The Beatles, “Cry Baby Cry”

Possibly the least “obscure” band of all time,The Beatles initially seem an awkward fit for this series. Even beyond the singles, dozens of their album tracks have burrowed their way into the collective unconsciousness of 20th Century pop music (“I’ll Follow The Sun”, “Here Comes The Sun”, “Helter Skelter”, “Drive My Car”, “When I’m Sixty Four”–none of them singles). I really had to think for a minute as to what, exactly, would constitute a lesser-known Beatles song.

Slotted between “Savoy Truffle” (a catchy George Harrison trifle) and John Lennon’s infamous sound collage “Revolution 9” on side four of 1968’s The Beatles (more commonly referred to as The White Album), the Lennon-penned “Cry Baby Cry” could be a highlighted on any other band’s album. Here, towards the end of a behemoth containing 29 other tracks (a majority of them far flashier), it gets a little lost. Low-key, mid-tempo and driven by a pounding piano that’s synonymous with late period-Beatles, it’s an understated gem, full of neat little filigree: the accordion at 0:06,  the three whimsical piano chords (as if a cat strutted down the keyboard) at 0:27, the sudden guitar riff at 1:27. Throughout, the volume gently surges and pulls back, lending the recording a dynamic that the band pulls off almost effortlessly.

As embedded above, the track concludes with a somewhat ghostly 30-second snippet of an untitled, unfinished Paul McCartney song, presumably intended as a bridge to “Revolution 9” or perhaps just included on a whim. The contrast between the two compositions is present, but musically, they’re also complimentary to a degree–a preview of transitions within the medley on side two of Abbey Road, perhaps.

Alison Moyet, “Solid Wood”

The only real criteria for coverage in my “Obscurity Knocks” series (lesser-known songs by well-known artists) is that the artist has to have been popular, i.e.-having charted in the top 40 at least once.  Although she’s had many hits in the UK, Alison Moyet just squeaks by where the US is concerned (1985’s “Invisible”,# 31). Granted, she’s better known here for her work with synth-pop duo Yaz(oo) (“Only You”, “Situation”, neither of which made the top 40, inexplicably).

Just as it was refreshing to hear Moyet delve back into electronica with last year’s The Minutes, in 1995, it was an unexpected delight to discover her commanding, soulful vocal on a primarily guitar-based track. “Solid Wood” was one of two new songs included on Singles, a superb greatest hits collection (the other was a lush cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” set to a hip-hop beat). Both songs flopped when released as UK singles, “Solid Wood” only reaching # 44 and the Roberta Flack song not charting at all (the album, however, went to # 1).

Anticipating the direction she’d take on her next (and in my opinion, best) album Hometime, “Solid Wood” has all the drama and urgency you’d expect from Moyet, but the arrangement (produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds), heavy on guitars and soulful organ is the warmest-sounding she ever attempted to that point. The lyrics reference a past lover that Moyet purposely let slip through her fingers with a mix of defense (“Who ever I was then / she won’t be back again so let her go”) and acceptance (“I wouldn’t change you if I could”). As usual, it’s the singer who gets this complexity across, expressing joy, wistfulness, sorrow and resolve towards the situation. It concludes with the instrumentation fading away until all we hear is Moyet’s voice stretching out the song’s title–one of the more poignant and affecting moments in her discography.

Abba, “Love Isn’t Easy (But it Sure is Hard Enough)”

About a year ago, I began posting videos from YouTube under the heading Song of The Week, occasionally with commentary, more often without much. Going forward, I’d like to try out a series of these under a new heading, Obscurity Knocks: lesser-known singles and album tracks by well-known artists.

Beginning chronologically naturally means kicking it off with Abba. Although few could deny the fearless foursome’s worth as a singles band, their catalogue contains a lot of hidden gems–not necessarily consistent albums, mind you, but surely enough to produce a compilation at least half as great as Abba Gold (Abba Silver?). Take this single from their first album, Ring Ring, released about a year prior to their international breakthrough “Waterloo”. Although as grating and cheery as a chewing-gum commercial and containing a grammatically clumsy title that will appease the band’s skeptics where their “English as a second language” lyrics are concerned, the song still showcases Benny and Bjorn’s way with a hook. Actually, multiple hooks: the ladies’ commanding bridge to the chorus, the BOOM! right before the title (wonderfully accentuated by the ladies in the video above), xylophone precisely highlighting each note of said title, and the lovely “sweet, sweet, our love is bittersweet” harmonies immediately following it.

It would all teeter towards an excess of dopey aw-gosh bubblegum love song-ness if it weren’t so tightly constructed. In hindsight, knowing that within the next decade each couple in the band would split makes the song a little more perceptive than it initially seems. According to Wikipedia, it didn’t seem to chart anywhere; although not nearly as sophisticated, it’s almost the earlier, happier flipside to “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.