread out sneakily, like the work of Lynda Barry: in the first few lines they might seem simple and by the end they’re encompassing the world. She’s kept a lower profile since Suddenly, Tammy!, playing the occasional show and releasing Nine Songs, One Story a couple of years ago.


Plenty of songwriters become sonic experimenters, but too many of them forget to keep writing songs. David Sylvian led his band Japan from postpunk to New Romanticism and then to something much more ethereal, even spacey, but never forgot to give us a melody and a lyric, and his collaborations with such offbeats as Japanese pop artiste Ryuichi Sakamoto and avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey aren’t just interesting; they’re good. His label, Samadhi Sound, curates contemplative music from all over, and Sylvian’s new bands—Nine Horses is a recent grouping of some old bandmates—keep emerging, appropriately, from the ether.


One could be forgiven for thinking that Stephen Duffy has an excellent ear for finding the absolute best of traditional old folk music and performing it on his albums with the Lilac Time, until one notices that all of these old traditional songs were written by Stephen Duffy. His songs have the casual, elegant inevitability of all the greats—they flow so well you swear you’ve heard them before. Once you’ve devoured the Lilac Time, you can move on to the solo albums—I Love My Friends is a nice one—and move backward through his New Wave singles as Tin Tin, released shortly after he left an early lineup of Duran Duran (!).


Though she has issued only one full album under her own name—1988’s superb Miss America—Mary Margaret O’Hara’s voice has appeared on records by Morrissey, Gary Lucas, and This Mortal Coil, among others. Like her sister, the actor and comedian Catherine O’Hara, Mary Margaret has acted for television and film. Q: When did you write this song? A: The song was written around 1998 about my brother Marcus’s great love. Her name was Christine. At first I called the song “Christine,” but “40 Stories” tells the story better. Q: You only put out one full-length studio album, in 1988. A: I now own that album, Miss America. I don’t have a website of my own. Someone bought my name years ago and made a website. Someone made a MySpace page but I don’t have anything to do with that, either. A friend applied to iTunes for me about a year ago, but they said to try somewhere else as they had too much of a backlog at that time. I guess I should have tried somewhere else, but I’ve just sat on it. So would you do me a favor? Include my Hotmail address ([email protected]) in the magazine, so people who may want to buy Miss America can order it directly from me. I see it for sale on the Internet and I don’t know where these records are coming from. That would be great. I totally understand if it’s out of the question… but what was the question?


Eric signed to Stiff Records in 1977 and Nick Lowe produced his debut single, “Whole Wide World.” (The song recently received another revival when Will Ferrell performed an acoustic cover version in 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction.) His latest album, recorded with his wife, the songwriter Amy Rigby, was released last year. Eric wrote the song that appears on this year’s Believer compilation “in 1985 or ’86, and recorded it at the time with the Len Bright Combo,” he writes. “I was in my early thirties. It’s about a middle-aged couple—people about the same age as I am now, which is fifty-five. Love and passion replaced by the benign caring for a hatchback car. The sudden realization that it’s all gone, disappeared, and without the sex and the romance there’s nothing left to live for. They try to recapture it in a grandiose gesture.

“It’s interesting to revisit the song in middle age. I certainly haven’t lost my passion or sex drive, but I’ve become a curmudgeon, a grumpy old man—I’m astounded, on a daily basis, by the utter stupidity in this world. Everyone I meet seems to be younger than I am, and they’re all so, so reasonable. I spend half my time between states of indignation and fury. Sometimes I feel that I am actually swimming against the tide of reason. I think I have a profound fear of losing my sex drive, because that drives everything else. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go out and shout at the traffic.”


Robert Scott sent us this track by a fellow New Zealander group, a relatively brand-new trio called Haunted Love. They’re finishing up their first EP as this issue goes to press; this song was, unfortunately, too lovely to leave off of the Believer compilation, so it’s been included here as a bonus track.

Click here to buy just the 2009 Believer Music Issue CD.

Daniel Handler is the author of three novels and many, many books for children.

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